Puppets on Radio, Film, and Television
Beginning in the 1930s, new media provided wider audiences for America’s most well-known puppeteers and puppets. New techniques were developed to match the immediacy afforded by the microphone and camera. Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charlie McCarthy entered American homes via radio broadcasts. George Pal pioneered a groundbreaking system of stopmotion puppetry on film. Jim Henson’s techniques grew out of his fascination with the technology of television; he achieved intimacy by freeing his characters from the confines of the traditional puppet stage and animating them through his experiments with the focus of the TV camera and TV monitor.
Ventriloquist puppets can take a number of forms, such as a hand puppet or a stuffed creature; the type we know best is a large doll. All have a “conversation” with the puppeteer, achieved by the latter’s ability to alter his speech, making it appear to come from the mouth of the puppet. This is the art of “throwing one’s voice.”
Marionettes are manipulated from above the stage using wires or strings usually attached to a horizontal control bar, often called an airplane control because of its shape. A usually unseen puppeteer operates the bar. The French term dates from around 1600 and translates as “little Mary,” in recognition of the Virgin Mary, one of the first figures used as a stringed puppet in church morality plays.
Animated simply by wiggling, a finger puppet is a sheath of cloth, paper, or rubber that fits over a single finger. It normally has no moving parts such as arms or legs. This form is generally used for toys.
Stop-motion puppets are three-dimensional figures made of either carved wood and plastic or a clay substance molded on a wire shape. The puppeteer poses and re-poses the puppets in progressive phases of movement and documents each movement on a single frame of film. The film is then projected at the correct speed, creating the illusion of animation.
Usually made of cloth, a hand puppet is a flexible, glove-like structure. The puppeteer inserts a hand and manipulates the figure by moving fingers and wrist. This method can be traced to prehistoric times, when storytellers used their hands to make shadows to illustrate their tales. It evolved evolved into the use of highly sophisticated objects of wood, plastic, paint, and fabric.
The Muppet characters grew from the creativity and imagination of Jim Henson, who was involved in puppetry since his high school years. Introduced in the 1950s on various television programs, the Muppets are known for their zany, absurdist humor and outlandish, distinctive looks. Henson coined the term "muppet" simply because he liked the sound of the word.