BIL BAIRD, MASTER PUPPETEER
Bil Baird (1904-1987) grew up in Mason City, Iowa and went on to become one of the world’s foremost puppeteers of the 20th century. Bil Baird was born in Grand Island, Nebraska. His parents moved around the country, following his father’s job as a chemical engineer. His interest in puppets began at age eight, when his father made him a simple string puppet. By the age of fourteen, Baird was making his own puppets and giving performances of “Treasure Island” in the attic of his parent’s Mason City home.
What exactly is a puppet? According to Bil Baird, as defined in his book “The Art of the Puppet,” a puppet is “an inanimate figure that is made to move by human effort (not mechanized) before an audience.” Puppets are figures constructed so that various parts can be moved to imitate imaginary or actual characters. They may or may not resemble human beings but are generally given exaggerated human characteristics.
During a career spanning 60 years, Baird and his “little friends”, as he called them, touched the lives of millions of people as they worked the nightclubs, city streets, Broadway stages, World’s Fairs, television, Hollywood Films, his own New York City puppet theater and other venues. His creative legacy and accomplishments are recognized and preserved at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum in Mason City, Iowa where the largest holdings of the artists/performer’s work, to be found anywhere, are regularly exhibited in the “Bil Baird: World of Puppets” exhibit.
- 1904 Bil Baird was born in Grand Island, Nebraska. His father was a chemical engineer and his mother was an Oberlin graduate and pianist.
- 1918 The Baird family moved to Mason City, Iowa
- 1921 Baird saw Tony Sarg’s “Rip Van Winkle” performed in Mason City and became interested in puppetry.
- 1922 Graduated from Mason City High School, Mason City, Iowa
- 1926 Graduated from the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa
- 1926-1927 Bil Baird studied theater arts, interior decorating and life sketching at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts
- 1927 Baird moved to Paris and played accordion in cafés at night and sketched during the day.
- 1928 He moved to New York City and began working with Tony Sarg, the leading puppeteer of that time.
- 1934 Baird formed his own company located at 50 Barrow St. in New York City and had his first performance at Chicago’s World’s Fair.
- 1937 Bil Baird married Cora Burlur and began a family and successful career together.
- 1940’s & 50’s The Baird Marionettes gained international acclaim performing in nightclubs, on Broadway, in Hollywood, on television and for audiences all over the country.
- 1958 Baird was nominated for an Emmy for the television special “Art Carney Meets Peter and the Wolf”.
- 1962 The United States State Department sent Bil Baird and Company on a seventeen-week tour of India, Nepal and Afghanistan performing “Davy Jones’ Locker” and a series of Bil Baird variety shows.
- 1962 As a result of the successful 1962 tour, the Company was sent on a ten-week tour of Russian cities.
- 1964-1965 Bil Baird’s marionettes performed in the World’s Fair in New York City. Bil Baird’s puppets appear in the “goatherd scene” in the film, “The Sound of Music”.
- 1965 The first prints of Baird’s book, “The Art of the Puppet” was released which drew inspiration from his travels and contacts with leading puppeteers of the world.
- 1967 Cora Baird died.
- 1967 Baird’s six-story puppet theater and workshop opened at 59 Barrow St. in New York’s Greenwich Village. It became the center of his many puppet activities and won an Outer Circle Award.
- 1970 The exhibit, “Retrospective of Baird’s Work” opened at Lincoln Center Library in New York City.
- 1975 The fifth float designed by Bil Baird appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
- 1976 The first exhibit of Bil Baird’s work was displayed at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum in Mason City, Iowa.
- 1977-1978 Baird created the music and lyrics for “Once Upon a Dragon” which opened in the 1500 seat house at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, Virginia.
- 1980 Baird received the Medal of Achievement given by the LOTOS Club of New York City.
- 1980 “Bil Baird and Friends Exhibit,” highlighting the life and career of Bil Baird opens at the Theater Collection, Museum of the City of New York City.
- 1980 UNIMA (Union International de la Marionette) and puppeteers of America honor Baird, Burr Tillstom, Shari Lewis and Jim Hensen at the 13th World Puppetry Festival in a performance at Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.
- 1981 “Bil Baird: World of Puppets” a permanent collection gallery opened at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum.
- 1983 Bil Baird and Margo Rose, another noted puppeteer (native of Storm Lake, Iowa) was honored at the Brunnier Gallery, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa on the occasion of the 44th National Festival of the Puppeteers of America.
- 1985 Baird received the Distinguished Alumni Award for the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.
- 1986 An exhibit of Bil Baird’s Puppets from the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum in Mason City, Iowa was featured in the Cultural Center at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa.
- 1987 Bil Baird died in March of this year in New York City.
- 1988 “The Bil Baird Memorial Exhibit” opened at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum, Mason City, Iowa.