Slugger Ryan Marionette

Slugger Ryan Marionette

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Description (Brief)
Made by Bil Baird of wood and plastic, Slugger Ryan is a rod puppet with external wooden sticks or wire rods attached, allowing the puppeteer to manipulate his movements. The puppet is smoking a cigarette, and is seated at a rust-colored wooden piano with a fabric keyboard. His bench is perched on a blue and black checked floor, surrounded by a low curtain held up with brass rings, and he is dressed in gray wool pants, pink cotton shirt, a tan vest, and wears a Wendell Wilkie button.
Bil Baird (1904-1987) was born in Nebraska, and by the age of 14, was making his own puppets, creating stage sets, and performing his own plays. He attended Iowa State University and in 1926 entered the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts to study stage design. After traveling in France for over a year, Baird returned to the U.S. and went to work for Tony Sarg, a highly respected and talented puppeteer in New York., for five years. Baird enjoyed one of the most prolific and varied careers in the history of puppetry and his creativity knew no bounds. His career spanned almost 60 years
In 1934 Baird created his own company, referring to his marionettes as "his little wooden friends." In 1936 Orson Welles, a member of the Federal Theater Project, commissioned Baird to make the puppets for his production of "Dr. Faustus." While working on this project, Baird met Cora Burlar, a dancer with the Martha Graham company, and they were married in 1937. The two were life-long partners in marriage and work. They set up a studio in New York where they created, carved, painted, and dressed thousands of puppets, as well as making the props, stage sets and scenery for all their produections.
The Baird marionettes first performed at the 1939 Chicago World's Fair and went to to become international stars, appearing in many varied venues. They performed on Broadway with the Ziegfield Follies, at Radio CIty Music Hall, the late show with Jack Parr, television specials that included Art Carney in "Peter and the Wolf," the "Sorcerer's Guide," and AT&T commercials. Their marionettes are probably best known for the puppet show that appeared in the featue film, The Sound of Music. He created the puppets, wrote, produced and performed the "Loney Goat Herd" put on by Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family children.
Baird enjoyed one of the most prolific and varied careers in the history of puppetry. His career spanned almost 60 years and Baird was a mentor to many up and coming puppeteers, including Jim Henson, who credited his success to the teachings of Bill Baird.
Baird created the original Slugger Ryan in the mid-1930s, for shows at New York City's Radio City Music Hall. Modeled on the legacy of a honky-tonk piano player, this puppet bears a passing resemblance to Hoagy Carmichael; the composer of such song hits as “Stardust” and “Georgia on My Mind.” The puppet captures Baird’s hallmarks of caricature and satire. Baird made the Smithsonian’s version of Slugger Ryan in the 1970s.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Date made
date made
Baird, Bil
Willkie, Wendell L.
Baird, Bil
place made
United States: New York, New York City
Associated Place
United States: New York, New York
Physical Description
plastic (overall material)
wood (overall material)
paint (overall material)
wool (overall material)
cotton (overall material)
overall: 22 in x 26 in x 20 1/2 in; 55.88 cm x 66.04 cm x 52.07 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Musical Theater
Television broadcasts
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Entertainment
Data Source
National Museum of American History

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I received the LP "Slugger Ryan: Honky Tonk Music for Little Rascals," as a gift for my 10th birthday. I credit this, my first jazz album, with having started me down the path to my career as a jazz pianist and educator. I wore the vinyl out long ago but the framed cover featuring this puppet still hangs on my studio wall.
I recall this marionette very well. I was born 1941, and our first family TV was an RCA purchased in 1947 or '48. I believe I first saw this on CBS or Dumont (best guess). The reason this character is so firmly implanted in my mind is that he reminded me at the time of the Jazz musicians my cabdriver father would talk about in New York City's Harlem and 57th street clubs. Sometimes he would allow me to ride in the DeSoto cab on late night week-ends so I could meet the musicians I so admired. His voice still echos in my mind - sort of Brooklyn/Bronx and deep throated.

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