Using Puppets in Your Clown Routine

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Puppets and kid shows

Since the dawn of legitimate theater and perhaps earlier, the use of puppets has been a form of entertainment. Marionettes date back as far as 2000 BC; historians believe they even preceded live actors in the theater. In 16th century Italian theater arose the characters Punch and Judy, to this day still considered a classic piece of theater. Leaping ahead a century or two, early Americans enjoyed shows like Beanie and Cecil, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody. All of these acts were fun and endearing in their own right, some even teaching valuable life lessons. One of the most prominent of these acts and still on air today is the creation of Jim Henson, the residents of Sesame Street. The funny looking yet lovable characters called Muppets, along with their human counterparts have spanned the globe helping to educate young minds and teach valuable lessons of life. Whether learning to count, sing an ABC song, or even deal with the loss of a loved one, these Muppets have made a connection with the hearts of children both young and old. Which leads to the question, where would puppets fit into the show of the family entertainer? Well, almost anywhere. History has proven; puppets can be a key player in conveying emotions and messages one wishes to put across to their audience. There are many styles of puppets to fit different venues and skill levels; the marionette, hand puppet, rod puppet and ventriloquist dummy are the main types of puppets most commonly used.

My lips would move if I tried that

Remember, ventriloquism is just one of many forms of a puppeteer. For heavens sake, please don’t just buy a puppet or vent figure, talk in a muffled voice from the corner of your mouth and think you’ll be the next Jeff Dunham. This is a format requiring great skill and much practice to accomplish let alone master. Let’s look at the different styles of puppetry and you may find one that suits you and your show.

The Wide World Of Puppets

Rod PuppetWayland Flowers was a great puppeteer who controlled his characters in full audience view, but did not do so as a ventriloquist. Early in his career he performed with fairy tale marionette puppets to entertain children. Later, he and his puppet Madame along with other characters entertained audiences for years on stage and television; The Andy Williams show being perhaps the most notable. Wayland’s flamboyant style and interaction with the puppets and audience made you disregard the fact that his lips were moving. Madame is called a rod puppet. Rods manipulated in one of the puppeteer’s hands move the arms, while the other hand controls the puppets head and mouth movement. Many of Jim Henson’s Muppets are also rod puppets. This is a good style of puppet to use in a children’s show format, as they are relatively easy to manipulate and allow fun arm movement.

*Fun Fact: Jim Henson was a great inspiration to the world of puppetry. Jim stared using softer materials for his Muppets; this allowed puppeteers more control of the puppets facial gestures, giving them a more lifelike appearance.

Hand puppet with moving armsThe Punch and Judy show was very popular in 16th century Europe. This show was very slapstick and its actors were hand puppets. The puppeteer controlled the puppets from below a puppet stage, which resembled a theater stage. Punch and Judy’s mouths did not move but their arms did, allowing full control of the puppet with one hand. This style of puppet allowed one puppeteer to control two puppets at once. Hand puppets are great for children’s performers as they are easy to use and can be very inexpensive. Some hand puppets mouths move and can be given great facial expressions. One of my clown friends has a variety of animal puppets that she will walk around and entertain the children with. The kids are always fascinated to see her little critter friends; all the while the puppets never make a peep. This is a great way to break the ice with the kids who aren’t too sure if they like the clown.

The art of ventriloquism is defiantly at the high skill level of puppetry, and these dolls disturb many people. Sherri Lewis combined the charming hand puppet with ventriloquism and was greatly successful with her adorable sidekick Lamb Chop. Sherri, along with her cast of characters entertained audiences of all ages for many years.

*Fun Fact: Edgar Bergen had a successful radio show as a ventriloquist. How’s that for thinking outside the box!

Howdy Doody, one of the most famous puppets of early television days was a marionette puppet. The puppeteer controls the marionette from above with a series of strings; this style of puppetry requires the use of a stage and an overhead work platform for the puppeteer. Although not a very portable style of puppet show, it is wonderful format if you have the area to set your stage.
As you can see, there are many wonderful options if you are considering adding puppets to your act. You can also find tutorial books and videos on the different styles of puppetry to help hone your skills.

Skunk Finger Puppet

Starting small

If this all seems too much to take on at first, consider finger puppets. With a variety of fun finger puppets to choose from, this could be just the thing to get you started in the amazing world of puppetry.

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