Bil Baird’s Winnie the Pooh is a real puppetry classic. Originally created for an episode of The Shirley Temple Show in 1960, it would go on to become a standard part of legendary American puppeteer Bil Baird’s repertoire. It was frequently performed at his theatre in New York City during the 1960s and `70s.
There isn’t a lot of video of Bil Baird performances available to watch online and, unfortunately, this isn’t the best example of his work. There are some pretty glaring problems with the puppetry, but that’s almost to be expected since budgets for TV shows like this were typically very small and producers placed an emphasis on production speed, not quality. Puppeteers weren’t able to use monitors to see their performance and sometimes shows were even recorded live-to-tape in a single take with no option for reshoots.
Notwithstanding that, on a purely technical level these marionettes are still pretty impressive. The puppets’ blinking eyes and moving mouths were innovations perfected by Faz Fazakas, who would become the in-house technical wizard at the Muppet Workshop a decade or so later. Bil is also said to have been especially proud of the complicated stringing that enabled Pooh to walk with his hands behind his back (and if you think that’s easy to do with marionette, just try it yourself!).
The original television production’s cast of puppeteers included Fania Sullivan (Piglet), Carl Harms (Tigger), Frank Sullivan (Owl, Rabbit), Faz Fazakas (Pooh), Cora Baird (Kanga), Bil himself (Eeyore) as well as David Nillo and George Baird.
Special thanks to Steve Widerman (who actually performed in Winnie the Pooh for Bil Baird in the `70s), Craig Marin (another Baird alumni) and Fred Thompson for providing me with some great background information about this show!