Bil Baird, Master of Marionettes

He was born William Britton “Bil” Baird in Nebraska during the Summer of 1904, but he was raised as a boy in Mason City, Iowa, the same city I was born in during the 1950s. So, he, like me, was an Iowa boy. You probably know his work if you’ve ever seen “The Sound of Music” musical movie starring Julie Andrews. The puppets above were featured in that movie during the “Lonely Goatherd” song.

Bil became puppet-crazy at the age of 8 when his father built him his first marionette. The string puppets pictured above are from a Bil Baird production of “The Wizard of Oz.” The growing television industry was a boon to Bil. I remember most vividly his TV production of “Peter and the Wolf.”

Here the Bremen Town Musicians trick me into making a selfie with them as I take the photo through the glass in the Hanford MacNider Museum in Mason City, Iowa. All of the photos in this post were taken by me at that location.
In 1950, Bil and producer Yul Brenner developed the TV show, “Life with Snarky Parker.” This was a spoof western-genre show like those popular on TV at the time where Snarky, the puppet, partially obscured by the reflection of the card display in the glass, had silly and funny cowboy adventures… possibly inspiring the character of Woody in the Pixar movie “Toy Story.”

Many of Baird’s puppets were made specifically for his work in TV advertisements and educational TV.

Flying monkeys and the wicked witch from Oz.

Baird’s distinctive style of marionettes was a common feature on TV, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and in Educational Films throughout the ’50s and ’60s, the height of his popularity. And he continued to perform in World’s Fairs, theme parks, and special engagements until his death in 1987. Most of his puppets were sold at auction in 1988, that is how these puppets found their way into his hometown art museum. His son Peter continued working the puppet troupe with new puppets until his own death in 2004.

I owe a debt to Bil Baird, inspiring my own creativity and artwork. And I suspect the creators of the Muppets, Pixar movies, and puppeteers everywhere can say the same.

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Filed under art my Grandpa loved, artists I admire, artwork, nostalgia

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