The Buxton Scrapbook - Tony Sarg

Puppets That Dance by Tony Sarg as told to Stuart Palmer, The Dance Magazine, May, 1928 w/photos

How to Make and Operate a Marionette Theatre by Tony Sarg, Ladies Home Journal, December, 1927 w/photos

Domesticating an Ancient Art by Tony Sarg, The Delineator, April 1922.

How Tony Sarg Performs ‘Miracles’ with Marionettes source unknown, March 1922.

Tony Sarg and his stage, photo, Boston Herald, 1929

Tony Sarg, photo, Times Wide World Photos

Personal letter from Tony Sarg
probably to R. K. Buxton, date unknown.

Brochure for Tony Sarg’s "The Arabian Nights."

Grown-Ups and Children Alike Are Enthralled by the Graceful Movements of Dolls Animated by the Pulling of Wires—But How Is It Done?
The Dance Magazine, May, 1928

WITHOUT the dance, my puppets would be nothing. They would appear as lifeless and cold, instead of sprightly and gay. If you have ever seen a puppet show, you will remember that every motion, every step of the little figures suggested dancing to you. That was because of the fact that they are supported from above and move very lightly and swiftly over the stage.
When I first began to make experiments in animating my doll collection, I discovered that grown-ups, like children, care most for the puppet shows in which the little marionettes are most active, and do the most dancing. If you consider the fact that in puppet plays all facial expressions and other usual expressions of emotion arc absent, it is not hard to understand why so much depends upon action and motion and gesture. Everything is told in pantomime, although of course voices from back-stage speak the parts.

There are three main classes of puppets, each distinct, and only one of which leads itself to the dance. Punch and Judy, and the famous marionettes of George Sand, were empty figures attached to a head. The operator put his hands inside and animated them. These puppets, of course, cannot go through any steps of the dance, because they have no legs. Nor can the older Italian type of marionettes which was motivated by rods from above.

But the true marionette, of which type are practically all our modern puppets, are given life by means of cords or wires let down from above, and are perfectly free to go through any steps of the dance that a human being can do, and some beside. These marionettes are known in Europe as "artistic" marionettes, to distinguish them from the stiffer, more wooden dolls used for dramatization of religious scenes. One of the hardest things in puppetry is to make a marionette walk and dance gracefully. To do this, weights must be attached to the feet of the doll, that it will not startle the audience by rising into the air and remaining there, doing its steps on nothing. The silk threads which give life to the doll run aloft invisibly and are fastened to cross sticks so that they will not tangle. Only five or six strings arc absolutely necessary to the puppet, but on some of my more complicated dolls I use twenty-six and even thirty-four strings.

In order that the puppets may not appear rigid and wooden, they are made with a hollow or stocking waist, which gives a very natural and human sway to the body when the doll moves. The marionettes are made as light as possible, and sometimes if the lady dolls are to wear long skirts and act decorously it is not necessary to give them legs at all, but one can let them float along in a mid-Victorian fashion.

While the dolls can do some things which are absolutely impossible for human beings, such as changing their faces or slipping through keyholes, certain other things are very hard for them. For instance, in one of my first plays, The Rose and the Ring, Prince Bulbo dropped the magic rose, and had to pick it up. This was a great problem to us, as puppets have no fingers. It was finally solved by having a loop of wire in Bulbo’s hand, through which ran a silk thread with a weighted rose at the end of it. The cord loosed from above, the rose would fall. As the little puppet leaned over, the thread was drawn up, and he arose with the flower seemingly clasped in his hand.

When you see puppets dancing and walking on the stage, you probably know that someone is holding the strings above them. But you would undoubtedly laugh if you could see through the screen and watch the young women who hold the strings, one girl for each doll. For catch of these puppeteers, as we call them, goes through the same motions as the marionette she is guiding. When the doll is dancing, the puppeteer will act out, as much as she can, the steps. Her face will assume the expressions which go with the spirit of the dance. She is, in reality, dancing by proxy, through the doll on the stage beneath her platform.

I have found a rather strange fact to be true, in this connection. There has never been, to my knowledge, a successful puppeteer or "puller-of-strings" who was not a good dancer. If the person animating and guiding the puppet cannot do the steps himself, there will be no reality, no charm, in the dancing of the doll.

When planning the dances for a puppet show, I have the puppeteers or some other dancers go through every step with an orchestra, and then the diagrams are made for the doll dances. I have spent a good deal of time in dancing schools, looking on an taking copious notes on the steps and effects. Miss Ronny Johannsen has also helped me considerably in arranging dances.

The first puppet play in which I used a complete dance was in the presentation of Thackeray’s Rose and the Ring. Two of the dolls, a charmingly attractive couple, did a vivid gavotte, while a third little lady played the spinet for them. This was at the Punch and Judy Theatre in New York City, It was also in The Rose and the Ring that one of the puppets changed from an ugly old crone into a beautiful damsel, and in which another was drawn through a keyhole . . . feats difficult indeed for the human actor, but which were worked out smoothly through the puppets.

