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Long Before the Muppets: The Puppeteering of Bil and Cora Baird

Long Before the Muppets: The Puppeteering of Bil and Cora Baird

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As "The Sound of Music" teaches, the beginning is a very good place to start: William Britton Baird's background and story are eerily parallel to Walt's; both were born in the great Midwest (Grand Rapids, Nebraska, in Baird's case) to working-class parents (Baird had a chemical engineer father and a pianist mother). Early influences include a boyhood viewing of the puppet show "Rip Van Winkle" in Mason City, where the Baird family moved, much in the same way Walt was so influenced by seeing "Peter Pan" as a youth. As a seven-year-old, Bil received the gift of a puppet from his father. The spark that was ignited lasted a lifetime.

Baird attended the University of Iowa with majors in art and biology, graduating in 1926. He then attended Chicago's Academy of Fine Arts and spent time in Paris, playing accordion in a bistro at night while studying art during the day. By 1934, he had established his own company at 50 Barrow St. in New York City, a location that would serve his vision for the next 44 years. In 1937, he married actress Cora Burlar while working for Orson Welles' Mercury Theater.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Baird marionettes gained fame, eventually appearing on Broadway. And the burgeoning television market, in need of programming, was more than receptive to Baird and his creations. Appearances followed on Ed Sullivan's "The Toast of the Town" and Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows." In 1958, Baird was nominated for an Emmy for the television special "Art Carney Meets Peter and the Wolf," with lyrics by poet Ogden Nash and music based on Prokofiev.

In the early 1960s, the U.S. State Department sent Bil and Cora on somewhat of a goodwill tour, taking their show "Davey Jones' Locker" to India, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Russia.

Their whimsical creations were included in the New York World's Fair, at which Walt was making headlines with his displays: The State of Illinois' "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln," General Electric's "Carousel of Progress," Ford Motor's "Magic Skyway," and Pepsi-Cola's wildly popular "it's a small world."

Also in 1964, director Robert Wise tapped Baird to design and manipulate the puppets for the song "The

Lonely Goatherd" for the 20th Century Fox production of "The Sound of Music," featuring a fresh-from-Poppins Julie Andrews. In the play, the song is sung to calm the children during a summer thunderstorm, but Wise, in rethinking the staging, moved it to a solo position and provided another bonding moment for Andrews and her seven wards. Bil and Cora also tutored Andrews and the children on some marionette basics, so that in close-ups, they could appear to be manipulating the wires and strings themselves.

The number-thanks to Andrews' crystal singing and the Baird's humorous caricatures of Bavarian romance-became a stand-out moment in the landmark musical. The Sound of Music went on to win public adoration and armfuls of Oscars: Best Director, Best Editing, Best Scoring for an Adaptation, Best Sound, and last but not least, Best Picture of 1965.

Tragically, Bil's life was to take darker turns thereafter.

In 1967, his beloved Cora died of cancer. The void in Bil's life was never quite filled again, although he did remarry Susanna Lloyd, daughter of character actor Norman Lloyd (TV's "St. Elsewhere").

He continued to work, however, opening a retrospective of his creations in Lincoln Center He was a common contributor to hot air balloon designs for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and this skill evolved from its beginnings in the 1930s to the 1970s, when Baird was periodically tapped to help create floats.

In 1976, he began a relationship with the Charles H. MacNider Museum in Mason City, IA, his boyhood home. A number of retrospectives and exhibits were mounted there, but the Baird organization was floundering, beset by financial difficulties. In 1979, his magnificent marionette theater at 59 Barrow was sold, and the company as it had been was disbanded. The early 1980s saw accolades coming Bil's way, including a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Baird was feted with fellow puppeteers Burr Tillstom, Shari Lewis, and one Jim Henson, who had admired and learned from Baird (unofficially, from afar) earlier in his career.

On March 18, 1987, Bil Baird succumbed to complications of bone marrow cancer and died in New York City. Financial woes continued to plague his company, and his son, Peter Baird, tried to continue in his father's work, but creditors proved too insistent. To defray mounting costs, an auction was held at the Baird studio/workshop in Union Square. But before the treasured ""Lonely Goatherd marionettes could be snapped up by private collectors, they were whisked away to the MacNider Museum, where they still happily reside. A permanent rotating display of Baird creations-including the "Goatherd" crew-was dedicated in 1988 and continues to be appreciated by visiting children and their Boomer parents.

In 1989, the Baird Marionette Theater was reestablished as a touring company by Bil and Cora's son, Peter. Several productions succeeded, including "Pinocchio" in 1990. Peter found work on television as well, assisting in the puppets associated with "Shining Time Station." The Baird Marionette Theater successfully remounted "Davey Jones' Locker" at the Orpheum Theater in Manhattan and released a copy of the production on video in 1995.
Peter Baird continued working in the industry; his puppeteering talents were put to use in Henson's "The Muppets Take Manhattan" and the George Lucas dark comedy "Howard the Duck."

Sadly, Peter Baird died much too young-at age 52-in 2004 of esophageal cancer.

The Bairds' work, however, continues to live on-not only charmingly viewable in "The Sound of Music" (poised for a 40th Anniversary re-do on DVD this fall) but also in the display at the MacNider Museum. Impervious to any violent thunderstorms, that "one little girl in a pale pink coat" and her "mama with a gleaming gloat" serve as worthy testimony to their ingenious and talented creators, Bil and Cora Baird.

Many thanks to Steven Weber, The Laughing Egg Studio, for so generously sharing his portion of the Bil Baird story in response to an e-mail regarding "The Sound of Music" marionettes. His love of the craft-and the Bairds who so brilliantly executed it-leapt off the page.

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