In most traditions puppetry was close to storytelling, whether in a narrative or a dramatic mode and puppets were thought of as miniature actors. However most show people also had a number of trick puppets or speciality acts. Such acts were designed to arouse wonder or amazement and to show the skill of the performer. Today examples of these can be found with the Vietnamese water puppets which perform everyday actions such as ploughing or fishing or present such spectacular creatures as fire-spewing dragons. The Rajasthani kathputli ka khel show seems to have lost any dramatic context and instead consists of a series of numbers with dancers, horse-riders, snake-charmers and reversible figures able to change sex in an instant. European performers developed their special numbers to a high degree of proficiency, and often used terminology such as “automat” or “mechanical” to impress and suggest something more scientific. By the late 18th century a standard performance in much of Europe consisted of a dramatic piece followed by a series of numbers.
A disjointing skeleton seems to have been a specially English development and dates back to at least 1750, whilst Italian fantoccini of the same could perform such tricks as eating spaghetti or indulge in surprising transformations, such as a lady into a sedan chair, or figures that could produce further ones from their costume or themselves transform into a series of figures – a tradition which led to the celebrated British Grand Turk, a marionette that flips inside out to reveal a cluster of its own small children (see also Trick and Transformation Puppets).
In Italy this variety programme at the end of the show was generally known as a “ballo” or ballet (and often included figures dancing in national costumes). In the first quarter of the 19th century “Mechanikus” Schütz of Potsdam used woodcuts of his main variety numbers to illustrate his bills and indicated that the main play would be followed by a “great ballet” (see Schütz & Dreher).
All this indicates that puppet performances had a significant number of speciality acts long before the Music Hall or the Variety Theatre came into existence. By the early 19th century the street fantoccini in Great Britain were offering a complete marionette (string puppet) variety programme. When marionette companies appeared on the fairground they might perform a large number of shows during the day. These might consist of plays heavily truncated but the speciality acts were often the main programme.
The age of the music hall was roughly 1850-1950. By the later 19th century it provided a stage where puppets, especially marionettes, might appear. Like the Cabaret, the Music Hall evolved out of drinking establishments where customers were regaled with some sort of entertainment. In Britain in the earlier 19th century such places had a licence for music and dancing, but not for theatrical performance, and the French café concert or café chantant (literally, “singing café”) was in a similar situation. Gradually the music halls evolved into Variety theatres (Vaudeville in the United States of America). The term Varieté was first used in 1779 for a theatre in Paris, the Varietés Amusantes. The programme was not variety in the modern sense, but light theatrical genres, and this was an attempt to get around the limitations of the licensing laws where only the official theatres were allowed to perform the drama. The Théâtre du Vaudeville (1792) took its name from the vaudeville, a light comedy interspersed with songs, but in the 1880s the term was taken up in the United States for variety shows.
The early music halls, like the cabarets and cafés chantants, were an added attraction for drinking places, and often, as they developed, the establishment would build on a room at the back to house a larger number of spectators. The Music Hall as such evolved in the industrial midlands of Britain where the factories led to numbers of workers, often with some disposable income, eager for entertainment. One of the first custom-built music halls was the Star Music Hall in Bolton, which opened in 1832. In 1851 Charles Morton, sometimes called the father of music hall, built the first Canterbury Hall in Lambeth (London). This replaced a pub and included a theatre, an art gallery, a restaurant, an entrance hall with a grand staircase, and billiard rooms. The predominantly male audience, coming and going in their everyday clothes, occupied an auditorium filled with tables, and this became the model for a number of years. Acts were often presented by a chairman and consisted, in the first instance, of comic and sentimental songs, but also dancers, jugglers, magicians, gymnasts, ventriloquists and others. Initially marionette companies usually either performed in their own portable theatres or, especially in winter, hired halls, but gradually they began to find their way onto the music-hall stage.
In the early 1870s George Bryant started to specialize in appearances on the music-hall stage with his Marionette Minstrels, and in 1877 the Holden family were appearing in some of the main music halls in London, John Holden at the London Pavilion, whilst his brother Thomas was at the nearby Cambridge and also at the Holborn Royal Variety Theatre (see Thomas Holden). It was not unusual for music-hall artistes to rush from one theatre to another in the course of an evening. Other early music-hall marionettists were Chester and Lee, Arthur Milton, Carl Howlette, Richard Barnard, Louie Glennie, and the Bailey brothers.
Gradually music halls became variety theatres with fixed seating, and this original British phenomenon was by now an international one and particularly significant in the United States. When British companies travelled outside Britain they generally used available halls and theatres. Some of these were variety theatres, others were theatres that housed many different types of entertainment, including circuses, and could seat 2,000 or more spectators. Whilst a company such as (Thomas) Holden’s was quite capable of producing a whole evening of entertainment, the part of the show that was in most demand was the section devoted to speciality acts where language was not of great importance, and this was the part that was most suited to the music-hall stage where a company might have a spot ranging from five minutes to half an hour or more. Delvaine’s marionettes right up to their ceasing to perform in 1954 could top the bill in a music hall and, although their dramatic repertoire was long since abandoned, provide half an hour of marionette variety. In the 1880s companies began to appear with short programmes designed exclusively for the music-hall stage. By the early 20th century, many companies had only a variety programme and there was a surprising similarity in the acts that could be found in almost every one.