The success of the dances in The Rose and the Ring led me to try something a great deal more complicated. The result was "Aeyiesha," my favorite puppet character, and the wickedest thing I’ve ever done. She was an Oriental dancer, and when she made her first public appearance in Boston, her stomach dance created an enormous furor. The Boston Transcript facetiously criticized the dance as immoral and daring. Aeyiesha went through a series of very complicated rhythms, and it took two operators to pull the strings that animated her.

In my new puppet play I had developed another doll, very like Aeyiesha, but with all modern improvements. She does a dance divano, in which she goes through many steps which Aeyiesha would never have tried. She can even give the "come-hither" look with her eyes, as she glances here and there at her audience. I expect that this Oriental dancer will have a large following of her own, and of course one advantage lies in the fact that she will not develop into a gold-digger.

In one of my plays a puppet organ-grinder appears on the stage, leading a tiny monkey. They go through what amounts to a grotesque sort of dance, an I received many letters complimenting me on the realness of the monkey, and of the way he danced. His dancing should have appeared real, for he was a real monkey, which belonged to one of our actresses. But he fitted perfectly into the scenes with puppet characters, and no one in the audience suspected that he was not a doll.

Puppet play, as it appears today in dramatizations and dances, is a development of one of the oldest arts. Marionettes were known in Greece and Rome; they acted parts and even danced in ancient China and Japan, and still do, for that matter; and of course in the Middle Ages puppets reached great popularity in Europe. At that time drama and dancing were forbidden in many countries, and puppetry was almost the only stage art allowed. This was especially true under Cromwell in England. He heartily disapproved of dancing and of "play-acting," as they called it then, but there was thought to be nothing wrong if the actors were dolls.

Nor are dancing puppets essentially foreign to this country. The American Indians particularly the Navajos, used jointed dolls in religious ceremonial dances years before white men ever appeared on the continent. Dancing dolls with articulated joints were used by the Incas of Peru in festivals to represent deities.

In regard to marionette dancing in modern times, a very unusual presentation was given at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago last year. The complete show was handled from the ceiling, with especially long cords, and the dolls danced on the floor, far beneath. At this presentation many modern dances were done with charming effect by the dolls. The Hula-hula was shown by a vivacious marionette in a grass skirt and flower wreath, and two colored marionettes gave their version of the Black Bottom. There were also the more graceful Georgian dancers, all motivated by the hands of girl puppeteers high above the dance floor.

If puppeteering, ancient and modern, has borrowed largely from the dance, the process has also been reversed. As early as the 1922 season, Ada Forman appeared in the Greenwich Village Follies in a complete marionette dance, in which the mimic dolls were themselves mimicked!

One of Fred Stone’s show, a marionette was made exactly like him in miniature, and appeared with him in his dances. The likeness, both of face and of dancing manner, was especially marked, and showed the novelty of the effects possible to marionette presentations. The doll was planned, not only to look like Mr. Stone and to do his steps, but it was so operated that I uncannily appeared to be the boiled-down essence of his stage appearance.

The famous Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, from the Chauve-Souris, is another variation of the marionette idea. The dancers, in their machine-like grotesquerie, created the illusion that they were real wooden soldiers, animated for the time by some magical, mystical force, just as the marionettes appear to be mysteriously gifted dolls.

Many of the modern dancers who specialize in the complicated and broken rhythms give more than a suggestion of the marionette in the syncopated movements which they have developed. Certain steps in the Ritz show the same influence.

Italy is more or less the birthplace of the marionette as we know it today. In that country a large number of legendary heroes have grown up around the puppet stage. Some of them have developed from the ancient Roman burlesque actors . . . for instance, Punch, who resembles very closely the famous Roman clown, Maccus, in disposition and appearance. Punch is also Guignol and Hans-Wurst.

Harlequin, of the dancing team Harlequin and Columbine, is another famous character of the puppet stage. In Italy today there are many puppet plays in which Harlequin and his pirouetting partner go through their ever-new playlet and dance "Arlecchino," the Italian children shout as they swarm around the entrance to the puppet-man’s tent.

In the later Middle Ages came a great wave of puppetry in the sacred drama. Some of the puppets were five feet high and weighed over a hundred pounds! It was at this time that the name "marionette" developed. The Venetians called the wooden dolls in the church processions "mariettes," or little Marias.

Among the great names of those who have fallen under the spell of marionette plays and dancing we find Goethe, George Sand, Haydn, Ben Jonson, Swift, Maurice Maeterlinck, and many others. Goethe wrote that he derived his original idea for Faiist from a puppet show. He also had a puppet show of his own, and wrote a comedy for marionettes. Haydn composed his famous Toy Symphony for puppet presentation, as he did his Children’s Fair.

