Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I’m your puppet

It’s no secret that I love a good obituary.  And The NY Times is a reasonably good source of interesting ones.

The other day, what with the death of Jimmy Dean of pork sausage and country music fame, I thought I had found my topic: hambone/cornpone entertainer turns business shrewdy and builds up a lucrative food business, which he sells out to Sara Lee for big bucks.

But even while Jimmy Dean’s super hit - “Big Bad John” – was stomping around in my brain:

…..and everybody knew ya didn’t give no lip to Big John…

My eye drifted down to the obit below his:

Frank W. Ballard, Who Trained Puppeteers at UConn, Dies at 80

Say what?

Trained puppeteers at UConn?

Now there was a story out of Storrs.

Nearly 50 years ago, Ballard founded the puppetry program at UConn.

It is beyond rare for an institution of higher learning to grant degrees in puppetry. Connecticut is one of only a few in the world to do so, offering B.F.A., M.A. and M.F.A. degrees through the program, which is part of the dramatic arts department. Despite the program’s renown, however, its students have grown used to hearing astonished classmates ask, “You can major in that?”

I’ll bet there are even more astonished parents uttering those very words.

Still, in a world of accounting and computer science majors, there is something refreshing about someone who wants to give puppetry a whirl. And:

Today the program’s graduates, who come from all over the world, are sought-after masters who ply their trade in film, theater and television.

Which is more than you can say for the average French lit major, I’m afraid. (“You can major in that?”)

Still, I wouldn’t say that I am now or ever have been a particularly avid puppet fan. Personally, I’m afraid that I found the signature puppet of my generation – that would be Howdy Doody – out and out creepy. The word “perv” was not in my kindergarten vocabulary, but there was always something a bit unsettling to me about old Howdy. Maybe it was the little scarf he wore, or those folded up blue jeans, or the way he walked, but Howdy was a little “off”. (I felt the same way about his sidekick, Buffalo Bob Smith, and about the Lone Ranger, so I didn’t reserve this particular sense of ick factor for those made out of wood and string.)

My feelings about Howdy Doody were such that I will have to confess that one of the few times I’ve been scared on a plane flight was when the pilot introduced himself as Howdy Doody. (Make that two nips of Beefeaters and a parachute, please.)  I was so very happy when the wheels touched down in Des Moines.

I didn’t feel particularly creeped out by Howdy’s pals, however.

Not that I would have wanted to hang out with Mr. Bluster – the old grouch – but, if I had to be stranded on a desert island with someone from the Howdy Doody Show, it would have been Dilly Dally (even though he was none too bright), or Flubadub.

Better yet, I would be dee-lighted to be marooned with any number of the Muppets, including but not limited to Miss Piggy, Kermie, Statler and Waldorf, Bunsen and Beaker, and Elmo.

So, Howdy aside, I’m generally down with puppets. For the most part, they don’t hold anywhere near the same scariness factor as their first cousin, the ventriloquist dummy, or their second cousin, twice-removed, the clown.

And – again, Howdy Doody aside – there can be something exceedingly beautiful and artistic about puppets. (This is unlike the ventriloquist dummy, all of which (whom?) look alike.)

Anyway, Frank Ballard made a life out of puppets.

There’s even the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at UConn.

So, he left his mark, and it’s likely indelible in a way that, say, Jimmy Dean pork sausages aren’t. (Ever notice how “indelible” and “inedible” are almost the same word?)

I was going to write something snarky about “The Attack of the Puppet People,” but, hey, it seems like Frank Ballard led quite a life, doing what he wanted to do from the moment – age 5 – when he made his first puppet.

…..and everybody knows ya don’t give no lip to those lucky and determined enough to forge that kind of a career.

So, no attack of or on the puppet people here, thank you.


Just about a year ago, Pink Slip had plenty to say about ventriloquist dummies.

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