Commonly referred to as the United States (US) or America, the United States of America (USA) consists of 50 states and a federal district; 48 of these states and Washington, DC are in central North America, bordered by Canada to the north and Mexico to the south, the state of Alaska is located in the north-western part of North America, and the state of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific (see Oceania). Additional US territories include Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Marianas, the US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. Native Americans (including indigenous peoples of Alaska and Hawaii) are composed of numerous, distinct tribes or “nations” and ethnic groups. Immigration from Europe began in the 15th century, and with additional migration from Africa, Latin America and Asia, the United States has become one of the most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations in the world.

The first puppets on the North American continent were part of the ceremonial rituals of Native Americans (see Native American Puppetry) such as the symbolic corn sacrifice to the snake gods performed by the Hopi tribe of the American Southwest. In these ceremonies – the success of which was deemed to determine the abundance or paucity of the year’s corn harvest – the serpents were large “puppets” manipulated both by hidden operators behind a screen and by strings running along the rafters of the ritual chamber in which the ceremonies took place.

These ceremonies, accompanied by rhythmic chanting, would begin with the appearance of six large crested serpents, some five feet (150 centimetres) in length, swaying above the corn on the floor of the kiva (a room, usually underground, reserved for religious rituals) dimly illuminated by firelight. The mouths of the serpents would snap at the offerings; the snakes would intertwine; mud-headed wrestlers would fight them in vain; the chanting intensified; and, finally, the spectators would throw corn meal at the serpents, which they would accept before retreating, signalling the end of the ceremony.

If the Hopi corn ceremony was not the first use of puppets in the country, it was surely similar to their first use by Native peoples throughout the East Coast, Northwest, Pacific Islands and elsewhere. Puppetry in the New World, like puppetry in the Old, began in religious ceremonies. Puppets and masks provided tangible representation and control of the supernatural world.

The European Beginnings

The first European puppets seem to have been brought to North America by the Spanish in 1524, fourteen years before the first European actors. Puppets, being small, easily transported and capable of performance by a single entertainer, were the ideal pioneers and colonizers of the embryonic American theatrical landscape. Throughout the 16th century the increasing Spanish colonization of the American Southwest also meant the increasing visibility of puppet performances.

Puppets took a little longer to find their foothold in the East Coast settlements, where Puritan culture shunned theatre as immoral. The first record of British puppeteers is an unnamed “company of poppet strowlers” who, sometime before 1708, performed in Bridgetown, Barbados and the Leeward Islands before returning to England.

The first recorded British puppet show within the American colonies was advertised on December 30, 1742. It took place in Philadelphia’s Coach and Horses Inn, across the street from the State House that would later host the signatories to the Declaration of Independence. The performer’s name is unknown but we do know two of the puppet characters: Mister Punch who, with his first wife Joan, had wasted little time in crossing the Atlantic in search of new audiences. A similar programme was performed in New York City five years later by Richard Brickell and Richard Mosely, who may have also been responsible for the Philadelphia show. The puppets were string puppets (marionettes) and, except for the husband-and-wife by-play, probably included few other elements of the now familiar Punch and Judy show.

With virtually all of the 18th century puppeteers coming from Europe – and most of them only touring in America before returning home – colonial puppetry was close, if not identical, to its British counterpart. String marionettes predominated, and Dick Whittington and His Cat, The Tragedy of Fair Rosamond, and the tragicomedy of Maudlin the Merchant’s Daughter of Bristol would have been familiar to audiences who saw the same shows performed with puppets or human actors at Southwark Fair, Bartholomew Fair and throughout London (see Fairs).

Ombres chinoises, the style of shadow puppetry popular at Versailles and around Europe at this time, arrived in Philadelphia in 1785. Such shows – which packed flat and light, and required the illumination of only a single lamp – were particularly suited to the ad hoc nature of early American performance. The Broken Bridge, a comic dialogue between a carpenter and a traveller, was a staple of performances throughout the Eastern seaboard, along with scenes from Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe and other literary works. The European ombres chinoises were opaque silhouettes. Translucent, colour shadow puppets from China were brought to California in the 1850s with the arrival of Chinese workers building the railroads.

The 19th Century

Transformation marionettes

With the 19th century, puppet shows took a new turn. While many types of puppets and puppet plays could be found, trick puppets (a puppet created for a specific special effect), performed on the variety stage rather than in dramatic works, became the leading form. Thus, acts still familiar almost two hundred years later – including “breakaway” figures (especially skeletons) and transformation puppets (such as The Grand Turk, who turned into a number of little Turks) – date from this period and probably created the foundation for the enduring popularity of the puppet in the United States. After all, puppets were doing what they do best or, at least, what human actors could least mimic: non-realistic, and highly fantastic, actions.

