This is Mike Oznowicz and me. Besides being very involved in puppetry guilds and organizations himself,and twice president of Puppeteers of America, Mike’s other claim to fame was his son, Frank.
Mike was one of the folks high-up and “in charge” of this particular puppetry convention, but I remember him being an incredibly sweet and down-to-earth man. And funny as hell.I sat at his table at lunch a couple of times and nearly cried I was laughing so hard.
I got to talk to him quite a few times during this festival, and it was he who gave me the confidence to go ask Frank for his autograph.I was young and ambitious and very determined back then to meet and greet whomever I could, but I got a little shy around Frank for some reason. In his thick Dutch accent, I can still hear Mike saying, “Elizabeth, don’t you worry, Frank does not bite. You go and you get that autograph— you’ll see he’s a very nice fellow”.
I had my doubts he could still be alive, but nevertheless, it was with great sadness that I found an obituary when I searched for him online:
The sad news of Mike’s passing reminds how so many people loved him. Guild members Tony Urbano and Gayle Schluter, two people dear to Mike, give us some reminisces.
Tony stressed that one could not talk about Mike without mentioning his late wife Frances. The couple formed an anchor for puppetry in Northern California. Their home in the Bay Area was a puppet center. Parties, receptions and informal hang-outs revolved around the front room. A parade of puppeteers from all over the world made themselves at home at the Oznowicz. Mike was the genial host and Frances, the wonderful cook and surrogate mom. Everyone coveted an invitation to the Oznowicz house. The couple made themselves family to talented puppet people in the area including Lewis Mahlmann and Lettie Schubert.
The place served as a breeding ground for talent. Muppet writer and comic force, Jerry Juhl, and Tony Urbano developed in the Oznowicz front room. No small talent was the Oznowicz’s middle child, Frank Oz. Mike was tremendously proud of Frank’s huge accomplishments.
Tony Urbano lived with the Oznowicz’s for two years. Tony met Mike the day before he went into the army. They both attended a puppet festival in Fairyland(Children’s Fairyland Puppet Theater in Oakland, CA). That’s how well Mike knew Tony when he opened the family’s door when Tony got out of the army. Urbano recalls with affection the huge fights he and Mike would have over which was better, American puppeteers or Czech puppeteers. Mike loved the avant-garde performers.
Both Mike and Frances had escaped from the Nazis TWICE During World War II. The couple, Mike a Jew and Frances a Catholic, finally made it to England. Mike immediately joined the resistance and went back to fight.
After the war, the couple moved to California with their family, Ron, Frank and soon-to-be Jenny, For a living, Mike designed store windows up and down the Bay Area. His station wagon was always piled full of wood, styrofoam, foam rubber and paint that spilled into the Oznowicz home.
A master of the malaprop, Mike’s style of speaking has been woven into many a performer’s repertoire, including son Frank’s. Mike and Frances performed marionettes around the area. Frank Oz got his training doing puppet shows with his family. When the Oznowicz performed in Yosemite during summers, other troupes like the Mitchells with their young daughter Nancy joined them.
Gayle met Mike in the 1960s at a San Francisco puppet festival where he did the displays. She feels Mike’s enthusiasm for Puppeteers of America was a great asset. Mike got into a lot of battles with people. His passion for the guild drove him. He was Regional Director for the Pacific Southwest Region and president of the San Francisco guild. He served as president of Puppeteers of America, with Gayle was his vice-president, for two years starting in 1974.
A real firebrand who mellowed with age, Mike worked for the good of puppetry. Mike and Frances often traveled to give workshops for our guild in Los Angeles. They were very supportive of us. Gayle’s fondest memories are Mike’s showing San Francisco to her and her family. He gave Gayle her love for the place Both Gayle and Tony mention that Mike was the world’s worst driver. He could never drive without looking at you as he talked. Mike’s wild car rides during a snowy weekend retreat in Tahoe made Gayle a religious woman,
There is so much more to Mike than this small space can possibly accommodate. He was a wonderful man. His legacy and love continue. Friends gathered December 6 in the Bay Area to remember Mike Oznowicz.