In Munich today stands a municipal theatre for the city’s children, the actors of which are exclusively marionettes. An exquisite little building in a scenic park, the theatre contains nearly a thousand costumed dolls which act out their playlets and go through their dances for the children of Munich almost every day.

At the present time Paul Brann in Munich is making elaborate experiments with a revolving stage for the puppet theatre. His recent presentations have included several of Maeterlinck’s tragedies, comedies by Arthur Schnitzler, and medieval folk-plays by Hans Sachs. Herr Brann is working in one of the most elaborate theatres in the world, and his costumes are correspondingly beautiful.

Gordon Craig, another master of puppetry, in now in Florence. His theory is that the living actor can be entirely supplanted by the puppet, and that all things possible to dramatic art are within the range of the marionette. He has had some very successful results in realistic puppet presentations.

On the other hand, in my puppet presentations I have always felt that the dolls belong in the realm of make-believe.

It is necessary to counterfeit reality in order to make the dolls seem real. The audiences are quick to enter into the tone of the play, without having to believe that real persons are on the stage before them. Indeed, I think there is added charm in the magical effect of animation in the doll world. For instance, after my first puppet show I decided to take a bow, hand in hand with the leading puppet character. When I walked out on the six foot stage, with its two-foot puppets and proportioned furnishings, I appeared as an enormous giant. The audience had so freely accepted the illusion that instead of dwarfing the dolls when I appeared, I simply looked grotesquely large, and the crowd gasped.

If, for instance, I tried to make my Oriental dancer, Aeyiesha, appear to be human, --if I should make her larger and heavier, and strive for realism in her face and dances, I should defeat my own ends. Aeyiesha is dancing in the world of Make-Believe, as she shakes her shoulders and sways here and there across the stage. There I shall keep her.

After all, the foundation of puppetry, as of the arts of the theatre and of music and painting, is in the fundamental human trait of love for glimpses of another and more attractive world . . . a world which is limited by none of the every-day commonplaces. And whether a person enters a more beautiful world through music or paintings, or whether he finds the fairy-tale, whimsical world of the puppet, he is released, for that little while, from the rigidity of the laws which keep life not ideal, but real. He is free to dance with Aeyiesha, and pick up roses with fat Bulbo.

How to Make and Operate a Marionette Theatre, by Tony Sarg, Ladies Home Journal, December, 1927

The lure of playing with marionettes has claimed old and young for many centuries. There are three kinds of marionettes. One type consists of a head and empty dress slipped upon the hand of an operator, who animates the puppet with his thumb and two fingers. It is to this type that Punch and Judy belong.Another type is the doll operated from below by means of rods. The third type, the true marionette, is a puppet operated from above by means of strings or wires.

To this third type belong my own dolls and virtually all modern marionettes which astonish their audiences so imitating practically all the movements of human beings, even to opening and closing their eyes and mouths, by walking, dancing and fighting, by visibly breathing, by picking up and carrying small objects and by seemingly smoking, with real smoke coming from their mouths.

Within the past few years America has witnessed a remarkable revival of the marionette theatre. To my knowledge, there are about sixteen marionette companies operating in the United States, all run by educated people. There are several marionette schools, one of them having recently been conducted in connection with Columbia University in New York.

Within the past few years about four books dealing with marionettes have been published in this country. In Germany there is a monthly puppet magazine called Das Puppentheater, and in an astonishingly large number of schools there are classes that make and produce their own marionette shows. In some the teach foreign languages by allowing the pupils to produce French, German and Spanish marionette plays.

Ever since the publication of a small book entitled Tony Sarg's Marionette Book, I have carried on an extensive correspondence with hundreds of children and adults who desire information regarding puppets. They did not know how to make their own puppets, or how to make them walk, or where to get puppet plays. Also, I have accepted many invitations to witness marionette performances given by school children. Witnessing these performances, I realized the difficulties the young show people were unable to overcome. The many questions I received by letters suggested to me the writing of this article, in the hope that in so doing I would be able to help those who have already fallen under the spell and strange fascination that puppets have for all who play with them. I also hope to help them overcome those very difficulties that might discourage them in the beginning. I venture to foretell that any of my young readers, following the instructions here given, will not only be able to have a very enjoyable experience but will afford much pleasure to their friends, and relatives. Who knows? With a little practice and great care and enthusiasm, the marionette might even prove to be a source of income.

Figure 1, 2 & 3

The modeling of the heads seems to give amateurs the most trouble, so I will take that question up first. I want to discourage anybody from trying to carve heads and hands out of wood. It is an exceedingly difficult process, requiring expensive tools, much skill and special wood. I strongly recommend, getting a small tin of wood putty, which can be bought at any hardware store. It is a soft wood pulp putty that may easily be modeled into any shape and which when dry becomes as hard as oak.