As advertisements of the period make clear, for example, the New World’s first illustrated public notice for a puppet show in New York in 1808, showing Harlequin (see Arlecchino) and Punch, puppetry attracted both adults and children. But the performances were geared to the adults who comprised the majority of the spectators. Puppetry as specifically children’s theatre was as yet unknown.

Dime museums

Puppets of all types found a ready home in that fixture of mid-19th century American entertainment, the “dime museum”, which included, perhaps most famously, P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. More than a home, they found crucial sanctuary in the dime museums because laws in New York and elsewhere prohibited street puppetry for most of the 1800s.

At the same time, puppets whose primary attribute was the ability to mimic the most intricate of human actions – for instance drinking, smoking, dancing and eating – also became popular. Their attraction was heightened when the means of animation was unexplained. Perhaps the greatest example was the “Turkish Chess Player”, apparently an automaton, which was the rage of three continents for an astounding seventy years. This figure sat on a cabinet of machinery and played chess, victoriously, against the likes of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Catherine II of Russia, Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. It came to America in the early 1800s where it became an entertainment highlight throughout the 1820s, 30s and 40s. It took the father of modern detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe, in his 1836 essay, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player”, to deduce most of the secrets of the figure’s operation by a hidden assistant (see Automata, Androids and Robots).

Mister Punch in America

The history of Punch in America has marked similarities to the course of his popularity in Great Britain. Punch in the early 1800s discarded Joan for Judy, transformed from marionette to glove puppet, and became the star of his own show rather than the comic relief in other plays. The publication of the Payne Collier Punch and Judy text in 1828 in both Great Britain and the United States fixed the Punch script that we know today, eventually snuffing out variants nearly lost to us now.

Although Mister Punch had appeared in the United States as early as 1742, the first recorded Punch and Judy show – employing glove puppets and the now familiar plot and cast – only appeared in 1828 in New York City’s Park Theatre. It quickly became a staple of theatres, dime museums, music halls, cabarets and nightclubs. The portability of the show enabled Punch to participate in the California Gold Rush and to entertain troops on both sides of the Civil War.

In the United States all through the 19th century and into the 20th century, Punch and Judy shows were performed at fairs, parks, seaside resorts, vaudeville stages, and circuses. Punch appeared in Broadway shows and at Radio City Music Hall. Some performers specialized in Punch and Judy while others included the show as one of many types of shows in their repertoire.

Notable Punch and Judy performers of the 19th and 20th century include: George H. Irving (1858-1936); Gus White (1859-1934); Charles Mack (1861-1934); John Difenderfer (1866-1933); Harry Houdini (1874-1926); David Lano (1874-1957); George “Pinxy” Larsen (1886-1960); Al Flosso (1895-1967); George Prentice (1903-1985); Jay Marshall (1919-2005); Robert Mason (1924-1998); Charles Ludlam (1943-1987); Steve Hansen (1946-2011); Brad Williams (1951-1993). Among 20th century Punch “professors” from England who have performed in the United States are: Percy Press II, Glyn Edwards, John Styles and Martin Birdle. At the Puppeteers of America National Festival, Seattle, WA (1999), Punch and Judy Faire performers included: Fred Greenspan, Diane Rains, Nick Barone, Preston Foerder, Will Stackman, Nancy Sander, Mark Levenson. There have been many variations to the traditional script. Paul Zaloom created a gay version, Punch and Jimmy. Blair Thomas presented Federico García Lorca’s version of Punch’s Spanish cousin, Don Cristóbal. Steve Hansen’s show had many contemporary political references.

Large-scale stage shows

During the 1870s, the British Bullock’s Royal Marionettes became a major success with an often sold-out American tour which brought a new style to puppet theatre. This was a major stage show with a cast and orchestra of twenty-five, a large-scale, opulent production including a variety of trick puppets, and an English pantomime-style extravaganza. The show included a marionette (string puppet) version of a minstrel show (a musical entertainment performed by white performers in “blackface” based on stereotyped racial caricatures.) Several other puppet companies – also calling themselves “Royal” and featuring similar programmes and production values – soon appeared to similar acclaim. After that some of the performers associated with the Royal Marionettes, notably John and Louisa Till and Harry and William Middleton, created companies of their own, ensuring that the Royal influence continued into the 1890s, long enough for this style to become an established part of the emerging vaudeville circuits.

