As a little girl, I had a wild imagination, giving in willingly to the suspension of disbelief… of course the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy existed! But I also questioned everything with insatiable curiosity. My kindergarten teacher called me “bright”, but she didn’t realize that I was prone to a nascent childhood sense of cynicism, and had grave doubts about certain things that adults seemingly would take for granted as being peculiar…or even normal. These things that were not only confusing to me, but so disturbing that anyone with even a modicum of common sense would recognize them as being just plain wrong.
Television in the Sixties, supposedly promoting clean, wholesome, family entertainment, was actually force-feeding the general public mixed messages containing horrific, confounding images. To me, the Ed Sullivan Show in particular was full of… bad things that were supposed to pass as comic relief. Baton twirlers, plate spinners and acrobats? Fine. But Red Skelton? You’ve got to be kidding, I thought, my five- year- old brain whirring to comprehend what could possibly be funny about an aging drunk in smeared clown make up wearing a wrinkled, ill-fitting suit and a tiny hat with a wilting flower in it. His horrific make-up made him look like a monster with five o’clock shadow, and he was always crying. To compound the already incomprehensible scenario, I understood his name to be Red Skeleton. Every time I even thought of his name, my mind’s eye saw The Grim Reaper in a bad suit, standing under a streetlight in an eerie, bloody crimson glow.
But at least Red Skeleton was a real live person, not nearly as heinous as the things grown-ups referred to as puppets. Puppets were a Sullivan Show staple. A fat, runty mouse called Topo Gigio was a regular. Grown-ups seemed to think he was cute, but you could tell he was shifty, spoiled and had ulterior motives. Then there was Edgar Bergen and his spooky pal Charlie Mc McCarthy, who sat on Bergen’s knee like a deformed baby; a miniature version of Bergen himself. This odd couple wore top hats and tails, and Charlie McCarthy had a monocle, which in itself was a bit strange.
My mother, always up on popular culture, explained that Edgar Bergen was a ventriloquist, he had the ability to throw his voice actually into the doll Charlie McCarthy, making it seem as though he’d come to life. Mom marveled over the way ventriloquists could do this, saying it was “an art form”. To me, it was apparent that she thought Edgar Bergen was sexually attractive, so because of that, she just kind of ignored the whole dummy thing. I saw through that ruse immediately… You could tell it was Edgar Bergen talking, you could see his mouth moving! I asked why they were both so dressed up, and Mom explained that they were trying to look like old-fashioned dandies. She went on to tell me that Edgar Bergen had been famous for years, becoming popular on the radio. I thought about that one long into the night. If the whole point of a ventriloquist act was to show off the fact that you could make a lifeless dummy talk without moving your mouth, if you were on the radio, where people couldn’t see anything, you could be moving your mouth all you wanted, and the general public would never catch on! I concluded that Edgar Bergen was basically a hack, a big phony that used a doll as a gimmick. I didn’t see how this creepy stuff could be construed as entertainment, but wisely, I kept quiet about it.
Remember Kukla, Fran And Ollie? That was another sick scene I never could figure out. It was a pretty lady, all perky with a peroxide blonde flip, flirting with a deadpan clown marionette whose head looked like it was formed by a golf-ball, and what appeared to be, as my friend Joey Altruda described it, a talking coffee cake. Whatever! To add to my confusion, my mother actually confessed to me that she’d dated the puppeteer, Burr Tilstrom, before she’d hooked up with my father. My mom had the “pretty lady” job before Fran took over. Now, I really didn’t know what to think.
Apparently, Kukla and Ollie, as well as Topo Gigio and Charlie McCarthy were members of a species called “puppets”, who somehow were allowed to interact with the human race. Puppets were everywhere you looked; they were all over television, at birthday parties, and hanging like limp, lynched corpses in toy stores. Evidently, they’d been around since the beginning of recorded time. Like some sub-human slave class, with their misshapen heads and tiny little hands, they existed solely for our entertainment. It was impossible for me to imagine that such a frightening phenomenon could ever become so damn popular. On the whole, as a society, as a civilization, everyone all stuck together on the same planet for a few millennia, we as humans revered them - what in the name of fuck was everyone thinking?