For the little theatre I have in mind, I recommend puppets of about eight inches in height. It is always a good plan to make a pencil sketch of your puppet first to see whether you are getting the head in the right size and proportion. To make the puppet's head two pieces of wire are required. (A, Figure 1.) First, twist together one piece of wire the actual width of the head required, having two small loops at either end, to which the head strings are to be attached later. Next, loop the second wire (BB, Figure 1) over the first wire. The wire BB has a loop at the lower end by which the head is to be fastened to the body.

Link the two pieces, A and B, together (Figure 1) and then cover them with wood putty, leaving the three ends of the wire ropes showing, as is indicated in Figure 2. My advice is to model an egg-shaped head with a nose; and instead of attempting to model eyebrows, lips, ears, and so on, simply depend upon painting the face for your effects. I advise water colors for painting; the colors should be fairly strong. For eyes, cut two black-headed pins off to make them short enough and insert into wood putty before it becomes hard. If have no black-headed pins you may paint the eyes and then put a drop of gum shellac on them to make them shine. Wigs from a ten-cent store will do for hair, or unraveled silk or rope may be used: or one may buy coils of red, black or white hair from a theatrical make-up store, from which wigs could be made and attached with glue to the heads. (Figure3)

Figure 4

For the shoulders, secure a piece of wood shaped like figure 4 and bore a little hole at A. Now put a piece of wire through the loop of the neck you have modeled, and twist it so that it forms another loop; then pull the two loose ends through the hole of the shoulder piece marked A, bending the two ends sideways and securing tightly with adhesive tape. (Figure 5.)

Figure 5,6 &7

Use another piece of wood for the hips (Figure 6) and with small tacks attach this hip section and the head and shoulder section to a middle section of cloth or muslin as in Figure 7. This forms a hollow stocking for the middle part of the puppet, which gives flexibility to the doll, helps it to bend and also aids it in walking, which is the most difficult feat for a marionette to form naturally.

The legs should be whittled from a round piece of wood and provided with carefully made joints at and ankle. The top of the leg is of cloth, stuffed with cotton, with a cloth end by which the leg may be attached with tacks to the hip section. It is advisable to make the thin joint pieces B out of strong leather or trunk fiber to avoid breakage. (Figure 6.)

The arms are hollow sleeves attached to the shoulders and having a hand at the end. Make all holes with a fine drill and use wire instead of nails in such a manner that you form a little loop over the knee for the leg strings, C. The hands should be modeled in wood putty, leaving a good bit at wrist to attach loose sleeves with glue or tacks. Feet also should be modeled in wood putty, preferably with the shape of actual shoe. High-heeled shoes are not recommended.

After this construction is completed the puppet should be dressed. Do not use heavy broadcloth, but, preferably, silks or sateens. Clothes should always be loose enough not to impede any action, For example, trousers should fit loosely around the knee so that the leg bends easily. Always keep the neck free so that the head can turn easily; the loops, though, should be concealed as much as possible.

So much for the construction. Now let me explain a marionette.

Figure 8

A device called a controller is used to animate a marionette (Figure 8). The main controller, held in the left hand of the operator, is constructed of two strips of wood made in the shape of a cross. One strip may be about 9 inches long, the other seven. The ends are carefully cut into with a fret saw to allow the strings to be attached. Near A there should be a small peg or nail standing upright, over which the foot controller can be slipped when not in use. (Note the small hole for this purpose in middle of foot controller, F.)

The foot controller, held in the right hand, is a separate strip of wood about 7 inches long to which the knee strings are fastened and which has a hole in the center to fit over peg on controller. when the doll is not working, the puppeteer slips the foot controller onto the peg, thus freeing his right hand to assist in moving the head and hand strings. Near C and D of the controller small holes should be pierced, through which a piece of cord with a knot on each end should be run. This forms a loop, K, large enough to allow the hand of the puppeteer to be slipped under it, and it is used for hanging up the puppet when not in use.

The stringing of the doll should be done with black carpet thread or, better still, with Japanese silk trout line. The principal strings are those from either side of the head; from the center of the back; from the hands and from the knees. Hand strings could be attached to the wrists. These are sufficient to animate the arms as well. All these strings, with the exception of the knee strings, are attached to the main controller. Those from the sides of the head are attached to the ends of the arms of the cross; those from the hands are fastened to the short end of the cross. The back string is fastened to the opposite end of the long piece of the cross. The knee strings are fastened to the ends of the foot controller (Figure 8).

Figure 9, 10, 11 & 12

Repeated practice in operating a doll is what brings results. My advice to beginners is to string the puppet at a convenient length so that the puppeteer can practice with the puppet right on the rug of the room. A rug is better than a polished floor. (Figure 9.) Start by seating the puppet in a chair the right size for him and try to make him move his head and body without falling off the chair. You will soon discover that owing to the hollow middle section of the puppet, you will very easily be able to make him sit very upright or slump completely by simply lifting and lowering the whole controller.

