Thursday, August 19, 2010

Oz Puppets

Something I have been fascinated with my entire life are marionettes and puppets. I remember seeing a production of Sleeping Beauty in grade school, performed entirely with marionettes, and simply loving it (I recently found out the production was done by Stevens Marionettes). Another time, my grade school class too a field trip to the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee to see a production of Pinocchio, performed entirely by life size marionettes. it was fantastic and something I remember as if it was yesterday.

Since The Wizard of Oz is my all time favorite EVERYTHING, Oz puppet plays are a special interest of mine. Sadly, in my 40 years of life, I have never actually SEEN a puppet production of Oz! But, it's something I've added to my "bucket list" and have even toyed with the possibility of producing and performing a marionette version as part of the theatre company I co-founded, 5th Season.

In the mean time, here are some of the more famous, "historical" Oz puppet productions:

Jean Abel Gros was a prominent American marionette artist of the early twentieth century. In 1928 he mounted an Oz puppet show called The Magical Land of Oz, written by Ruth Plumly Thompson. The production played at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. Regrettably, Gros's Oz show was apparently never filmed or otherwise preserved. The show boasted a 14 piece marionette orchestra and was for the most part adaptation of Baum's third Oz book, Ozma of Oz (the orchestra members even looked like the "Nomes" as drawn by Neill). It's unknown at this time if a copy of Plumly Thompson's script survives.

In 1934 the Cornish players Puppeteers produced a version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Not much is known about the production. Photos from it were printed in the December 1934 issue of Theatre Arts Magazine. A short review was also published in the November 6th, 1934 edition of The Ubyssey student run newspaper. The review called it "marvelous" and "charming", commenting that "the story was clever and the dialogue light and simple". However, the music didn't fair as well, which they said "was of the trashy parlour variety hardly better than jazz." "Dorothy" was also compared in personality to Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie, in both personality and choice of hair color.

Suzari Marionettes began performing The Wizard of Oz as far back as 1948, and the show remained part of their repertoire until they closed in 1962. The company grew into Nicolo Marionettes and eventually Puppetworks. A version of the story has been a part of the company the entire time, including a blue-grass, country western score by composer Bruce Haack. The "Dorothy" in this production wore overalls to accent the farm theme. When the 1939 film had it's 50th anniversary they created a special 20 minute version for Macy's Herald Square promotional events. The puppets in the Macy version were made to resemble the cast of the movie..."Dorothy" in blue gingham and an upright "Man in a Lion Suit". Ordinarily, the company's Lion is a four footed animal puppet. The script was original, but underscored it with the film's score.

Bil Baird produced a marionette version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, based on the original book with the score from the 1939 MGM film. Phyllis Nierendorf was the voice and operator of "Dorothy" and Jerry Nelson (of Muppets fame) was "Toto". In the 1971 revival Olga Felgemacher was "Dorothy". I chatted with her once on the phone in prep for a never realized article I was planning on writing. She said Bil was a stickler for performing the voice track live, complete with a life orchestra. Felgemacher also said that, in true Baird fashion, the marionettes were performed as realistically as possible. She spent hours rehearsing picking up the bucket of water and dowsing the Witch to make it flow as smoothly as possible. The majority of the "cast" now live in the Charles H. Macnider Museum in Mason City Iowa. The "Dorothy" marionette is currently missing. No one I interviewed about the production knows what happened to her. In fact, a few fingers were pointed and accusations made as to her where abouts, but she remains missing. This puppet is the "Holy Grail" to me. I hope she is found one day.

The world renowned Salzburg Marionette Theatre included The Wizard of Oz as part of repertoire of a USA tour in the 1950's. Based on the limited information in the tour programme, the show appears to have been based on the book, rather than the film. It's unclear if it was a musical or not. The programme credits are grouped together for all the shows in the tour and not character/cast listing is provided. However, based on the reputation of the company, I have no doubt this was a spectacular production and probably deserves to be honored with a revival. With the success of there recent production of Sound of Music, maybe the company will venture into the world of musical theatre again and produce a full fledged production based on the RSC version of the MGM film.

