Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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WILLIAM BRITTON "BIL" BAIRD

William Britton "Bil" BAIRD was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, on August 15, 1904. The BAIRD family moved around the country, following the father's job as a chemical engineer. They moved to Mason City, Iowa where Bil grew up. BAIRD traced his love of puppets and marionettes to a simple string puppet his father made for him when he was eight-years-old. By the time he was fourteen, BAIRD created his own puppets and gave performances of "Treasure Island" in the attic of the family home. His interest in puppets was confirmed after attending a local Tony SARG production of Rip Van Winkle in 1921.

Bil (spelled with one "L" because "it's different") BAIRD graduated from Mason City High School, the University of Iowa (1926) and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, then began working with Tony SARG, his childhood idol, in New York City in 1928. In 1934, BAIRD founded his own company, the BAIRD Marionettes, "his little wooden friends" as he called them.

In his book, The Art of the Puppet, BAIRD explained that a puppet is "an inamimate figure that is made to move by human effort before an audience." Puppets are constructed so that various parts can be moved to imitate or exaggerate human characteristics.

The BAIRD Marionette's first performance was at the Chicago World's Fair. The BAIRD Marionettes performed some of the roles in the Broadway musical FLAHOOLEY in 1951.

BAIRD'S career spanned over 60 years and performances before millions of people. They toured Russia, were featured in the 1965 film The Sound of Music with the "Lonely Goat Herd" sequence, appeared in many World's Fairs, and were part of five Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parades. During the 1964-65 New York City's World's Fair, BAIRD'S Marionettes hosted an elaborate musical exhibit, The Show-Go-Round in the Chrysler Pavilion.

BAIRD and his wife, Cora EISENBERG BAIRD (1912-1967) produced and performed the famous Lonely Goat Herd scene in the movie The Sound of Music. Acquired in 1981, those marionettes are housed today in Mason City at the Charles H. MacNIDER Art Museum. Along with other BAIRD marionettes, the collection is the largest holding of BAIRD'S creations.

BAIRD'S most famous creation was Charlemane the Lion. He wrote The Art of the Puppet in 1965 and provided the puppets for the television show Dark Shadows

Cora EISENBERG BAIRD, the daughter of Morris and Anne (BURLAR) EISENBERG, was born January 26, 1912, in New York City. As a toddler, she was nicknamed "Jimmy Canigo" by her family because, according to her sister, that's all she ever said. "Gimme!" and "Can I go?".

Cora attended Hunter College, pursuing her interest in the theater. Upon graduation, she studied dance with Martha GRAHAM and was a member of the prestigious Group Theatre. She taught the GRAHAM dance technique at the Toy Theater and performed in a number of their productions.

While working on a production of Dr. FAUSTUS under the direction of Orson WELLES in 1937, Cora provided the voices of the seven deadly sins. Bil BAIRD created the puppets of the seven deadly sins. Four weeks later, Cora and Bil were married on January 13, 1937. Cora gave up her theater career to become a full partner in BARID Marionettes.

Friends of the couple often commented that after the wedding, Bil's female puppets began to look more and more like Cora.

In 1965, the BAIRDS realized their long-time dream by opening the Bil BAIRD Theatre, the first Actors Equity repertory theater created exclusively for puppets. The theater ran under the auspices of the American Puppet Arts Council, a non-profit organization that Cora was instrumental in creating, for eleven years.

Cora was diagnosed with lung cancer in the mid-1960's. She, however, continued to perform in the shows presented at the Bil BAIRD Theatre. Her last performance was in Winnie The Pooh. She died a week after her last performance on December 7, 1967.

BAIRD recieved a multitude of awards and honors which included the Medal of Achievement from the Lotos Club of New York, Distinguised Alumni Award from the University of Iowa, and was honored by the Union International de la Marionette and Puppeteers of America at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 1980.

Bil BAIRD died on March 18, 1987, New York City. He was cremated and his ashes given to the family.

The New York Times, March 20, 1987

BIL BAIRD, CREATOR OF PUPPETS, IS DEAD

Bil BAIRD, the puppeteer who enchanted millions of all ages with his "little wooden ones" and trained a generation of other gifted puppeteers, particularly the Muppets' creator, Jim HENSON, died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82 years old.

His daughter, Laura BAIRD, said her father, weakened by bone marrow cancer, had succumbed to pneumonia.

For more than half a century, Mr. BAIRD'S imaginative creations, brought to life through hands or wires, appeared in the theater, in films and on television.

With his third wife, Cora, he put on puppet shows from New York to the Soviet Union and India. His marionettes starred in the Ziegfeld Follies, broke box-office records on Broadway, were the dancing goats in the movie version of The Sound of Music, and strutted their stuff on television for Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar and Sid Caesar. The BAIRDS also had their own television program and made hundreds of commercials.

No project was too ambitious for Mr. BAIRD. His very animate objects formed the cast of actors and singers in Igor STRAVINKSY'S performance piece, L'Histoire du Soldat, which succeeded with critics and audiences on its New York debut in 1982. It was put on again to acclaim the following year at the 92d Street Y. His full-length productions of Ali Baba, The Man in the Moon and Davy Jones's Locker were smash stage hits. His marionettes starred in three Broadway musicals - The Ziegfeld Follies of 1941, Flahooley and Baker Street. Mr. BAIRD also gave free matinees in the parks and before thousands of poor children in the Government's Head Start Project.

Laura and Peter, Bil's children, contracted to sell nearly all of the BAIRD Marionettes at auction. 800 lots were sold at the Greenwich Auction Room, 110 East 13th Street, New York and was held Saturday, September 19th and Sunday, September 20, 1997. Peter BAIRD, along with Paddy BLACKWOOD and other puppeteers exhibited the marionettes. Each pull of a puppet string elicited yet another bid from the audience. Olly Oilcan from the 1939 Chicago World's Fair sold for $11,000. Although many desired to own Elsie the Cow and her family, they were sold to a Pennsylvania toy dealer.

In December of 1988, BAIRD'S Marionettes played Pinocchio at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York. The puppeteers were Peter B. BAIRD, Paddy BLACKWOOD, Randy CARFAGNO, Larry ENGLER, William TOAST and Richard WEBER.

Bil and Cora BAIRD were pioneer entertainers when commercial television was taking its first steps. Their first show, a fifteen-minute program called Life with Snarky Parker in 1950 was directed by Yul BRYNNER. They appeared with newsman Walter CRONKITE on The Morning Show in 1954.

A masterful multi-talented and creative puppeteer, Bil BAIRD saw himself as a citizen of the world.

SOURCES:
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bil_Baird
http://www.visitmasoncityiowa.com/html/bil_baird.htm
The New York Times

Compilation & Submission by Sharon R. Becker, January of 2011

 

 

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