The latter part of the 1800s also saw the rise of something new: American-born professional puppeteers, such as Walter Deaves (1854-1919), Daniel Meader (1856-1929) and David Lano who were performing throughout the country, albeit in styles similar to those of their European predecessors, colleagues and competitors. By 1900, Nicholas Nelson, Jesse and Mae Jewell, Lillian Faulkner (c.1886-1964), the Mantell Manikins of Len Ayers (1885-1967) and George “Pinxy” Larsen were touring extensively on vaudeville stages (a theatrical genre, especially popular in the United States and Canada, vaudeville is made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill, c. the early 1880s to 1930s; see Variety and Music Hall).

The Early 20th Century

The impact of immigration

The massive immigration at the start of the 20th century brought ethnic puppeteers who typically performed in their native languages. German and Czech speaking puppeteers performed in various locations. Greek karaghiozis shadow shows could be seen in Chicago and Detroit. Italian puppeteers brought the large pupi, string and rod marionettes that acted the colourful, often violent medieval adventures of Orlando and Charlemagne (see Opera dei Pupi). The Manteo dynasty began in the mid-1800s in Italy and continued in the United States throughout most of the 20th century. They and other families opened some of the first permanent site puppet theatres in New York City, Boston and San Francisco. Yiddish puppetry, an adjunct to the Yiddish theatre that flourished in the United States between the world wars, was a platform for the satire of immigrants responding to the, often harsh, labour and social conditions of their new homeland. When the puppeteer Yosl Cutler died in 1935, 10,000 mourners attended his funeral.

Ethnic puppeteers typically performed for their fellow immigrants; but their influence was far greater than such modest performances would suggest, for their performance styles, techniques and designs were added to the permanent vocabulary of puppet theatre, to be borrowed as inspiration and used in new ways by subsequent generations of performers.

Puppets and education

Another foundation for the evolution of the art was laid in the early 1900s, as the popularity of amateur puppetry led to the rise of educational puppetry in public schools – the first secular institutionalization of the art. Today, schools and public libraries in the country comprise a leading, if not the leading, venue for the performance of live puppetry.


Books on puppetry made the art form more accessible to all. Helen Haiman Joseph’s 1920 A Book of Marionettes was the first history published. Volumes by Tony Sarg and Remo Bufano followed. Books with patterns for building string marionettes and puppets launched many shows. Edith Flack Ackley’s book in 1929 was one of the first. Marionettes in Motion (1939) by W.A. Dwiggins (1880-1956), Puppet Theatre Handbook (1947) by Marjorie Batchelder McPharlin, and most especially Marionettes: A Hobby for Everyone (1948) by Mabel Beaton (1904-2001) influenced several generations of puppeteers. Paul McPharlin published a book of puppet plays, an important series of Puppetry Yearbooks (1930-1948), all leading up to his monumental 1948 work, The Puppet Theatre in America. The sumptuous colour photographs and insights of The Art of the Puppet (1965) by Bil Baird make it a classic volume.

Modern Puppetry

The early masters

In 1915, Tony Sarg set up shop in New York. The same year Ellen Van Volkenburg (1882-1978), who invented the English term “puppeteer”, did shows in Chicago, and Helen Haiman Joseph (1889-1978) was working in Cleveland. For a quarter of a century until his death in 1942, Tony Sarg was among the most popular and influential figures in American puppetry. He introduced a distinctive visual style and a love of trick marionettes to his full-stage productions of children’s classics and trained a new generation of puppeteers, including Sue Hastings (1884-1977), Bil Baird, and Rufus and Margo Rose – who would, in turn, train many of today’s artists. At the same time, Remo Bufano was delivering virtuoso performance in a variety of styles, and creating giant puppets – up to 35 feet (10.5 metres) tall – for works by writers and composers such as Edmond Rostand and Igor Stravinsky.

The 1920s saw a rise in travelling companies, bringing puppets to towns across the country. The Sarg Marionettes, the Yale Puppeteers, Tatterman Marionettes and Sue Hastings all toured extensively (see Itinerant Troupes, Travelling Puppeteers).

The explosion of puppetry that followed Tony Sarg’s success included many extraordinary artists who toured or gave studio performances. Perry Dilley (1896-1968), in California, was one of the first to explore glove puppets. Pauline Benton (1898-1974) performed with Chinese shadow puppets. The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill had marionette (string puppet) productions by Ralph Chessé (1900-1991) in California, Jero Magon (1900-1995) in New York, and Louis Bunin (1904-1994) in Mexico City. In Paris in the 1920s, American sculptor, Alexander Calder first performed his Circus, an early example of object animation.

In the 1930s, Rufus and Margo Rose, Martin and Olga Stevens, Bil Baird, the Tatterman Marionettes, and Romain Proctor (1899-1961) were among the 24-carat names of this golden era. World’s Fairs, in 1934 and 1939, provided key visibility for puppet performers. In the late 1930s, Marjorie Batchelder introduced the rod puppet, and Basil Milovsoroff (1906-1992) was admired for his cubist inspired designs. The Yale Puppeteers pioneered visible marionette manipulation – a leading style today – for the prosaic purpose of lightening their touring load.