Try this several times, and when you have mastered it, tilt the front part of the controller downward as you drop it for the slump. This will cause the head to drop forward (Figures 10 and 11). Then see how far you can let the puppet's body swing forward without falling off his seat. Now bend the puppet forward and turn his head right and left. This is accomplished by tilting the main controller in such a way that the back string becomes taut and all the others loose, which will cause the doll to lean forward. Then turn the head by a tilting movement of the bar to which head strings are attached. As the bar is tilted up and down the head will turn from side to side.

Now marionettes do not walk well, but walk they must. The right hand controls the walking by twisting the foot control back and forth. First one foot lifts, then the other, while the left hand holds the main controller and follows the forward movement. Try to make the puppet's feet touch ground after each step; if you have difficulty in doing so it sometimes helps to weight the feet with lead.

Little by little, with much practice, one learns to operate a marionette skillfully. One has to discover for oneself the range of accomplishments, and surprises are in store for the experimenter.

To make a puppet laugh, slump the puppet forward. Then take hold of the back string and, during the period of laughing, jerk the back string simultaneously with the laughter, which gives an amusing effect. To make him cry, always have him seated and try to pull one of the hands right across the eyes while leaning the puppet forward (Figure 12), then produce loud sobs and lift controller slightly up and down, keeping it tilted downward; this gives the effect of convulsions of the body. Anger could be shown by letting puppet stamp its foot and swing arms violently. It is of great importance to learn that when two puppets converse on stage a great deal of movement should be give to the puppet talking, while the listening puppet remains quite motionless. Great confusion is cause if this is not strictly adhered to.

Figure 13

Puppet animals are always very amusing and I will give brief instructions how to make a cow. All four-legged animals could be modeled after the same principle. Wood putty should be used for all modeling; the legs should be attached with a strong nail with a big head, leaving plenty of play. Do not attempt to give animal legs a bend at the knee. The tail -- a thick piece of cord with the end slightly unraveled --should be loose. The neck and head should be flexible. In order to make a good neck, make it of cloth and attach like hollow stocking on head and shoulders. Inside of hollow stocking put a piece of wire twisted in spiral fashion. This will give great flexibility and help retain shape of neck. The legs have no strings attached, but head has separate control to enable it to be lifted up and down and to shake. The tail should also have string attached (Figure 13). To move the cow, lift the front feet and then the back feet; always the feet that are not suspended should touch ground and create a sort of galloping movement. To show the audience that the cow is very astonished, let her sit down on her hind legs.

Figure 14

The actual marionette stage may be constructed fairly easily. A folding card table is a good foundation for a puppet stage. Place the table in a door opening; then select a strongly built kitchen table, thus forming a platform for the puppeteers. Get three wooden sticks about one inch square. Nail two of them to the side of the kitchen table and one piece across the top, making a frame for the back drops (Figure 14). Then construct a frame to be attached to the front of the door facing the audience (A, figure 14). The rest of the door should be screened with light-proof material. The frame should be made to fit the door and its opening governed by width of door. A few pieces of wood and some cardboard cut out and tacked on will do admirably. Always remember that if you need cardboard, get pieces that come from the laundry in your father’s shirts. If you have paints it would be well to try to decorate the front of the little theater.

Stage Lighting

Now regarding the stage curtain. The very simplest thing to get is an ordinary black roller shade. If possible, get a new one made with correct measurements, but possibly an old roller shade can be made to do.

The lighting of the stage is very important. A standard electric lamp to light each side of the stage would be excellent. At times some red or green silk or sheet gelatin could be put over the lights to produce colored effects.

In order to facilitate the producing of a real performance, I am giving here a little play of Jack and the Bean Stalk, very much as it was played with my own marionettes. It calls for six marionettes—Jack, Jack’s mother (a poor widow), Daphne (the family cow), the Neighbor, the Giant, and the Little Hen. The Giant’s wife is never seen. To perform this little play effectively there should be at least four puppeteers and one producer. The producer is responsible for all the artistic effects seen from the audience. He it is who smoothes out little difficulties about moving the dolls and he is supposed to make plenty of suggestions that add humor and life to the play. His word should be final in stage direction. There is always one puppeteer to one puppet and everybody has to memorize his lines.


Figure 15, 16, 17 &18

In order to produce Jack and the Bean Stalk successfully it will be necessary to build a few stage properties – two back drops, some side wings, a couch for the giant, a jar big enough to hold Jack, a fence, a bean stalk, a well, a harp, a money bag and a hen in a cage.

