Persuasive Puppets

While this outspoken puppet might try to sell us on things, I don't think he would do too well in a commercial.

While this outspoken puppet might try to sell us on things, I don’t think he’s that convincing!

Where do you think the average person has seen puppets most recently? At the movie theater, courtesy of the film Muppets Most Wanted? On television, as their kid watches Sesame Street? Or how about in passing, as part of a commercial?

Puppets have been used for commercials for nearly as long as television has been around. Back in the 1950’s, Jim Henson got his start in commercials creating short segments promoting Wilkins Coffee. You can see his two puppets Wilkins and Wontkins here in this set of spots on YouTube:

The two characters were so good at persuading the public to buy coffee, Henson put them to work promoting a whole bunch of different products:

Doing a Google search on puppets in commercials today, however, brings up somewhat less madcap and instead, more creepy clips, such as this DirecTV commercial:

While the punch line about ‘no wires’ makes sense in comparison to the marionette, it’s still pretty weird and not that clever. This article in The Guardian highlights other puppets in creepy commercials while this one from Mental Floss rounds up more successful examples, including this more recent Muppets spot:

Henson’s ads for Wilkins were wildly successful, as well as groundbreaking for the time period. Do you think puppets can still persuade us to buy things? Or are we too cynical about having our strings pulled to go along with it?

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Top 5 Reactions to the Word ‘Puppet’

Puppets are not for the faint of heart.

Puppets are not for the faint of heart.                Photo by Patricia Germann.

We discovered over the course of Malevolent Creatures rehearsals that we’ve all gotten pretty similar reactions when the word ‘puppet’ comes up in ordinary conversation. Here are the top five comments we’re used to hearing. Have you made one or more of them when meeting a puppeteer?

1. “Oh like the Muppets!” Well, um, not always. In fact, we’ve never created a show with hand-and-rod style puppets before, although we’re in the planning stages for one with GALA Hispanic Theatre.

2. “So you do stuff like on Sesame Street!” No, not really. Not too much counting or alphabet songs in our shows. Not all puppets are intended for children, despite the ubiquity of Big Bird and Bert and Ernie in our culture.

3. “Um…like Pinnochio?” Aside from Jim Henson, this is probably the only other named puppet character that most people can come up with.

4. “How cute!” Yes, very….until the puppet starts to go on a rampage and eat the audience. Wait, what? Oh right. NOT ALL PUPPETS ARE FOR CHILDREN. OR SQUEAMISH ADULTS.

5. “Is that a real job?” As a matter of fact, it is! Aren’t we lucky?

May Grab Bag

A roundup of articles and more that we highlighted on Twitter this month

Czech style marionette carved by Cecilia in one of Mirek's classes.

Czech style marionette carved by Cecilia in one of Mirek’s classes. See #1

1. A great article with even more awesome photos about our friend Mirek Trejtnar who runs the Puppets in Prague marionette-building workshops. Read it if you’ve ever been curious about how to make a marionette.

2. Some advice from Jim Henson, rendered in brilliant comic form by Gavin Aung Than. Read it for inspiration–we keep it handy in the studio for when motivation is needed!

3. Genna discovered this article about an artist performing with puppets in the New York subway. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone perform with a puppet in the DC metro–have you?

4. An article and video from Sandglass Theater of Vermont about their recent experiences performing in Cuba. Their work is a huge inspiration to us and well worth a look.

5. NPR has a weekly podcast called Pop Culture Happy Hour and recently one of the discussion topics was fairy tales. It’s not exactly the kind of stories we’re working with for Malevolent Creatures but still interesting and fun to listen to.

Our Favorite Puppet Films

Since the film Muppets Most Wanted is opening this week, it seems like a good moment to talk about some favorite films that include puppets. 

Labyrinth_ver2Genna remembers seeing Jim Henson’s Labyrinth for the first time in elementary school, at a friend’s house. What made the biggest impression on her at the time was the variety of the puppets and how they ranged in dimension. from the giant Ludo to the much smaller Sir Didymus and Hoggle. Genna also liked the way that the human actors (Jennifer Connolly and David Bowie) got to interact with the puppet characters. Today of course she is more interested in trying to understand how each puppet was made and manipulated, and given a choice, she would like to try performing either Ludo or one of the Fire Gang.

file_164905_2_underworld_2_posterThe other film series that Genna has been inspired by is Underworld, a trilogy of movies about vampires and werewolves. Like Labyrinth, many of the characters wear full body costumes with animatronic puppet heads that are manipulated with radio controls by multiple puppeteers. The mechanics of the legs, which have extensions inside the foam latex skin, and the details in the features and hair are all amazing. You can see some of the work it took to produce this in videos here and here.

Cecilia on the other hand, was first introduced to puppets on film with the ‘Lonely Goatherd’ marionettes in the classic musical The Sound of Music. The sequence was performed by Bil Baird and Cora Eisenberg, and the catchy tune, with puppets similar to a set from Mexico that she had, made a big impression on her as a kid. Labyrinth also became a favorite later in college, but the film that was an inspiration as she first started creating and performing puppets in high school was Fool’s Fire, an adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story Hoptoad which was created by Julie Taymor and shown on PBS in 1992. Cecilia came across it as part of a retrospective of Taymor’s work that was shown at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2000. The story of a jester who takes revenge on the cruel king and court that enslaves him, it uses full body puppets to establish the difference between Hoptoad and his captors.

Hopefully some kids will see Muppets Most Wanted this weekend and be inspired to pick up puppets! What other puppet films do YOU love?

June Grab Bag

Katherine Fahey’s amazing crankie. See #1.

1. I was lucky enough to catch the work of the marvelous Baltimore artist Katherine Fahey at a Puppet Underground cabaret this week. She creates beautiful shadow puppet ‘crankies’ for music videos and other stories. Check out some of her work here and here.

2. One of the places that has long been on my ‘To Visit While in NYC’ list is the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Now that they have announced the upcoming Henson Gallery, devoted to all things Muppet, I think it should move to the top of the list.

3. Baby Universe is a play opening next week at Studio Theatre, that combines puppets with a variety of other media. I won’t be able to see it, but it looks amazing, so you should all go and then tell me about it!

4. Our friends at SCRAP DC have announced their Summer Carnival! Cake walks, lemonade, face paint and games and best of all, all the proceeds go to helping this fantastic crew continue to bring us unique, affordable and recycled arts supplies. Tickets available here.