The shortages of the wartime 1940s put an end to the large touring shows of Tony Sarg, Sue Hastings and the Tattermans. In  1948, both Paul McPharlin and Remo Bufano died, bringing to an end the first phase of 20th century puppetry in the United States.

Nightclubs and cabarets

Both Frank Paris (1914-1984) and Bob Bromley (1907-1981) began working without a bridge or a stage in 1937. The visible solo-puppeteer working in cabaret attracted many performers to a style that de-mystified the art form and allowed the performer more freedom of movement and freedom to demonstrate virtuosity. Around the same time Virginia Austin Curtis (1903-1986) began manufacturing an appealing, well-crafted, well-balanced marionette clown that was sold to children around the world. Curtis performed with Clippo the Clown at major theatres inspiring many to try working a string puppet. In the 1940s, Walton and O’Rourke (Paul Walton, 1906-1983; Michael O’Rourke, 1908-1981) were influential stars in variety that had the admiration of American puppeteers. Following in this tradition, a number of performers have earned international recognition including: Bob Baker (1924-2014), Daniel Llords (1926-2009), Rene Zendejas (1927-2014), Sid and Mary Krofft, Tony Urbano, David Syrotiak, and Jim Gamble. In the 21st century, Phillip Huber is one of the leading cabaret style performers. Joe Cashore and David Simpich are also exceptional solo artists using marionettes to convey dramatic vignettes and classic stories (see Cabaret, Variety and Music Hall).

Permanent theatres

During World War II touring marionette companies could no longer travel. Permanent site theatres capable of more extensive staging and lighting sprang up. The Yale Puppeteers created several puppet theatre showcases, most notably the sophisticated Turnabout Theatre in Los Angeles (1941-1957). The Kungsholm Restaurant (founded in 1942) was a Chicago landmark for years, with operas performed by a cast of miniature (15-inch or 40 centimetre high) figures. Bob Baker’s Marionette Theatre opened in Los Angeles in 1963. After working for stage, film and television, Bil Baird founded a permanent home in a Greenwich Village theatre that he opened in 1967 and operated through the 1970s.

Today, some thirty determined individuals and companies around the country maintain some type of permanent puppet theatre in their communities. Key examples are The Bob Baker Theatre (Los Angeles; the oldest children’s theatre company in the city designated, in 2009, a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, was sold in 2012 for a proposed apartment complex; the marionette company is scheduled to move out of the theatre in 2015), The Puppet Showplace Theatre (Brookline, Massachusetts, founded by Mary Churchill), Great Arizona Puppet Theatre (Phoenix, founded by Nancy Smith), Puppetworks (Brooklyn, founded by Nick Coppola), The Puppet Co. Playhouse (Glen Echo, Maryland, near Washington, DC, founded by Allan Stevens and Christopher and Mayfield Piper), Children’s Fairyland (directed for many years by Lewis Mahlmann in Oakland, California), Northwest Puppet Center (Seattle, founded by Chris and Steven Carter see [lier]Carter Family Marionettes / Northwest Puppet Center[/lier]), Mum Puppettheatre (Philadelphia, founded by Robert Smythe, closed 2008), In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (Minneapolis, founded by Sandy Speiler), and the Marie Hitchcock Theatre (San Diego, California). Some companies – such as the Sandglass Theatre of Eric Bass (Putney, Vermont), and Bread and Puppet Theater (Glover, Vermont) – split their time between their resident site and touring. The most extensive permanent site theatre in the country is the Center for Puppetry Arts (Atlanta, Georgia).

The 1950s

Television made Burr Tillstrom (Kukla, Fran and Ollie) and Bil Baird into stars with recognition far beyond the world of puppeteers. Shari Lewis, Paul Ashley, Rufus and Margo Rose, Mabel Beaton, Fred Rogers (1928-2003) all had national television credits. Dozens of local stations provided work for puppeteers including Ralph Chessé in San Francisco and Jim Henson in Washington, DC. Businesses and advertising agencies were quick to recognize the popularity of puppets, featuring them prominently in television commercials since the advent of the medium. Jimmy Nelson’s Danny O’Day and Farfel promoted Nestlé’s chocolate; Jim Henson’s Muppets brought the La Choy Chinese Food Dragon to life (see Muppet).