There was a poster my parents had framed in our house that always filled me with a nameless dread. The coarse, woodcut print graphic depicted what appeared to be a court jester and a fat nurse leering at each other in a threatening way, brandishing cave man clubs. When I was old enough to read, I saw that the banner proclaimed: PUNCH AND JUDY. I had a suspicion they might be connected to Topo Gigio and his pals, but I wasn’t sure.
Trying to stop my voice from wavering, I asked my mom what this Punch And Judy stuff was all about. Sure enough, the lunatics portrayed on the poster were puppets. Because I’d expressed interest, Mom took me to a Punch And Judy show. I didn’t want to go, but then, sometimes Mom would force me to do other things I didn’t want to do, “for my own good”, like eating canned string beans or taking a bath. I realized this was a rite of passage that had to be endured.
The Punch And Judy show was full of laughing adults and kids, and so I realized that if I wanted to blend in, I’d have to keep my panic under control. The curtains of the diminutive puppet theater opened, and the whole scenario was way worse than I’d ever imagined. The plot centered on an Italian couple that was so enmeshed in a downward spiral of domestic violence that anyone with half a brain would’ve called 911. They screamed at the top of their lungs, they strangled each other, and shrieking and wailing, battered each other mercilessly. Can somebody please tell me what is so damn hilarious about an evil, drunken hunchback dressed as a clown who routinely beats his wife with a stick? This was a sick statement about our society that my baby brain just couldn’t compute. I was beginning to recognize a pattern: if something really terrified me it was a puppet. But then my dread began to turn to curiosity: I secretly developed a shameful fetish.
In my sudden and morbid fascination, I discovered that puppets were insidious shape-shifters. Some fit over a hand or even a finger, others looked vaguely life-like, though they’re jerky, erratic movements gave them away for what they were. Many of them were fabricated of discarded yarn and rags, or what appeared to be a dirty men’s athletic sock. No matter what they were made of, they shared a few basic personality traits, shit you wouldn’t stand for a second in a fellow human being. Puppets were either mouthy smart-asses you wanted to slap, or they were really dumb and slow, talking like Elmer Fudd, but even more retarded. They were a dirty-minded bunch, ogling women and making rude comments with a rapidity and lack of control that calls to mind the hallmark symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome. Many were full of themselves, with anger-management issues. They spouted braggadocio, made proclamations and had fits and tantrums when humans didn’t bend to their will. They plotted and schemed, in many cases forgoing any and all concessions to basic civilized behavior and barreling straight into out –and- out brutality.
Some of these foul and heinous things were operated by strings, others looked like wooden dwarves, seated on the lap of a falsely cheery grown-up who was not only stupid enough to talk to it, but who labored under the misconception that children would be fooled by this psychotic ruse into thinking that the puppet actually talked back without human assistance. These Godforsaken creatures had eyes that were sometimes regular clothing buttons, stitched on blind and blank, and others had glass doll’s orbs, like marbles with moveable lids and faux- lashes that looked as stiff and synthetic as my mother’s mascara brush. The individuals with this type of eyes would roll them back and forth in an imitation of a Grande Mal seizure, while the sinister hinged mouth would jabber senselessly like tiny false teeth clacking. I learned that they went by different names, too: puppets could also be dummies, or marionettes …but the foremost characteristic they all shared was that some deranged adult would try to get a hapless child to believe that these…things… were real.
