Operated puppet troupe for 22 years on WBAL-TV


To thousands of young Baltimore area children, the music of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker was not about ballet, but a favorite show dating to the early days of Baltimore television broadcasting: Paul's Puppets.

Bernard H. Paul, who with his wife, Edith, created the cast of dancing and frolicking puppet characters, sets and props for the evening show that aired from the 1940s until 1960, died in his sleep Sunday at Baltimore Washington Medical Center. He was 98.

Mr. Paul was born in Baltimore and raised in the Linthicum Heights home where he lived from 1919 until last year, when he moved to Heart Homes at Linthicum.

Mr. Paul first met wife and partner Edith "Edee" Rogers, when they were students at Linthicum Elementary School. They lost touch for a while when he was attending the Severn School, from which he graduated in 1925.

They were reunited at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where Mr. Paul studied scenery making, and she costume design. They married in 1930.

Hoping for a professional career in stagecraft, Mr. Paul changed direction in the late 1920s after attending a performance of Tony Sarge's marionettes at Goucher College. The famed artist, who later became a major influence and close friend, designed the first giant cartoon character balloons used in New York's Macy's Thanksgiving Day parades.

Mr. Paul began staging his own puppet shows at MICA, and so impressed the faculty that he and his wife taught puppetry there for more than 20 years.

"Edee shared Bernie's interest, and together they saw that starting a puppet troupe was something they could undertake by themselves," wrote Amy M. Paul, a granddaughter, in a profile published by the Ann Arrundell County Historical Society.

"Their combined talents made them able to cover every aspect of the process. Bernie designed and built the puppets and sets. Edee designed and sewed the costumes and wrote the scripts. Paul's Puppets was born in 1930 and the couple always worked together as a team of two, controlling all aspects of the production from their Linthicum studio," she wrote.

In a large and well-organized studio workshop attached to their home, Mr. Paul fashioned by hand the bodies of his marionettes out of pine. Flexible joints and costumes were added next, before being strung to an overhead controller.

Heads were made of plasticine which was then covered by a plaster cast. That mold would become the basis of the head, which was later cast in plaster wood. The head was then carefully sanded, hair added, and finally painted.

The couple had an inventory of 500 princes and princesses, fairies, giants, soldiers, animals and other characters they used in performances of stories adapted by Mrs. Paul from the Arabian Nights, Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen tales, Aesop's fables, Daniel Defoe, Beatrix Potter, John Ruskin and Mark Twain.

Between shows, the marionettes and puppets were stored in zippered muslin bags in large cabinets.

"We could never play with them because they were not play toys," said a son, Larry R. Paul of Linthicum.

They used 78-rpm records in the early days for musical accompaniment, then later switched to tapes for sound effects; the Pauls supplied all the voices for their characters.

In 1934, they presented a show for President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt at the annual Easter egg roll on the grounds of the White House. They later were featured in an opera at the Peabody Conservatory and in a Shakespeare play presented by the Vagabonds.

"They have hawked gas ranges, politicians, Social Security and candy, entertained aboard Navy ships, at Army posts, on campuses, in store windows and in country clubs and homes," said a 1960 profile in the old Sun Magazine.

Their fame really began at 6 p.m. on Jan. 8, 1948, when Paul's Puppets made its debut on WBAL-TV in a 15-minute, twice-weekly show that was sponsored by Hutzler's department store. In the early years, the show's theme music was "March of the Little Fawns," which was later replaced by the music from The Nutcracker.

In a letter to a friend, Mr. Paul acknowledged that though WBAL deemed the show a success, he missed having "an enthusiastic audience in front of me."

In 1955, WBAL began broadcasting the show in color. After WBAL switched in 1957 to a news-weather program with network feeds, the station moved Paul's Puppets to a morning slot. The show foundered because many in its targeted audience were in school.

The Pauls continued staging performances in schools, hospitals and Hutzler stores until retiring in 1981. Mrs. Paul died in 1993.

Perhaps one of the most memorable characters was JoJo, the red-white-and-blue clown puppet who was an emcee and talked to the children in the audience before the beginning of the show.

"A ... blow to a gong hanging nearby startled the kids into silence. It also gave the ushers their cue to turn out the room lights. The gong was particularly appropriate for Aladdin, which began with Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Scheherazade' playing in the background. The curtains opened and the magic little people walked onto the stage and began talking to a hushed audience," said the historical society profile.

"He was a remarkable artist," said auctioneer Rick Opfer, who sold the Pauls' collection of marionettes, puppets and memorabilia this year. Mr. Paul also collected bells, Civil War armor, lead soldiers, Japanese swords, masks and Asian art. He also enjoyed carving duck decoys and spending summers at a second home in Bailey's Island, Maine.

He was a member of St. John Lutheran Church, 300 West Maple Road in Linthicum, where a memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 7.

Also surviving are another son, Peter D. Paul of Portland, Ore.; seven other grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren.


Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad