Few puppeteers inspire awe in me as much as Jim Henson and the original Muppet performers, but there is one for sure: Bil Baird,(August 15, 1904 – March 18, 1987).During his 60+year career Baird and his puppets performed for audiences all over the world. They toured Russia, appeared in “The Lonely Goatherd” sequence in the 1965 film The Sound of Music , as well as in the ABC-TV 1958 television special Art Carney Meets Peter and the Wolf. They were seen at many World’s Fairs, and were part of five Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades. During the 1964/65 World’s Fair in New York City, Baird’s Marionettes hosted “The Show-Go-Round”, an elaborate musical exhibit in the Chrysler Pavilion.
(Oh, the days of World’s Fairs!! How I wish I could have attended one.)
Baird was a recipient of a multitude of awards and honors, including the Medal of Achievement -awarded by the Lotos Club of New York, Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Iowa, and was honored in 1980 by the Union International de la Marionette and Puppeteers of America at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
His wife Cora was a full partner in the company and performed many characters right alongside her husband. Also,Jerry Nelson worked with the Baird company before moving on to the Muppets.
Bil Baird’s children Laura and Peter contracted to sell nearly all of the Bil Baird Marionettes at auction. This 800 lot auction sale was held at The Greenwich Auction Room over 2 days. Marionettes depicting Elsie the Cow and her family were desired by many but sold to a Pennsylvania toy dealer. A character called Olly Oilcan from the 1939 Chicago World’s Fair sold for an astonishing $11,000.00.
Baird’s puppets were often highly stylized and vibrant caricatures;there’s no other character quite like the wide-eyed hand puppets Charlemane the Lion or Humphrey the Hound Dog. Yet he also made small, delicate, carved wooden marionettes, and huge,larger-than life creations.
I had the pleasure of meeting Bil’s son Peter Baird, also a master puppeteer in his own right, at a puppetry festival. Sitting beside him during another puppeteeer’s performance,I not only had my eyes and ears tuned to what was going on onstage, but had one ear open for anything Peter might say. Unfortunately, our conversation turned a little naughty and I can’t repeat what was said here! But trust me, he was a free spirit and an amusing and fascinating man. I was very sad to hear that he left us in 2004.
This performance of the Bil Baird puppets(with wife Cora) not only displays the charm of the Baird puppets,but also features the endearing human-puppet interactions I hope to have on my own small shows.