Take Paul Winchell. He seemed like a nice guy, clean cut and amiable. But then he would start throwing his voice – into these dummies, Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff. Jerry Mahoney, if you didn’t look too closely, was almost ok. He looked a little collegiate, in a nice suit and all, but he mouthed off a lot and spun his head around on his shoulders in a manner that would recall Linda Blair in The Exorcist… only it hadn’t been made yet. Jerry would chuckle in a smug, sarcastic way that made you want to rip off his woodenhead. He made Charlie McCarthy look like an upstanding member of society! He was derisive and downright abusive to his pal, Knucklehead Smiff. Knucklehead was kind of tragic, like Jerry’s learning impaired, low- budget little brother. In fact, he seemed like an after-thought. Where Jerry had synthetic hair, Knucklehead’s hair was merely painted on, like he wasn’t good enough for someone to spend the money on a puppet-sized toupee. His stark, staring eyes were painted on like a statue, they didn’t even work. Initially, I had though Paul Winchell was a decent sort, but he talked to these two in a way that was so convincing, I realized he was completely deluded, and we were supposed to go along with this debauched role-playing. Why did he have to subject innocent kids to this day after day, I wondered. Did we really need to witness this degradation? Couldn’t he just save this for the privacy of his own home? And then there was the kinky matter of Jerry’s “cousin” Tessie, whom anybody could see was Jerry Mahoney himself in drag, acting all wanton and slutty, talking like a puppet version of Mae West, resplendent in a grotesque little girl’s party dress and cheap Dolly Parton wig.
|Paul Winchell flanked by Jerry Mahoney & Knucklehead Smith|
A pretty, redheaded, pony-tailed television kiddie show hostess known as Shari Lewis seemed pleasant, until she brought out her side-kicks Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy, who not only didn’t let poor Shari finish any of the fairy tale stories she was telling, they were constantly whining, asking dumb-ass questions and having meltdowns on a regular basis.
Another TV personality, whom I quickly deemed a danger to my personal happiness and wellbeing, was Captain Kangaroo. Had I known what the word “pedophile” meant, I would have labeled him as such. Captain Kangaroo was a complete asshole. A portly bear of a man, with a bleached blond Three-Stooges bowl cut, he had delusions of grandeur, wearing a nautical coat. He lived with his “handyman”, Mr. Green Jeans, a lanky, overalled hillbilly type with no chin, whose apparent purpose was to laugh at any mundane comment Captain Kangaroo made. Of course there were puppets involved in this co-dependent nightmare of communal living. They were the fussy sissy called Bunny Rabbit, and the flighty Mr. Moose, who giggled incessantly and spoke in a grating falsetto. The other male rounding out this pack of perves was Grandfather Clock, a vicious, bitchy talking clock who couldn’t even keep time- Mr. Green jeans constantly had to wind him up. What the hell would Freud say?
And The Thunderbirds, a British TV show that featured marionettes-with their strings clearly visible- bobbing around miniature space age sets, their arms outstretched in a grotesque manner. My brother Chuckles and I were so taken with this obvious sham that we’d spend hours walking jerkily around the house, holding our arms extended in front of us, moving our heads and blinking our eyes in a sick, spastic mechanical fashion.
All of the above-mentioned were burned indelibly into my childhood psyche, via The Wonders Of Television. Their presence was so ubiquitous-and so accepted- that they began to seem likes a fact of life.
At the age of thirteen, I discovered Alice Cooper. Boy was he great- smeared mime make-up, ratty hair that looked like a clown wig that had been flushed down the toilet, sinister dummy-lines slashed around his mouth. He sang about dead babies and wanting to be elected for president… I was soooo into him. Finally, a performer who had synthesized all my Red Skeleton, dead clown, evil puppet, bad dummy nightmares into rock and roll that kicked ass!
So you can imagine my shock and surprise when my mom (the very same mother who loved Edgar Bergen, thought Topo Gigio was funny, and had a framed Punch And Judy poster) was extremely worried that I liked Alice Cooper. She actually screamed at me that she thought Alice Cooper was sick and vile!
Taking in her misplaced anger calmly, I recalled that early Punch And Judy show she had taken me to, forcing me to remain cool in the face of stupendous danger. It took everything I had to regard her calmly- she had made me this way! She thought puppets were normal, and yet she believed Alice Cooper was a threat to my sanity, and that of teenagers in general?
Summoning my will power, it took every fiber of my being not to yell back at her,
“ Sick and vile compared to what?”