The two stage settings with puppets on them (Figures 15 and 16) should give a very good idea of proportion and treatment. For the background of Scenes 1 and 3, get some inexpensive light blue material and use with dull side out. For Scene 2, get some dark green or black sateen for back drop and just hang over the back rail. Then create two side wings for Scene 1 and Scene 3, one picturing a house, the other a tree. These side wings should have a piece of wood extending along the base to allow them to be clamped to table (Figures 17 and 18). Then construct a little well about 5 inches in diameter. Possibly you could find a little round wooden box of this size without a lid (Figure 19).

Figure 19

Paint the outside to look like stones and conceal in this well the beanstalk. The bean stalk should be made of a stout piece of green cord to which green leaves and beans, made of green oilcloth, have been sewed (Figure 19). The bean stalk should be carefully coiled inside of the well, leaves and all, before the performance, and one end should be attached to the box, the other end to an invisible string attached somewhere above the roller shade. This would keep the bean-stalk string will out of the way of the other puppets. Arrangements must be made also for hanging up dolls required in the play, within easy reach of the table where the puppeteers are standing. A hat-rack could be useful for this purpose (Figure 14). A music box, piano or phonograph backstage should be used to furnish music. Somebody in the audience should be instructed to turn out the house lights at the sound of a gong or bell, and to turn them on again at the end of every scene.

Figure 20

Programs may be used, or a puppet announcer may give the audience the necessary information. This puppet has the opportunity to cause a lot of merriment, calling people in the audience by name, and so on. A little preliminary joshing puts the audience into the right mood for the show.

Figure 20 gives a suggestion for the clothing and designing of the characters of Jack and the Bean Stalk.

Domesticating an Ancient Art
The master of marionettes tells how to make them
By Tony Sarg

If I were asked for a simple prescription for joy, it would be this: A boy, say of twelve, with an attic at his disposal, busy on a half-finished marionette show. Let him have two assistants, one other boy somewhat younger, whom he can "boss, " and the other a girl, preferably one who admires him intensely and who is deft with the needle. He must have a supply of discarded boys, the scrap-bag of an adoring aunt, perhaps, and a tool-chest all his own—and I’d rather be that boy than the President.

That marionette performance is child’s play is about the truest and the most untrue statement in the world. When I began working with puppets in London many years ago, Gordon Craig wrote me a letter. Puppets had come to be regarded as rather his field, and there was a note of protection toward them in his warning to me not to take them lightly. I call on Heaven to witness that I have not taken them lightly. I have heard the clock strike 2 and 3 A.M. as I worked on tangled strings, and if a cock had crowed at dawn in my part of the world I’d have heard him, too. But in my effort to give an impetus that will start American boys and girls on marionette performances in their homes, I am not going to pass on Gordon Craig’s solemn charge. Children always take their plays with a beautiful earnestness.

And now I’m going to plunge right in the with directions for simple puppet-making and the domesticating of an ancient art.

The first requisite is a table—a table with no qualifications but sufficient size and strength to accommodate the operators, who must stand upon it. On the table place a "stage." This may be a box procurable at the grocer’s. It should be at least three feet wide, and a foot and a half is a good depth. Before it there must be a frame set up to form a proscenium arch. An old picture-frame would do splendidly, the wider and more gilt the better; even the old-fashioned plush inset, if it happened to be there, would lend an added touch of elaboration. If there is no discarded frame at hand, a sheet of cardboard will serve the purpose, with an opening cut in it, say, two feet wide by on and one-half high. Its decoration on the side turned toward the audience might be achieved with a box of water-colors.

There must be a curtain—either one with rings, which can be pulled aside, or the sort that can be festooned with a jerk. A window-shade, if it could be fitted in firmly, would be better still. Whatever its type, this curtain must move easily. Even in the best regulated marionette productions, there may come a moment when a facile curtain is called upon for a quick descent to save the audience from the sight of a small actor in an unforeseen and embarrassing, even shocking, position, brought about by the tangling of strings.

The preparation of a back-drop is the next step. And this should be a delight—it is possible to get such splashing effects with lightning speed. The foundation of this drop is a firm sheet of cardboard. If it is decorated on both sides, a transformation may be made with a twist of the wrist—a drawing room changed to a garden in a moment. Rather than painting this cardboard, I find that it is easier for most children to cut window and door frames from colored paper and to paste them on. For outdoor scenes trees and flowers and little winding walks in perspective are good.

One little friend of my daughter’s—my daughter is eight—with a Belasco love of realism, demolished a dolls’ ply-house which, she assured me, she had outgrown, and attached real windows and door-frames to her back-drop. These were most effective. But when, for her garden scene, she brought in real twigs and branches, she got into serious trouble. They caught at the strings of her dolls with an almost human malevolence. If one must have realism, let it be flat, or, in the case of furniture and "props" generally, devoid of decorations under which strings may slip.

