American puppeteer. Tony Sarg was the son of a German diplomat posted to Guatemala and Great Britain. His mother was English. In 1887, the Sarg family returned to Germany. Tony Sarg went to school in Darmstadt, and later entered a military academy. In 1905, Tony Sarg went to England, where he worked as an illustrator in London. In 1909, he married an American, Bertha Eleanor McGowen. It was in Great Britain where Sarg’s fascination with marionettes began after seeing the famous company of Thomas Holden.
The Sargs moved to the United States in 1915, settling in New York City where he gave his first puppet performances in his studio in the Flatiron Building (the much photographed 1902 triangular/wedge-shaped skyscraper). In 1917, there were performances at the Neighborhood Playhouse. The Sarg production, The Rose and the Ring (1919), played on Broadway and was directed by Ellen Van Volkenburg (1882-1978), another innovator who contributed the word “puppeteer” to the English language.
Tony Sarg’s Rip Van Winkle (1921) was the first of the large touring shows, followed by Don Quixote, Treasure Island, The Chinese Willow Plate, and Ali Baba. Sarg offered summer courses in puppetry starting in 1922. His marionette (string puppet) production of Alice in Wonderland (1930) was especially popular and played at the Century of Progress World’s Fair, Chicago, in 1933. His other shows included Sinbad the Sailor, Robinson Crusoe, The Mikado. Robin Hood (1939) was the last show for the Sarg Company, which had financial difficulties.
After his first few productions, Tony Sarg did not personally perform or build the puppets, but remained involved with every detail of design and performance. Charles (Matt) Searle made the marionettes, and on numerous national tours served as the company manager, supervising up to six or seven manipulators. Company members Bil Baird, Rufus Rose with Margo (Skewis) Rose went on to create important puppet companies. Sue Hastings studied with Sarg and went on to become a major competitor.
Tony Sarg accepted the honour of being the major speaker at the first American puppet festival, held in 1936 in Detroit. In 1940, for his 60th birthday, American puppeteers presented him with a folio of letters of appreciation to commemorate his great influence on the profession.
Tony Sarg’s exceptional abilities as a visual thinker, along with his great charm and enthusiasm brought him great success in many fields. He was widely respected as an illustrator; he designed fabrics, wallpaper and interiors. He was also a pioneer in film animation, creating Adam Raises Cain (1920) and The First Circus (1921), a silhouette film. In 1927, Sarg created the first giant parade balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 1935, a large helium-filled Mickey Mouse was paraded in New York. The same year he designed the first of a series of mechanically operated window displays for Macy’s Department Store, which were widely imitated around the county (see Automata, Androids and Robots).
At the peak of his career, during the 1930s, Tony Sarg was called “America’s Puppet Master”. The many national tours of the Tony Sarg Marionettes brought excellent puppetry to a very wide audience, and his work inspired an entire generation of new puppeteers. Writing about Sarg’s body of work, Paul McPharlin said, “It set up an ideal of American puppetry: a good play, as a rule based on a familiar tale, with production details carefully worked out and integrated. Puppetry, scenery, lights, properties, and even the printed program, exhibited artistry. His bent for gaiety and humor, his love of odd effects, animals and the marvelous, found just the right combination. Sarg’s productions were almost always good entertainment. They made an impression wherever they were seen. They set people’s fingers itching to make puppets for themselves.”
Another lasting contribution by Tony Sarg was his book, The Tony Sarg Marionette Book (1921), one of the first publications to reveal technical information about marionettes.
(See United States of America.)
- Hunt, Tamara Robin. Tony Sarg: Puppeteer in America, 1915-1942. North Vancouver (BC): Charlemagne Press, 1988.
- McIsaac, F.J. The Tony Sarg Marionette Book. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1921; rpt. Viking Press, 1940.
- McPharlin, Paul. The Puppet Theatre in America: A History 1524-1948. With a supplement, “Puppets in America Since 1948”, by Marjorie Batchelder McPharlin. Boston: Plays, Inc., 1969.