In 1953, the MGM feature film Lili (directed by Charles Walters, starring Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer) put puppetry in the Hollywood spotlight. Nightclubs continued to book puppeteers with such highly esteemed variety acts such as Walton and O’Rourke, Frank Paris, and Bob Bromley. At national Puppeteers of America festivals Rufus and Margo Rose, Martin and Olga Stevens, and Romain and Ellen Proctor provided high quality marionette productions. At the first California festival in 1957, Bob Baker, Tony Urbano, Rene Zendejas, and Lettie Connell (Schubert) all made vivid impressions. Canadian performers seen in the United States included George Merten, John Conway, and Leo and Dora Velleman. Roberto Lago of Mexico was a highly regarded puppeteer. Rod Young, Nick Coppola, and Alan Cook began their careers in the 1950s.

The 1960s

In 1962, the Seattle World’s Fair presented Bunraku from Japan and Les Poupées de Paris (The Dolls of Paris) by Sid and Marty Krofft. The same year Bil Baird toured India. In 1963, both Jim Henson and Peter Schumann began working in New York City, and Americans got to see Russian artist Sergei Obraztsov. Bil Baird and the Kroffts worked at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. In 1965, Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater first brought large parade puppets to demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. Lewis Mahlmann, Fay Ross Coleman, Ron Herrick, George Latshaw, Jay Marshall and Erica Melchoir, Rufus Rose, Frank Paris, Ed Johnson, Dorothy Rankin, Mollie Falkenstein, Daniel Llords, Nancy H. Cole, and Jim Menke were frequent performers at festivals. The unique rod puppets of Dick Myers were highly praised. At the end of the 1960s, Paul Vincent Davis and Carol Fijan, Luman and Arlyn Coad (see Coad Canada Puppets), Bob and Judy Brown, and Jim Gamble were receiving attention. In 1969, Sesame Street was first broadcast.

The 1970s and 1980s

The generation born after Word War II (the “baby boomers”) began to emerge as young artists in the 1970s and 1980s. The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of artistic and social experimentation that included rock music and protests against war and injustice. In these years the wide range of puppetry included well-crafted works for family audiences by performers including The Poppinjays, the Melikins, David Syrotiak, and Kathy Piper as well as bold avant-garde works for adult audiences by artists such as Robert Anton, Charles Ludlam and Paul Zaloom. Wayland Flower’s creation, Madame, employed risqué banter for adult audiences in nightclubs and then on television. The exquisite lyricism of Bruce D. Schwartz and Steve Hansen’s raucous comedy bought vitality to glove puppets. Ralph Lee, Nikki Tilroe, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, Roman Paska, Larry Reed, Kathy Foley, Michael Malkin, Bob Hartman, Grey Seal (Donald Devet and Drew Allison), Mark Levenson, Gary Jones, Larry Engler, Peter Baird, Eric Bass, were all working at the end of 1970s. Germany’s Albrecht Roser and Australia’s Richard Bradshaw made regular visits which had a lasting impact on American artists. In 1978, Vincent Anthony founded the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia.

The year 1980 was a landmark year for puppetry in North America. The Puppeteers of America and UNIMA-USA sponsored the UNIMA 13th World Puppetry Festival in Washington, DC with Nancy Lohman Staub as director. Fine artists from all over the world got to see each other perform. A beautiful puppet exhibit toured eleven cities from 1980 to 1983. ‘Here Come the Puppets’ aired on public television. Jim Henson’s Muppet Show in its fifth year had a huge international following. Summer classes in Charleville-Mézières, France, began to attract American puppeteers including Barbara Pollitt, Terry Snyder, Paul Mesner, Preston Foerder, John and Carol Farrell, Michael Nelson, Andrew Periale and others. Ronnie Burkett and Phillip Huber brought new vitality to the art of the marionette (string puppet). Reg and Janet Bradley, Chris and Stephen Carter, The Underground Railroad, Janie Geiser, Julie Taymor, Hobey Ford, and Robert Smythe were all doing notable work. In 1982, The Jim Henson Foundation gave its first grants to puppeteers. New puppet making materials like neoprene were used. Videocassettes become a standard way to record and exchange puppet performances.

The 1990s

In 1990, the untimely death of Jim Henson at age 54 was a devastating loss to the community of puppeteers. With the leadership of Jane Henson, George Latshaw and Richard Termine in 1991, the first puppetry conference was held at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center (see National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center). Every summer the conference provides a think tank for the growth of puppetry as an art form. In 1990, Bart Roccoberton, Jr. headed the University of Connecticut Puppet Arts Program. Janie Geiser became director of the Cotsen Center for Puppetry and the Arts at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). From 1992 to 2000, The Jim Henson Foundation presented five Henson International Festivals of Puppet Theater in New York City. Julie Taymor’s The Lion King on Broadway produced by The Walt Disney Company was recognized with many awards in 1997. Basil Twist and Ronnie Burkett, the young stars of the decade, both won the off Broadway Obie Award. Techniques with a visible puppeteer including bunraku-style, tabletop puppetry, and found object theatre became prominent. Great Small Works has played an essential role in the revival of Toy Theatre (also known as Paper Theatre). The work of David Simpich, Joe Cashore, Hanne Tierney, Theodora Skipitares, Lee Breuer, Jon Ludwig, and John Bell all add to the rich fabric of contemporary puppetry in the United States.

