As a kid the two things I did to show off my creativity when I wasn’t consuming hours of television were drawing pictures and playing with toys. The latter often meant taking stuffed animals and action figures and manipulating their movement to create the illusion of life while making up scenarios for them, pre-dating the video game as the primary outlet for wasting time and stimulating my imagination.
What me and my siblings were doing when we played with those toys wasn’t exactly puppetry in the literal sense as much as a puppetry of the mind, but really any time we bring something to life through movement it can be viewed as a form of puppetry. It’s a form of entertainment that goes back centuries and as far as I’m concerned has never gone out of style despite its decline in popularity as entertainment got more sophisticated.
Some historians claim puppetry pre-dates actors performing in a theater which would make puppets the original stars of the stage!
The first puppets date back to Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece. Puppet plays would be common in Greece and Rome using clay dolls with arms, legs and heads manipulated with rods.
They were also extremely popular in Asia and Africa. Puppetry is still a popular tradition in Africa to this day where it is implemented not just in storytelling but in ceremonies and for educational purposes.
In India there were many types of puppets including:
and rod puppets.
Italy is the early home of the string-controlled marionette, which was influenced by the puppetry in Rome. The Christian churches actually used marionettes to perform morality plays (the word “marionette” is believed to have originated from the little Virgin Mary figures that were a part of these churches) but as comedy was introduced to these plays, the churches banned puppetry which led to puppeteers setting up stages outside of cathedrals where they were free to indulge in more slapstick.
18th century Venice was a popular period for puppet plays which were becoming more elaborate, construction-wise and narrative-wise. In the 19th century, Venetian puppeteer Pietro Radillo began manipulating marionettes with as many as eight strings instead of the typical two.
The popularity of puppets meant that there were even puppet celebrities. An example of puppets becoming stars was the British puppets Punch and Judy which traces their roots back to the 16th century Italian theatres. Punch and Judy were a married couple consisting of the violent Punch and his hapless wife Judy.
The origin of that play came from the character Pulcinella, a popular stage character who was a manifestation of the mythological God of Misrule and the Trickster who Punch was based on. I said in an earlier blog that this puppet show was an early originator of slapstick comedy so its place in the history of entertainment is not insignificant.
Puppet plays had a hard time remaining relevant in the 19th century when they were competing with Vaudeville and Music Hall but this form of entertainment adapted to the times by being incorporated in all the other more popular forms of entertainment of the day, which later came to include stage and screen.
Puppetry has been used in a number of popular stage plays through the years such as War Horse, The Lion King and Avenue Q. Celebrities like Edgar Bergen kept puppetry popular in the 20th century with his ventriloquism act and marionettes have remained in the public eye thanks to the British TV producer Gerry Anderson and his shows Thunderbirds and Terrahawks.
These are some of my favorite uses of puppets in film and television history:
Howdy Doody (1947)
This show was a pioneer in children’s programming that set the pattern for similar shows in the future. Bob Smith created the character of Howdy Doody as just a voice for radio and after performing the voice on NBC’s television program Puppet Playhouse in 1947, demand for Howdy Doody to get his own puppet show was high and the hugely popular Howdy Doody would last from 1947 to 1960.
Kukla, Fran and Ollie (1947)
The Muppets (1955)
A combination of puppets and marionettes, the Muppets were first created by Jim Henson for the 1955 short-form television series Sam and Friends. The popular Muppet characters later appeared on commercials, late night talk shows, and variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and Saturday Night Live before gaining international fame on their own Emmy-winning variety series The Muppet Show (1976-81). The Muppet cast, which included Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great, Animal, Rowlf the Dog and many others, was even popular enough to star in their own films, including The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, Muppets from Space and The Muppets. They have starred in multiple movies, series and specials from Disney and are probably the most popular puppet characters in pop culture.
Wayland Flowers and Madame (1960)
Sesame Street (1969)
H.R. Pufnstuf (1969)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
My favorite character in the Star Wars universe, and probably my favorite character in film history, is Yoda the Jedi hermit who resides in the Dagobah System and trains Luke Skywalker in the ways of the force in The Empire Strikes Back. He is puppeteered and voiced by veteran Muppet performer Frank Oz but it is Mark Hamill’s superb acting as Luke that really sells Yoda as a character to take seriously despite being a puppet in a sci-fi film.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
The Dark Crystal may have been Jim Henson’s most ambitious project as it was a Lord-of-the-Rings style fantasy epic acted out entirely with puppets. People were mostly disappointed Kermit the Frog wasn’t in it but it later gained a respectable cult following.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Fraggle Rock (1983)
The Neverending Story (1984)
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Frank Oz directed this musical featuring perhaps the most elaborate puppet character in film history, Audrey the singing venus flytrap.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986)
NBC sitcom about an alien who crash-lands in the garage of a suburban household and becomes a part of the family was a surprisingly subversive show that, even more surprisingly, worked as a comedy thanks to its witty writing and sincere acting. It lasted four seasons from 1986 to 1990.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988)
Meet the Feebles (1989)
Animatronic sitcom from The Jim Henson Company about a family of dinosaurs who acted like humans would be typical of its genre if not for the fact that the characters were all dinosaurs. But it is still executed well. Especially from a technical standpoint.
Lamb Chop’s Play Along (1992)
Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (1997)
Bear in the Big Blue House (1997)
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (2019)
A sequel to The Dark Crystal had been in development for a long time before it finally got released on Netflix in 2019. Only it wasn’t a movie and it wasn’t a sequel. It turned out to be a prequel series that elaborated on the backstory of the 1982 film and it is a surprisingly emotional and involving drama for what is essentially an elaborate puppet play. It is a crowning achievement in puppetry and I truly think Jim Henson would have been proud of it.
Great history on puppetry here! As someone wanting to get into this one day, I find this all fascinating, including the origin of the word, “marionette”.
I didn’t realize that the Dark Crystal series was puppets as well; I thought it would be CGI.
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I was surprised by that. Even the producers of that show were expecting it to be CGI but Netflix suggested they honor the original film by using actual puppets. It was definitely a good way to stand out from all the other shows.
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