Lending beauty and atmosphere does not end the functions of the back-drop. It performs the important office of concealing the legs of the operators as they lean over it to manipulate the marionettes. And if the frame of the proscenium arch is not wide enough to hide their heads and shoulders, a decorative addition must be added to heighten it. There is another method of solving this difficulty, which simplifies the work and increases the illusion. Place the stage in an open doorway provided with portiéres. If these are drown closely, they will hide the operators completely.

If there is electricity in the house, the lighting of the small stage is an easy matter. The ordinary bulb of a portable reading lamp placed at the side will furnish daylight, or, covered with a bit of blue silk, moonlight, or, flashed on and off, lightning. This last must be accompanied by the muffled roll of a padded stick against a dish-pan.

On the making of an actual marionette a child may spend an hour, a day, or a month. No one will ever wring from me a full confession of the greatest length of time I ever put on the construction of one small actor; and yet, one of the most successful ones I ever had cost only ten cents and the effort of stepping into a Chinese shop to buy it. It was a sinuous paper snake.

Dolls? Sister’s cast-off dolls, if the producer be a boy, and a toy dog, perhaps, or even a lion that the baby has outgrown—with these an effective play can be improvised. But—and this point I wish to emphasize—they can never again be used for their original purpose. They can not be merely borrowed. To convert them into marionettes they must, in a sense, be demolished. Even rag dolls and jointed dolls must be dismembered, and woolly animals with movable heads and legs be torn limb from limb. The secret of secrets with a successful marionette is flexibility.

Seven inches is a good height for the dolls. When the neck, knees, and elbows have been loosened, attach strings to each wrist, each knee, and one to each side of the head. If the character is to bow, one should also be attached to the lower back. For my professional performances I use black trout-line. This is expensive. In her "shows," in which my daughter rivals me, the dolls are suspended by stout black linen thread.

The feet of marionettes should be heavy, I weight them with shot, opening them to put the shot in. This is particularly important in the male characters.

The heart of all marionette movement is what we call a controller. It is formed of two strips of wood, one about a foot long and the other nine inches. Of these a Roman cross is made, with a leather strap tacked over the crossing. The left hand is slipped under this. The string, form the back of the puppet is attached to the tip of the long part of the cross, and those from the sides of the head to the ends of the arms of the cross. A twist makes the head of the puppet turn; tilting makes the puppet bow. The strings from the hands are attached to the short end of the long cross-piece. These must be pulled by the right hand of the operator.

All strings for additional movements are attached to the controller at points most convenient. Those from the knees are fixed to the end of a separate stick about eight inches long. This is held in the right hand. When it is twisted back and forth, the feet lift alternately. When this is combined with a forward movement of the main controller from which the puppet hangs suspended, a walk is accomplished. There is a hole in the center of the "foot control" designed to slip over a knob on the short end of the main controller. The object of this is merely that the operator may free his right hand when the puppet is not walking. All this mechanism may be constructed with a penknife.

Now for the sharing of secrets. Have you, I wonder, chanced to see one of my characters smoking? The puppet holds the pipe-stem in its hand, to which a string is attached. This string is drawn through the ring of a small screw-eye at the base of the nose. The pipe is lifted to the mouth in the casual fashion of a tobacco lover, held for a moment, and lowered. Then smoke is puffed from the puppet’s lips. This is cigarette smoke blown by an assistant into a hidden tube which extends through the back-drop into the puppet’s body, up to the back of the mouth.

One thing my workers and I are proud of is the fact that we invented a smile—a flashing, toothy smile. In the hundreds of years of their existence, no marionette had, so far as I know, ever smiled before. I hope this smile will spread. Unfortunately, it can appear only in connection with a mustache.

To produce it, paste stiff letter-paper over the puppet’s mouth, and on this with a pen trace a double set of teeth. Put a little goatee made of hair on the lower lip. On the upper lip a mustache must be attached firmly in the center. To this strings are tied at each end. When they are pulled and the mustache is lifted, The puppet seems actually to grin. A tiny weight under the goatee, attached to the mustache, will pull it back.

The heaving chest of a puppet singer is amusing, and simple to make. It is a false chest, of course, which moves up and down as the puppet seems to gasp and sing. A joint at the neck, where the false chest joins, one string, and a weight complete the mechanism.

The most recent innovation in my work room is marionette hands, with fingers made of flexible copper wire wrapped with narrow strips of cotton cloth. These hands, by bending, can be made to grasp objects put into them. A small actor can go off-stage for something and return holding it.

Here is an old ruse: If you feel that your audience will be disturbed by the sight of strings, make a framework that you can fit into your stage opening, and string it like a harp with linen thread. This will delude the vision of the keenest eyed audience.

