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!


  1. I love this article. It is very helpful. You mention that the land of Oz puppets are in a private collection. Do you know who has those puppets? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. i recently aquired two bookmarks advertising jean gros' marionettes "The Marvelous World of Oz". one of them is the tinman, and the other is the scarecrow. they are in wonderful condition.