Institutions and Organizations


The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, houses one of the nation’s premier puppet museums. Other notable puppetry museums are the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry (BIMP) at the University of Connecticut (Storrs, Connecticut), founded in 1987 to preserve the heritage and tradition of puppetry, including the UConn productions of Frank Ballard, founder of the University of Connecticut Puppet Arts Program, and the longstanding collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where performances were held for many seasons. The International Puppetry Museum (IPM) in Pasadena, California (the Alan Cook-Jacqueline Marks collection, formerly the Conservatory of Puppetry Arts or COPA) is one of the largest puppet collections in the United States. The Northwest Puppet Center in Seattle, Washington state, will be the new home of the collection. Other museums with puppets include the American Museum of Natural History (New York), UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History (Los Angeles), Harvard Theatre Collection (Boston/Cambridge), and Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC).

University courses

By the 1930s, more than thirty-five educational institutions occasionally offered accredited courses in puppetry. By 2012, that number had risen to over fifty, and courses are offered as far from the theatre mainstream as West Virginia University and Central Washington University. The University of Connecticut offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in puppetry. The California Institute of the Arts (Valencia), known as CalArts, established the Cotsen Center for Puppetry and the Arts as part of their School of Theatre.


It was inconceivable that puppeteers of the 19th century (who knew each other only as business rivals, if at all) would form a nationwide organization. By the 1930s, puppeteers were friendly enough to demand just such an association. The Puppeteers of America (PofA), initiated by the visionary scholar and performer, Paul McPharlin, was founded in Cincinnati in 1937, following the first national puppet festival in Detroit in 1936. The organization today numbers about two thousand members. In addition to being a showcase for national talent, Puppeteers of America national festivals have presented over eighty visiting artists from over twenty countries. The festivals offer educational workshops as well as performances. Puppeteers of America presents awards, maintains a video library and bookstore, offers publications and a range of consultants, workshops and programmes to further the art. Past presidents include Jim Henson, Vincent Anthony, Nancy Lohman Staub, Romain Proctor, and Rufus Rose. George Latshaw also made a deep and permanent contribution through his long-time editorship of the organization’s magazine, Puppetry Journal, published four times a year.


Representatives of the United States participated in the 1957-1958 post-World War II reactivation of the international puppet organization, UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette). At first there was an American liaison with UNIMA for collecting memberships. At the 1966 Puppeteers of America festival in San Diego, a UNIMA-USA chapter was founded with Jim Henson as its first president. In 1975, the organization began presenting the UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence, considered to be one of the nation’s highest honours for puppetry. The organization also provides scholarships for international study, facilitates international exchanges, and sponsors a distinguished series of live and published symposia that allow puppet artists to consider the nature and future of their art. Its publications include À Propos (founded in 1970 by Mollie Falkenstein) and, since 1995, its successor, Puppetry International (Andrew Periale, editor). Mollie Falkenstein, Allelu Kurten and, most recently, Vincent Anthony have served as General Secretaries of UNIMA-USA.

Cinema and Television


Puppets popped up in one of the first US motion pictures: the 1897 Edison film, Dancing Chinamen, which recorded a vaudeville marionette act. Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd became national celebrities on film (also conquering stage and, incredibly, radio) in the 1930s and 1940s. George Pal’s puppetoons (stop-action animated puppets) delighted audiences for three decades. In the 1953 film Lili, Leslie Caron played opposite glove puppets created by Walton and O’Rourke with George Latshaw performing the leading puppet character. Bil Baird provided the marionette sequence for The Sound of Music directed by Robert Wise in 1965.