International Wizard of Oz Club member and puppeteer, Bill Eubank, began producing puppet versions of Baum's first two books The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz. With assistance from club member Fred Meyer, Eubank created an iconic part of the early Oz Club conventions and get togethers. Using a combination of marionettes, rod and hand puppets, his characters were authentic recreations of the Oz characters as drawn by Denslow and Neill. Some of the figures were completely made from scratch and others, Dorothy in particular, were successfully created from a composition dolls. Eubank died in in 1993 and the puppets fell into obscurity. They were recently purchased by Oz collector and historian Fred Trust, and will hopefully be put on display somewhere of the world to enjoy again. Older Oz Club members very fondly remember these shows and will be thrilled to see the puppets again after all these years.

Michigan puppeteer and founder of Bixby Marionettes, Meredith Bixby, produced The Wizard of Oz in the 1960's. Bixby retired in 1982 and passed away in 2002. But the marionettes still exist, some of which are on display at the Saline District Library, including the "Dorothy" and "Tin Man" figures. One can only hope that the rest of the cast is still around and the group will someday be displayed together.

In the 1950's, television puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, creator of the TV show Kukla, Fran and Ollie, began work on a series of short made for TV films based on the Oz book, called The Wonderful Land of Oz, and performed by a combination of hand puppets and marionettes. Fran Allison was to continue her association with Tillstrom and appear in the cast, but as what is unknown. The Wizard of Oz was film and aired, and pre-production work was started on The Marvelous Land of Oz. the cast for Marvelous Land was built, but the episode was never filmed and the project abandoned. The Library of Congress holds a print of Wizard in it's archives, and the unused cast for Marvelous Land still exists in a private collection. it's a shame this series wasn't continued. It would have been wonderful!

Stevens Puppets originated their version of the Wizard of Oz in 1965 and it continues to be part of their touring repertoire to this day. The designs were inspired by the original Denslow illustrations, especially the "Scarecrow" and the "Tin Man", and are all hand carved. The script is closer to the movie version than the book, but it is not a musical, and eliminates the "Munchkins" and "Winged Monkeys". The show regularly plays to delighted audiences at the Wizard of Oz Festival in Chesterton Indiana, as well as schools and libraries all over the Midwest.

The Stockholm Marrionette Theatre of Fantasy crossed the pond in 1966 to bring a very unusual looking production of The Wizard of Oz to United States audiences. It toured along with Threepenny Opera, and played auditoriums across the country. The puppets were large marionettes worked by a crew dressed all in black, except for the "Cowardly Lion", who was the only non-puppet, and simply an actor dressed in a larger than life Lion suit. The dialogue was prerecorded and in "snooty sounding English voices", according to the New York Times review. The designs for the characters were described as "bright, primitive-sophisticated style of up-to-date children's illustrations." "Dorothy" sported a geometric arched hairdo and a dress covered in triangles. The adult critic didn't seem to enjoy this production, but did note that the children in the audience were loving it!
There is one other production I would like to add to this "historical" list, and that was done by The Reed Marionettes. Robin Reed began production on The Wizard of Oz and took 10 years to complete it. His future wife, Edith, joined him along the way and together they created a show that toured the Midwest for 40 years. I searched for photos of the production but came up empty handed. I contacted Reed's son, Tim, but have not heard back from him yet.
Well, that about covers it for the first part of this little essay. Stay tuned for the second installment featuring more current productions of Oz puppetry!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


So, it's been a VERY LONG TIME since I wrote anything here. And so much has been going on...I don't know where to begin!!!


Well, when I started this blog I was working for Minute Clinic, via Prostaff, in downtown Mpls. that ended in January. I went back a few times to clean up and finish a few projects, but otherwise I was done. Next it was a one day stint at a grocery store food show at the Minneapolis Convention Center, again via ProStaff. After that I was out of work for a few months. I would have a lead here and there but mostly just dead ends or jobs that never panned out.

Then in April, a week before Easter, Prostaff assigned me to Discount Steel and Aluminum in Northeast Minneapolis. I was happy for a new position, but had two concerns: 1) an openly gay man working for a steel company and 2) it's a TERRIBLE neighborhood. But, I took the job and worked as the receptionist for a month. Then one day the head of purchasing came to see me about moving to his department on a trial basis. I was hesitant, as I had NEVER worked in purchasing before, but I took a chance and agreed. Well, needless to say, it didn't work out. I lasted a little over a 2 months and it just wasn't a good fit. Thankfully, they like me enough at DS that they offered me my old receptionist position back and I jumped at it. I've been doing that for a few weeks, still working for ProStaff. However, as of tomorrow, August 18th, I become a Discount Steel employee and will no longer be working via the temp agency. The only down side is that I am not full time, just under as a matter of fact, so I still don't have insurance, vacation or sick days. But, HR said hopefully business will pick up enough for them to take me on full time. But hey, I'M EMPLOYED!!!


