Paul's Puppets are 'all in the drawer sleeping now'

May 09, 1994|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,Sun Staff Writer

For 50 years the marionettes and hand puppets made hospital stays bearable, churchgoers happy and schoolchildren smile. Now they lie tucked away, forgotten.

They fill the drawers in Bernard Paul's studio in Linthicum Heights. Tags on green drawers bear the puppets' names.

There's Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf and Grandmother; Cinderella in the peasant clothing her sisters loved to ridicule and the ball gown they came to despise. There's even Pinocchio, long nose and all.

They "are all in the drawer sleeping now," said Mr. Paul, their maker.

They were somewhat famous, once upon a time. Though they never reached the national stature of "Howdy Doody," they did have a local following. From 1948 to 1958, they starred in "Paul's Puppets," a live 15-minute evening show that was broadcast twice a week on WBAL-TV. They later had a seven-month run on WMAR-TV, before going off the air.

Mr. Paul is more apt to talk about his creations than himself. He and his wife, Edith, appeared with the puppets in operas at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and in Shakespearean plays put on by the Vagabond Players. They went aboard a Navy destroyer, pitched TV ads for wine, and performed skits to show Baltimore Gas and Electric customers how to use oil furnaces.

They even entertained first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and children from the Diplomatic Corps during a White House Easter Egg Roll.

In all, Mr. Paul has crafted 500 marionettes and hand puppets, mostly from white pine on his workbench at the Linthicum Heights home where he grew up.

He closely guards his age, saying only that he is in his 80s. When pressed to be specific, he replied, "Don't push your luck, lady."

Once, he chastised his youngest son, Larry Paul, for giving his age to a reporter. Mr. Paul said that he told his 59-year-old son, "You have a big mouth. When you tell your age, you're old, you're classified."

On a recent day he reached into one drawer, pulled out a furry, brown wolf, slipped his hand inside and fell into character.

"Good evening, grandmother," he rattled in a low, menacing, raspy voice.

He crossed the room and opened one of the marionette drawers and unzipped the Queen from her muslin bag. He carefully unwound the string from her control sticks and hung her on a rod jutting from the side of a 500-pound wood and steel marionette stage he built.

He climbed the stairs to the puppeteer's landing, bent over a steel rail and started to work the Queen's strings, slowly guiding her across the stage, her long purple robe flowing behind her.

"Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who's the fairest of them all," Mr. Paul said, mimicking a woman's high-pitched voice.

"You have to move them slowly," he said. "So that they move gracefully."

Mr. Paul studied stage craft at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and always wanted to be in the theater. He graduated in 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression. Theater jobs were scarce. So he started making marionettes, and later hand puppets, which are lighter. He taught the craft at his alma mater from 1933 to 1978.

Initially, he saw puppetry simply as an amusing way to entertain people. He soon realized the puppets could make money selling merchandise, ideas and services.

The Pauls did their own script writing, stage designing, costuming, painting and acting. He left the sewing to his wife.

"Me? I can't sew a button on," he said.

He made hundreds of tiny props, everything from guns to lamps. They now fill glass cases in his studio. Library shelves are stocked with books his wife read to assure the stage sets, props and costumes were historically accurate.

"We worked so much together it was hard to tell where I stopped and she started," said Mr. Paul. His wife died last year.

The Pauls retired in 1980. The work became too much for his wife. Her circulation suffered from the hours spent bent over a steel rail, holding her hands over her head to manipulate the puppet strings. Mr. Paul said he would have continued performing, but no one could replace his wife.

"I couldn't bring anyone else in," he said.

Jo Jo the clown was perhaps, the couple's most famous puppet. He emceed the "Paul's Puppet" TV show. At the end of the show, he and Mrs. Paul would come on stage to answer letters, send out birthday greetings and whet children's appetite for the next episode.

Paul's Puppets "had a fairly substantial audience," said Paul Weitzel, a film editor at WBAL in 1954 and now its film director. He said the show had good sets and took its theme from "The Nutcracker's" Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. There was no studio audience. Eventually, a national news show took the 6 p.m. slot that "Paul's Puppets" had occupied.

"I think they just felt it had run its course," said Mr. Weitzel.

The show moved to WMAR, where it was broadcast at 9 a.m. But it was short-lived. "The kids used to seeing it weren't at home," Mr. Paul said.

Puppetry was a way of life in the Paul home. Larry Paul said he grew up thinking everyone's parents made their living with puppets. The figures that enchanted and entertained hundreds were not toys.

"Playing with them was not accepted behavior," he said. "That was their livelihood."

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