Fresh from their television success, Jim Henson’s Muppets began appearing in a series of films starting with The Muppet Movie (1979). The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) broke new ground for puppetry in film. The Jim Henson Creature Shop was founded in 1979. The Henson Performance Control System for animatronic puppetry was honoured with an Academy Award of Merit. Since the engaging puppet character of Yoda appeared in The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, there have been at least six films per year in the science fiction, fantasy, or horror genres that have achieved their special effects using increasingly realistic and sometimes undetectable puppets. The Frank Oz directed Little Shop of Horrors (1986) put puppetry at the centre of a successful, mainstream adult film. Puppets have been used, frequently in combination with computer animation, to bring both ancient dinosaurs and futuristic aliens to life in major motion pictures with work by the Henson Creature Shop, Industrial Light and Magic, and the Stan Winston Studios. A puppeteer was the leading character in the 1999 film Being John Malkovich (manipulation by Phillip Huber). In the 21st century, special effects puppetry continues to flourish side by side with computer effects. The adult satirical comedy with Team America: World Police (Trey Parker, 2004) employed a small army of puppeteers. Stop motion animation films have included Corpse Bride (Tim Burton, 2005), Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009) and The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)


As nationwide broadcast television developed in 1947-1948, it soon became possible for millions of viewers to see puppetry in the intimacy of their homes. The Howdy Doody Show, an American icon, began in 1947. Rufus and Margo Rose’s A Christmas Carol was broadcast nationally in 1948. Burr Tillstrom began Kukla, Fran and Ollie in 1947; the show went nationwide two years later and was a sensation throughout the 1950s, and later in special appearances on stage and television. Perhaps Tillstrom’s indelible contribution to televised puppetry was the creation of a heart-warming community of characters appealing to both children and adults, which would later be echoed by the puppets of Shari Lewis and, especially, Jim Henson’s work for Sesame Street, first broadcast in 1969 and still on the air more than forty years later. Both Sesame Street and the Muppet Show (1976-1980) are known all over the world.

Support and Recognition for Puppetry

Yet another factor in the development of American puppetry in the 20th century was its increasing recognition and support from governmental and private not-for-profit organizations. For a brief time during the Depression-era 1930s, the Works Progress Administration put puppeteers on the federal payroll for the first time, bringing puppetry to new audiences. The National Endowment for the Arts was founded in 1965, and an early grant went to Bil Baird. In 1981, the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledged puppetry in its guidelines.

Prestigious private grants, such as the Ford, Guggenheim, and MacArthur awards, have also singled out innovative and accomplished puppet artists. Jim and Jane Henson created The Jim Henson Foundation exclusively for the art of puppetry. In New York City, directors of leading not-for-profit institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera and the Museum of Modern Art have included puppetry. Leading experimental theatre companies such at The Public Theatre, La MaMa and Mabou Mines have embraced puppetry. The commercially successful shows The Lion King, Avenue Q, and Warhorse all earned Broadway Tony Awards. The increasing number of theatre, film and television awards (Tonys, Obies, Emmys and Oscars) going to puppet-based productions provide further validation, credibility and publicity for the art.


The first American puppet festival in 1936 began a 75-year tradition of puppeteers gathering to view the work of their colleagues. Puppet festivals have been an increasingly important way both to inspire performers and to educate their audiences to the possibilities of the puppet. The 1980 UNIMA 13th World Puppetry Festival and UNIMA International Congress in Washington, DC, spearheaded by Jim Henson and Nancy Lohman Staub, remains a shining occasion in the memory of those who attended. More recently, the biennial series of the Jim Henson Foundation’s Henson International Festivals of Puppet Theater in New York City (1992-2000) introduced New York audiences to an extraordinary range of national and international talent.


The periodic US tours of companies and performers such as Teatro dei Piccoli (Italy), Salzburger Marionettentheater (Austria), Roberto Lago (Mexico), André Tahon (France), and Philippe Genty (France) helped to build audiences and inspire fellow artists. In the 1960s, the Japanese Bunraku and the Russian Sergei Obraztsov performed in the United States. Exchanges became more frequent. Visits by the German Albrecht Roser and Australian Richard Bradshaw had great impact. Asian companies – the Awaji Puppet Theatre (Awaji Ningyō-Za) from Japan, Indonesian wayang, and Vietnamese water puppet troupes – have further inspired American audiences and performers.

Puppetry in the United States is nourished by the great cultural diversity of its population. At the UNIMA 21st World Puppetry Festival, held in Chengdu, China (2012), the American representatives with deep ties to China included Chinese Theatre Works (Stephen Kaplin and Kuang-Yu Fong), Dragon Arts Studio (Zhengli Xu), Visual Expressions (Hua Hua Zhang), as well as Xie Zheng Feng and Dmitri Carter.