On the music-hall stage when the puppet theatre was a number amongst others a common practice was to lower a front cloth with an elaborately painted proscenium arch cut in it to frame the puppet fit-up which usually was pushed forward from the back of the stage. Many of these fit-ups were designed to fold up so that their depth, when not in use, was no more than a couple of feet. Various companies framed the show with stage boxes containing puppets, and even a puppet orchestra, but in the later years it was common for performers to adopt the cabaret style and appear on the variety stage without any elaborate fit-up. In Britain Eric Bramall adapted to this mode of performance when on the variety stage whilst in the United States Frank Paris (1914-1984) and Bob Bromley (1907-1981) began working in this style in 1937. Following World War II, Bob Bromley had an international career playing Command Performances in London and the Lido in Paris. Frank Paris played America’s largest theatres, the Palace, Radio City Music Hall, and Madison Square Garden and also created the first Howdy Doody puppet for television. In the 1940s Walton and O’Rourke (Paul Walton, 1906-1983, Michael O’Rourke, 1908-1981 – also creators of the puppets for the film Lili) were much admired variety stars.
A favourite 19th-century marionette act was the minstrel show with songs, dances and sketches based on the black-face performers such as the Christy Minstrels, that had become popular around the middle of the century. Other very popular acts included Blondin (tight-rope walker), Chinese bell dancers, a tranka (juggling a pole with his feet), a disjointing skeleton, a Grand Turk (who could break into five distinct figures). In addition there was sometimes a harlequinade, which by now had become a series of comic sketches based on the antics of Clown (a Grimaldi type figure) and Pantaloon, and often involving a policeman torn into two halves.
By the end of the century the invention of the phonograph led to performers creating puppets of major music-hall artistes and accompanying them with their recorded voices. In France John Hewelt (Charles de Saint Genois) had puppet versions of Yvette Guilbert, Paulette d’Arty and Cléo de Mérode whilst in Britain the D’Arcs (D’Arcs Marionettes) in the early years of the 20th century presented their Marionette Empire of Stars with a line-up that included Vesta Tilley, Little Tich, Marie Lloyd and Harry Lauder.
By World War I, the great marionette companies were suffering competition from the cinema and other social changes. A few such as Schichtl’s or Salici’s continued to offer complete variety programmes, but even they were gradually reduced to a number amongst ten or a dozen others. In 1911 Vittorio Podrecca created his Teatro dei Piccoli and in so doing took the older type of travelling marionette theatre into the avant-garde movement of the 20th century. His company, with marionette performers, musicians, singers and others comprised some twenty people – an enormous number for a company without significant state support. Modern productions of opera were one of the main aims, but there was also a variety programme, and this became the economic mainstay of the company, especially during the fourteen years spent in the Americas where the company found itself stranded from the outbreak of World War II. The Podrecca variety show brought the genre to a new level of sophistication and each act was a self-contained piece in its own right and often involved quite large numbers of marionettes. However, the most popular number was probably the pianist (now almost a cliché of the marionette stage), not to mention versions of the music-hall stars Josephine Baker and Maurice Chevalier. The Podrecca variety show also provided inspiration for one of the most popular productions of the Moscow Central Puppet Theatre of Sergei Obraztsov, the Extraordinary Concert (1946), where the variety acts were transferred to the rod-puppet stage in a new and highly satirical style.
The string marionette had been the main type of puppet to appear on the music-hall stage, but glove puppets did so occasionally also. In the 1880s in Britain the Punch and Judy showmen Bailey and Codman are known to have performed on the music-hall stage, whilst in the early 20th century Francesco Campogalliani created his own variety shows in small theatres where he performed with Fagiolino, Sandrone and other Emilian glove puppets. Ventriloquists (see Ventriloquism) could also be frequently found on the variety stage, as could humanettes. By the 1950s the great days of the Music Hall had passed and variety entertainment transferred itself to television where many puppet performers found an outlet for short numbers.
In spite of all the changes and developments, the marionette variety show has remained a staple item of many companies. In Britain in the 1920s Waldo Lanchester (Lanchester Marionettes) had a carefully crafted marionette circus with beautifully carved figures, whilst Stanley Parker also had a circus in the latter half of the century. Puppet circuses today can be found with the Czech-based Karomato and the Russian Viktor Antonov. A more contemporary variety show was created by Italian Claudio Cinelli, whilst German Peter Ketturkat made a complete variety programme out of domestic objects. Variety most certainly has not disappeared from the marionette stage, but it has left behind the rather tired clichés which, sadly, were only too common in 1900.