Today is World Puppetry Day. Here in Nottingham we are celebrating with a whole week of puppet-related performances and workshops. I have always been interested in puppetry. It’s in my blood. During World War II my mother and her siblings performed in many concerts in their local area to raise funds for the war effort. My mother was 8 years old when war broke out. The driving force behind these concerts was my grandfather’s friend who lived with the family, Uncle Bill Hayes. He was a professional music hall entertainer.
Uncle Bill could tell
jokes, sing, do magic, performed comic character acts and operate puppets. My
family and other local amateur performers were roped in to help with his
concerts (several tricks were performed in the UK for the first time by Uncle
Bill and my mother, his magician’s assistant). As I was growing up I heard many
stories about those concerts. They gave me a love of puppets, performance and
magic. I still have the marionettes my parents bought for me in the 1970s. I
even made some “Star Trek” hand puppets in the 1980s for a youth concert.
It is only in past few
years that I have realised how many lgbt puppeteers there are. There are
organisations and Facebook groups, and puppeteers who specialise in lgbt issues
such as coming out and anti-bullying. It would take a long time to go through
them all, so I’ll present a selection of lgbt puppeteers to celebrate World
I’ll start with something
which is high-lighting the puppet festival here in Nottingham and is making its
debut in the city. Its one of the most famous of contemporary puppet
performances – “War Horse”.
Kohler and Basil Jones are a married gay couple
from South Africa. They met at art college in Botswana and quickly recognised
their shared love of puppetry. In 1981 they formed the Handspring Puppet
Company. Andrew and Basil created puppet shows for schools and later for adult
audiences which also included themes tackling racism and human rights. In 2007
their reputation came to the notice of director Tom Morris who was mounting a
theatre adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel “War Horse”. Tom approached
Adrian and Basil to create a realistic horse puppet and the other puppets for
“War Horse”. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Another talent my Uncle
Bill had was for ventriloquism. One of the more distinctive ventriloquists that
I remember from British television in the 1970s was a woman called Terri Rogers (1937-1999). At that time there
were many ventriloquists on tv and I recall only two of them being women –
Shari Lewis and Terri Rogers. Little did I know at the time that Terri Rogers
was transgender. As well as being a talented ventriloquist Terri was a
magician. She wrote several magic books and developed tricks and illusions for
stars like David Copperfield and Paul Daniels.
Perhaps the most famous
puppets in popular culture, apart from Punch and Judy, are the Muppets.
Throughout the career of Muppet creator Jim Henson he used various types of
puppet. An early collaboration was with Kermit
Love (1916-2008), an openly gay costume designer and puppeteer who
pioneered the use of the full-body costume puppets that made the Muppets
famous. Perhaps the most famous is Big Bird from “Sesame Street”, the first and
most enduring of the many puppets Kermit Love created. Incidentally, Kermit the
Frog is not named after Kermit Love. They are both named after the son of
President Teddy Roosevelt, Kermit Roosevelt.
Kermit Love was mentor to
another Muppeteer, Kevin Clash. Kevin had a childhood love of
puppets and, like myself, was making puppets at the age of 10. In his teenage
years Kevin contacted Kermit who in turn put him in contact with Jim Henson.
For almost 30 years Kevin Clash was Elmo in “Sesame Street”. This ended with
his resignation in 2012 after unfounded allegations of under-age sex were made. However, the incident led to Kevin coming out to the media as a gay
Kevin’s reign as Elmo came
after the brief tenure of Richard Hunt
(1951-1992). Richard came from a show business family and puppetry was an early
interest, fuelled by the early Muppet appearances on tv. He began working for
Jim Henson in 1969 and was the original puppeteer behind (or underneath) many
popular Muppets, including Scooter, Beaker, Statler, Sweetums and several
Fraggles. For the year before Kevin Clash’s arrival he was also Elmo. Richard
Hunt died of AIDS at the age of 40.
Burkett is a Canadian
marionetteer. His self-written performances often have adult themes. He founded
his own company in 1986 and has toured the world. One of his more recent
successes, “Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy”, was a
semi-autobiographical piece about a young gay puppeteer. It toured
internationally for 2 years.
Karsner (1961-2012) was
a gardener by profession – Head Gardener of the Children’s Garden at the
Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. He was also a board
member of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry. He used inspired imagination in
his garden designs and even used plants to create puppets. Other puppets were
made out of rubbish, trash, discarded objects and bits and pieces you might
find in a cupboard or drawer. Jeff was also a swimmer and won a bronze medal at
the 1994 Gay Games in New York. He died accidentally at his home and donations
in his memory were made to the International Puppetry Museum in Pasadena.
Flowers (1939-1988) was
a familiar face on television on both sides of the Atlantic. So, too, was his
famous creation Madame. In many ways Wayland paved the way for some modern
puppeteers and ventriloquists who, like Terri Rogers above, often used
outrageous and adult content in their cabaret and club acts which became the
staple content for recent popular adult puppet musicals like “Avenue Q”.
Minshall is a Caribbean
carnival costume designer. His expertise was used to great effect in the
Olympic opening ceremonies of Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, and the closing
ceremony of Salt Lake City 2002. Carnival costumes became giant puppets with
his creations of 20-feet-tall stick people. It is said that he is also the
inventor of those inflatable dancing figures you often see on car dealer
And these are just a few
of the lgbt puppeteers and puppet creators who have enlivened many minds of
children and adults alike. There are many other areas which I have no space to
go into – shadow puppets, Punch and Judy, the puppets of stage shows like “The
Lion King”, and children’s tv favourites like Thunderbirds.