The Latino population has contributed bilingual puppetry going back to the 1960s when Luis Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino in California. In 1966, George Latshaw was invited to Puerto Rico, a US commonwealth, as a guest director and teacher as part of a government “Miniteatro” project. The project set up the training of small groups of one- to three-persons that toured the island with their small puppet productions. Four professional groups in Puerto Rico resulted from the project: Títeres de Boriken, Títeres Cibuco, Títeres Donate, and El Mundo de los Muñecos. Three television channels in Puerto Rico have broadcast local puppet programmes. Representatives from Puerto Rico first performed at US festivals in 1974. Jose Alverez founded Titeres de Puerto Rico Inc. in 1979. In 1985, Manuel A. Morán Martinez founded Teatro SEA (Society of the Educational Arts, Inc./Sociedad Educativa de las Artes, Inc.) in Puerto Rico. SEA creates programmes that bring the arts to Hispanic/bilingual students and communities in their native language. In 1993, he also established a bilingual arts-in-education and Latino theatre company for young audiences in New York City. Teatro SEA has presented hundreds of educational performances, reaching thousands of children and young adults throughout New York City. Manuel Morán, who writes, produces, directs and acts in most of SEA’s shows, has, to date, built a professional repertory of eighteen shows for children and adults, which tour throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

The 21st Century

Blair Thomas, Redmoon Theatre, Andrew Kim, Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers, Dan Hurlin, Alice Wallace, Liz Joyce, Crabgrass Puppet Theatre, Jonathan Cross, Richard Termine, Stephen Kaplin, Kevin Augustine, Heather Henson all joined the ranks of puppeteers doing award winning work. Little Shop of Horrors with puppets by Marty Robinson, and Avenue Q with puppets by Rick Lyon played on Broadway. Team America: World Police (2004), with its adult content and politically provocative humour, became the most expensive puppet movie ever produced. Puppetry: A Word History by Eileen Blumenthal was a lavish new book published in 2005. Julie Taymor directed The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera. Puppetry slams (evenings of short works for adult audiences) continue to grow in popularity. The O’Neill National Puppetry Conference, the Center for Puppetry Arts, the University of Connecticut, UNIMA-USA, Puppetry Journal, and the festivals of Puppeteers of America all continue as major contributors to the art of puppetry in the United States. The generation of puppeteers who grew up watching Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock and who came of age using computers began doing significant work. It is too early to predict which of several hundred young artists will produce distinctive work that bridges the national and the international, the puppet and the human, the past and the future.


  • Baird, Bil. The Art of the Puppet. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965.
  • Brown, Forman. Small Wonder: The Story of the Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Theatre. Metuchen (NJ): Scarecrow Press, 1980.
  • Bufano, Remo. Be a Puppet Showman. New York: Century, 1933.
  • Dirks, Phyllis T, ed. American Puppetry. Collections, History and Performance. Jefferson (NC): McFarland & Co., 2004.
  • Engler, Larry, and Carol Fijan. Making Puppets Come Alive. Courier Dover Publications, 1996.
  • Finch, Christopher. Jim Henson – The Works. The Art, the Magic, the Imagination. New York: Random House, 1993.
  • Joseph, Helen Haiman. A Book of Marionettes. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1920; New York: The Viking Press, 1929.
  • Kominz, Laurence R., and Mark Levenson, eds. The Language of the Puppet. Atlanta (GA): UNIMA-USA Inc., 1990.
  • Malkin, Michael R. Puppets: Art & Entertainment. Washington (DC): Puppeteers of America Inc., 1980.
  • McPharlin, Paul. The Puppet Theatre in America: A History, with a List of Puppeteers 1524-1948. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1949.
  • 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.
  • À Propos. Biannual puppetry magazine founded in 1970 by Mollie Falkenstein, UNIMA-USA general secretary.
  • Puppetry International. Journal created in 1995 by UNIMA-USA, evolving from the earlier journal À Propos, which became a biannual publication from 1999. The numbers are often devoted to a theme (e.g. propaganda, spirituality, television, opera, sexuality).
  • Puppetry Journal. American quarterly magazine founded in 1949 by George Latshaw, evolving from Grapevine Telegraph, a puppetry newsletter founded by Paul McPharlin in 1937. The official publication of Puppeteers of America, Puppetry Journal reports on, through articles and photos, American puppetry activity. Since Volume 51 (1999), editor is Paul Eide, with Steve Abrams as associate editor. See Luman Coad, Index to Puppetry Journal, 1949-1982 (vols. 1-33), Charlemagne Press, Vancouver, 1983 and Consolidated Index to the Puppetry Journal. Fall 1982 – Summer 1999 (vols. 34-50), Charlemagne Press, Vancouver, 2000.
  • The Puppetry Yearbook. Annual publication founded by Paul McPharlin in 1930. Each issue of The Puppetry Yearbook included information and photos on the art of puppetry in the United States and the world. After 1937, the Yearbooks became the official publication of the Puppeteers of America. The set of early Yearbooks (1930-1948) is available on CD-ROM.