Commentary: The ancient art of puppetry still shines in St. Louis

Jun 5, 2015

Nancy Kranzberg

The Sheldon Art Galleries recently featured the incredibly beautiful and well-crafted marionettes of the Bob Kramer Marionnette Studio. I remember way back when, about 35 years ago, having a birthday party for my daughter in the studio which is still in the same location on Laclede.

Bob Kramer and Dug Feltch are still performing and making these gorgeous creatures in their studio and not only have they traveled the world, they are world famous and have brought this fame back to our St. Louis. Their studio is one of the few puppetry studios left in the country and maybe even the world.

They have repaired the original Howdy Doody doll and are known as the guys in the know when it comes to puppetry.

According to Dug Feltch, puppetry is a dying art form. He says originally the puppets were made of fine woods and other precious materials and that today puppets are often shabbily put together with plastics and other everyday materials. 

Puppetry can be defined as any inanimate object that is brought to life in some way. According to Feltch, ventriloquists have their own societies and don't belong to The Puppeteers of America. The reason isn't exactly clear.

Puppetry is a multi-disciplined art form which includes storytelling, theater and often includes music and dance. It's a very ancient art form. Jointed wooden figures have been carbon dated to have been around many thousands of years B.C.E. It has been used in almost all human societies as entertainment, in religious ceremonies and rituals, and celebrations such as carnivals. 

Egyptians used wire operated wooden puppets.  Ancient Greece had the oldest written records of puppetry in which Herodotus and Xenophon were mentioned, and secret societies in Africa still are using puppetry and masking in their ceremonies.

In Asia, works such as the Kamasutra elaborate in written records on the use of puppets and the Chinese Shadow Theater is still around after all these years. Japan has many forms of puppetry including the famous Buraka which developed out of the Shinto Temple rites.

In Viet Nam, water puppetry is unique to the region and the list goes on and on.

In more modern times, acts such as the Punch and Judy Show in England can trace their roots to the 16th century Commedia dell'arte and puppet theaters have been popular virtually all over Europe. 

In the United States radio and television changed the venues for many puppet and ventriloquist acts and the audiences became much larger. Kelly Asbury's "Dummy Days," says, "In the mid 1950's, long before Barbie or Ken dolls, Star Wars figures or computer games, one of the Big Toys for a kid was a "speaking doll" named Jerry Mahoney. That Jerry Mahoney doll was at the top of many a child's Christmas list. Jerry joined the ranks of other dummy dolls who were big names in those days, such as Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd."

Here's just a quick note on ventriloquism. It was originally used as a religious practice and the word actually comes from the Latin "speak from the stomach." At the temple of Apollo in Delphi, the priestess supposedly acted as a conduit for the Delphic Oracle.

Ken Kranzberg and his dummy, Chauncy, were used even before Kramer and Feltch went in to business, to earn money for college. They became such a pair that they were on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour. Ken is doing well, but Chauncy is not and has to go to the Bob Kramer Marionnette Studio to get fixed up a bit. 

If you want a taste of the real McCoy in puppetry, make an appointment and have a tour or a birthday party at Bob Kramer Marionnettes on Laclede.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for some thirty years on numerous arts related boards.