In June I began rehearsals to play "Daddy Warbucks" in Annie for the Lundstrum center for the Performing Arts. The production was part of a theatre camp for 5-13 year olds. Warbucks, Miss Hannigan, Rooster and FDR were all played by adults, and the rest of the cast by the kids. Some of the rehearsals were rough, but we made it through and the show was a blast!
I had two different "Annies". One was a darling kid named Jada. She played the role for the first two perforances. the second is a very dear little friend of mine, Emily Albert-Stauning. I've mentioned her on this blog once before (when she was in A Christmas Carol). Annie is Emily's dream role, and to get to play a part of that realization was just too wonderful to imagine. She played the role the last two shows. She was simply perfect and a joy to perform with. Emily's family is very dear to Keith and I, which made playing her stage father even more meaningful to me. It was very special.

Right after Annie, Lunstrum produced another theatre camp using 14-17 year olds. The show they did was Bye Bye Birdie. Like with Annie, a few adults were brought in to play several roles and the rest were performed by the students. I played "Mr. MacAfee', father of the female juvinale lead, "Kim". Mae Peterson (brilliantly played by Nancy Marvy), Conrad Birdie, Albert Peterson and the Maypr were the other adults. This show was a but rough, but again, we made it to opening night and it was a success. I LOVED the kids playing my family: Marisa Jacobus was "Kim MacAfee", Fresa Sanchez was "Doris MacAfee" and Javon Williams was poor "Randolph MacAfee". Great kids...I kiss them.
Next on the boards...possibly another production of Annie. If I get in, it will be my third time a Warbucks. One of these times my hair might not grow back!!!

5th Season

Keith and I have been toying with trying to start up our theatre company again, and this time try to make it our full time jobs. But theatres, non-profits and arts programs are risky and difficult things to make work. Judy and Mickey made it look so easy in those old movies!!! we are thinking about doing a "gala' to reintroduce ourselves to the area, and hopefully raise some money to re-incorporate and get our 501C3 status again. Then it's off the the wonderful world of begging for money, or as it's officially called, applying for grants. Luckily we have two friends in our lives that are willing to do what they can to make this process a little easier on us. God Bless Them!

We are looking at remounting The Wizard of Oz as our first production...again. Only this time it will be the RSC version. Our last production of Oz was a hit, so hopefully this one will be even bigger and better!!!!

Keith (the husband)

Keith is still plugging away at his art work, and still dreaming of somehow making money at it someday. He is so talented, but like theatre, it's a difficult industry to break in to. He had a website and what I think is a great portfolio. He is currently working on illustrating Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ( a personal project of now way authorized by J. K.) and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Oz, being out of copyright, is something he can illustrate, self publish and sell copies of....which is the plan. He s not an Oz fan like I am, but is enjoying his journey down the yellow brick road. As an Oz collector, I can't wait to see the finished product!
This October we will have been "married" 4 years. I put the term in quotes because in MN it still isn't recognized. But to us and God it is. And I love him even more than I did they day I said "I do".

My Oz Collection
The Oz obsession is always growing, but never fast enough for my greedy little self. I've replaced some things I had to sell in years past for groceries or bills, and picked up some new stuff as well. The Oz Room is starting to burst at the seams, but I'm not complaining!!!!


This is a long and sad subject, but I will try to make is short. My grandma, someone I love and adore with all my heart, is 88 years old and at an age where she is falling too frequently and whose memory is on the fritz. Keith and I were going to take her in, and st first she was fine with it. But in her ornery old German way, she has now decided she doesn't want to leave her home. So, my lazy, good for nothing uncle is now living with her.
Where do I begin with explaining my uncle. He is in his middle 60's and NEVER had a full time job. He has defaulted on so many loans he has everyone from the U of Wis to the US Government trying to track him down and collect from him. He is an arrogant, self proclaimed authority on everything and a former draft dodger. My grandmother has supported him his whole life. And now he's living with her. Her savings, thanks to him, is almost gone (from $80,000 to $13,000 in 5 years). The family is beside ourselves as to what to do. My dad, her son-in-law, has a few ideas that we are putting in place. After that, we just pray. And then pray some more.
I guess that about covers it. I knew this was going to be a long one. I have promised myself to get better about posting here. Bye for now!

Oh yeah, I also turned 40!!!!