How Tony Sarg Performs "Miracles with Marionettes"
March 1922, source unknown, pages 351-353

TONY SARG, the artist and puppet showman, following the example of such stage magicians as Houdini and Hermann, has lifted the seal of secrecy from his marionettes, many of whose feats are a source of perplexity to thousands who have seen his productions. Perhaps the greatest surprise of all occurs when the audience at the puppet show sees the showman appear on the stage among his creations. A curious illusion is obtained, the showman appearing gigantic, a Colossus, while the dolls seem the size of ordinary human beings. One would expect that the appearance of a man among the manikins would dwarf them instantly, but the contrary is true. F. J. McIsaac, in "The Tony Sarg Marionette Book" (B. W. Huebsch), recounts that the illusion was at first as much of a surprise to Mr. Sarg as it was to the audience. During the preparation of the production he was continually busy with the dolls and never far enough away from them to get the full force of the strange effect. At the close of the initial performance, at the Neighborhood Playhouse, in New York, the enthusiastic audience called for Tony Sarg and the artist decided, on the spur of the moment, to walk on to the stage -although the proscenium arch was only six feet high- leading a charming marionette in the cast of "The Green Suit." He seemed ten or twelve feet high and to weigh five hundred pounds. The explanation is simple enough in the reading-the dolls are perfectly proportioned and all the scenery and properties made to scale. The audience, who have been looking at the marionettes for some time, with nothing wherewith the eye can gauge relative height, visually accepts the figures as life-size. The introduction of the living person among the manikins causes the man to appear out of scale and not the dolls.

In the play of "Rip Van Winkle," Nick Vedder, the innkeeper, sits smoking a long pipe-a trick which has perplexed many people. Sarg thus explains the feat: A rubber tube runs through the body of Vedder and emerges at the middle of his back. Another tubes goes through one of the legs of the chair in which he sits, and runs back stage. The arrangement is such that, when he is seated, the tube in his back is connected with the tube in the chair; and -when he rises, he disconnects himself. Directly back of Vedder, and behind the back drop, stands one of the puppeteers with a lighted cigarette. Through a tiny hole in the curtain, the operator watches the motions of Vedder, and, when he puts his pipe into his mouth, blows a puff of smoke through the tube. It is forced out of the bowl of Vedder's pipe. The operator puffs regularly and so does the puppet. Finally the doll arises and walks off, without showing the tube, and the audience is completely mystified.

In "The Green Suit" a fat puppet, bewitched by Dr. Magicus, shrinks to alarming thinness. Afterwards he is restored to his original rotundity-before the eyes of the audience. The "miracle" is thus performed: Inside the fat puppet is a rubber ball, something like the bladder inside a college football. When this is inflated, the character is fat; and to make him thin all that is necessary is to let the air out of the bladder by means of a rubber tube connected back stage.

One of the most ingenious of the Sarg marionette transformations is that of Porter Gruffanuff in "The Rose and the Ring" (an adaptation of Thackeray's fairy tale), who is turned into a door knocker by the fairy whom ]he has insulted. The figure of Gruffanuff is fitted with thirty-six different strings. There is one complete set on top, and another set which work-, from the back-drop and brings about the transformation. The body of the porter is hollow and so are his legs. As long as he stands upright he seems like the other marionets, but when the moment comes for the transformation the strings, attached to the door and pulled in succession, drag the body through a small opening placed where a knocker should be on the palace door, which forms the back drop. Gruffanuff shrieks with pain as his body is contracted and pulled through the keyhole, leaving his ugly head to serve as a knocker.

The transformation of the Countess Gruffanuff, in the same play, from a hideous dowager to a beautiful young girl, and back again, is managed in an entirely different way. This puppet's face is an extremely ugly mask, which covers a beautifully modeled head, and is attached to it at the chin. The lining of the ugly mask is made to represent a pompadoured coiffure. At the moment of the transformation the lights flicker for a second, the mask is quickly pulled up and turned inside out by means of the strings, revealing the beautiful face, framed in becoming pompadoured hair, which is the lining of the mask. No one has yet been able to guess the method by which this transformation was accomplished.

While marionettes can perform many feats impossible to the human actor, some of the simplest acts of the living being are extremely difficult for them. For instance, it is only by the greatest ingenuity that the Sarg puppets are enabled to pick up objects and put them down again. This is how Prince Bulbo, in the Thackeray play, drops the magic rose, stoops and picks it up again: In Bulbo's hand is a loop of wire, through which runs a string which is attached to the magic rose, and holds up Bulbo's hand. An additional string is fastened to his wrist. The rose is weighted with lead, and, when Bulbo is ready to drop it, the string which holds the rose and holds up his hand, is released; the hand falls and the rose drops to the floor, still attached to the string. Bulbo kneels and touches the rose by means of the wrist-string, whereupon the puppeteer releases the wrist-string, pulls the rose-string, and Bulbo rises triumphantly with the blossom in his hand.

Tony Sarg and his Stage
Boston Herald
January, 1929

Tony Sarg, photo, Times Wide World Photos



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