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TV puppeteers taught a generation


A generation of 1950s Baltimore children grew up with Paul's Puppets, 15 minutes of Hansel and Gretel or Jo-Jo the Clown four nights a week on WBAL-TV.

In a less complicated era of broadcasting, Bernard and Edith Paul were stars who never actually appeared on camera and were introduced by their theme music, "The Nutcracker Suite."

The Pauls, now retired from active puppeteering, still live in their old family home in Linthicum Heights, where every prop and puppet they used in a long career is carefully preserved. A wooden Cinderella and her wicked stepsisters rest in a file cabinet next to Robinson Crusoe, Hans Brinker and the Three Kittens.

There was a time when the Pauls' Nash automobile, filled to the limit with a collapsible stage, traveled from Williamsburg, Va., to Maine. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited them to the White House for an Easter egg rolling party. And when an early form of experimental television was being tested in 1931, Paul's Puppets were there.

During the early days of Baltimore television, the sound of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" meant Paul's Puppets was on the air. The 15-minute show was written by the Pauls, who also made and dressed the marionettes and constructed all the scenery, including the elaborate props that accompanied each abbreviated episode of some children's literary classic or fairy tale.

The show was introduced by a kaleidoscope. There were two sponsors -- Hutzler Brothers department store and Nestle's Ever Ready Sweet Milk Cocoa. A puppet created by the Pauls named Jo-Jo the Clown acted as the master of ceremonies.

The Pauls, who have been married nearly 65 years, had known each other before they enrolled at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. She studied costume at the institute's evening school; he took advertising art and stage design. When the Depression hit, they took up puppeteering full time and gave shows in churches and homes. They also worked with the old Guild Theater on West 22nd Street and with Maryland artist Edwin Tunis, who designed many productions at the Vagabond Theatre. Generally, Bernard Paul worked the puppet's head from wood or other material; Edith dressed them in period costume. They collaborated on the scripts.

Some of their first efforts, a set of large marionettes, were for a 1930s Vagabond production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," where the Pauls made the characters of Puck, Oberon, Mustard Seed and Moth out of wood, string and fabric scraps.

Word of their work got around. They soon were invited to do children's puppet shows at the old Hochschild Kohn & Co. department store. Part of the store's Murphy Building (in the Hochschild complex on Lexington Street) had a small theater.

Hochschild executives liked what they saw. By 1936, the Pauls were giving puppet shows in the store's main window at Howard and Lexington streets. They created a North Pole set, with Santa's workshop and a castle. Several times a day, shoppers stood outside the plate glass and watched a performance of Paul's Puppets.

In later years, the Pauls made entire windows, with doll-like figures that did not move, for both Hochschild's and Hutzler's. One commemorated the coronation of King George of England. Another was of shoppers on Howard Street at the turn of the century.

Bernard Paul approached WBAL about airing a show when television was new. The station agreed. The Pauls lacked a commercial sponsor when they went on the air Jan. 8, 1948, at Channel 11's old studios at 26th and Charles streets. Soon Amy Stirling, Hutzler's advertising director, agreed to back the show, which led into a 15-minute local news broadcast. The show remained on WBAL until May 1957. It then went over to WMAR-TV for another seven months.

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