Bil Baird and His Marionette Theater
While Bil Baird may not be a household name today, his legacy lives on across the globe through a famous scene in the 1965 movie, The Sound of Music. Baird, a master puppeteer, produced and performed “The Lonely Goatherd” (above) with his wife Cora and their band of marionettes. With a little movie magic, however, it looks as though it is Maria and the Von Trapp children who are bringing these creatures to life.
Around this time, nearly 50 years ago, Bil and Cora bought the six-story building at 59 Barrow Street in 1964 to use as their home, marionette theater, and filming studio. This was an interesting time in the Village, too, considering discussions for a potential historic district (or districts) here were already underway. (It would not be until 1969, however, that the Greenwich Village Historic District was officially designated.)
Bil Baird’s career spanned over 60 years. From his brilliant imagination came over 3,000 puppets, from his popular Charlemagne the Lion (pictured above) to the many characters of such beloved stories as Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. According to Bil Baird’s 1987 obituary in The New York Times:
With his third wife, Cora, he put on puppet shows from New York to the Soviet Union and India. His marionettes starred in the Ziegfeld Follies, broke box-office records on Broadway, were the dancing goats in the movie version of ”The Sound of Music,” and strutted their stuff on television for Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar and Sid Caesar. The Bairds also had their own television program and made hundreds of commercials.
When Bil and Cora Baird bought the building on Barrow Street (between Bedford and Bleecker Streets), it was not without some difficulty, as some neighbors didn’t want the theater to be allowed in a residential area. After some opposition, the Bil Baird Theater began offering free programs to underprivileged children in the summer of 1966. Later in the year, on December 24th, the doors officially opened for its first ever production: Davey Jones’ Locker (pictured above).
According to a New York Times article in that year, the marionette theater was a lifelong dream of the Bairds. The theater, located on the ground floor, held 193 seats and offered children afternoon programs as well as adult evening revues. The Bairds also called the Village their home, as they lived with their two children on the fourth floor (their film studio could be found on the second).
Said Baird, “We intend to attract the best writing and composing talent, so that we may compete internationally as we should.” With an already impressive resume, Baird had no problem attracting some of the best talent in puppetry, including at least 30 performers who would later go on to work with the one and only Jim Henson, the visionary of The Muppets and many other creations. Henson, who is said to have also trained with Baird, cited Bil and Cora’s “Life with Snarky Parker“, a short-lived television show from 1950, as one of his early influences.
Cora died in 1967, but Bil continued to perform until shortly before his death in 1987 at his Barrow Street home. An obituary describes the puppeteer in his twilight years: “He grew in recent years to look a bit like an elf himself, fey and silver-haired, with twinkling eyes and a little beard, as he labored away in his Barrow Street workshop. A visitor there in the early 1980’s said he alternately resembled a medieval wizard and one of Santa’s helpers in the midst of walls and ceilings dripping with puppets and marionettes.”
After his death, over 600 of his handcrafted puppets were sold in an auction held at the Greenwich Auction Room at 110 East 13th Street. The Charles H. MacNider Art Museum in Mason City, Iowa – where Bil Baird grew up – received puppets both from Bil and, later, his daughter that are still housed in its collection.
The building itself at 59 Barrow Street is now within the Greenwich Village Historic District, described as a “strictly utilitarian” loft that was built in 1908-09. It was designed by Julius J. Dieman for Macdougald Haman. (Learn more about this district on our Resources page.)
Do you remember Bil Baird’s marionette theater? Here’s a look back at Cora and Bil themselves, performing with puppets in support of the March of Dimes in 1955: