William Britton "Bil" Baird (August 15, 1904 – March 18, 1987) was an American puppeteer of the mid- and late 20th century.
One of his better known creations was Charlemane the lion. He and his wife Cora Eisenberg Baird (1912–1967) produced and performed the famous puppetry sequence for "The Lonely Goatherd" in the film version of The Sound of Music.
He wrote The Art of the Puppet (1965) and also provided the puppets for Dark Shadows. Baird also created the expandable nose Peter Noone wore as Pinocchio in the 1968 musical adaptation of the Carlo Collodi story that aired on NBC as a Hallmark Hall of Fame special.
Born in Grand Island, Nebraska, Baird grew up in Mason City, Iowa. He traced his love of puppets to the moment when his father made him a simple string puppet when he was eight. In 1921, he attended a local performance of the Tony Sarg production of “Rip Van Winkle”, which cemented his interest. By the time he was fourteen, Baird was creating his own puppets and giving performances in the attic of his parents’ home.
A graduate of the University of Iowa and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, he began work with childhood idol Tony Sarg in New York City in 1928.
In 1934, Baird formed his own company, the Baird Marionettes. Their first performance was at the Chicago’s World’s Fair.
In 1950, Baird and Producer Yul Brynner created a show based on his character Snarky Parker called Life With Snarky Parker, which was a satire of westerns. the show featured numerous characters who were previously created by Baird that included Snarky Parker, Baird's Everyman character, Charlemagne, a lion, Flannel Mouse, Slugger Ryan, a piano playing rod puppet, along with new characters that included Fluffy and Nolan, a pair of gangsters, Ronald Rodent, a villain who resembled a rat, Birdie, a slightly air-headed woman, Cuda Bara, a seductress, Butterbelle, a schoolteacher and Snarky's love interest, and Paw, her father.
In 1951, Baird's Marionettes performed some of the roles in the Broadway musical Flahooley, a fantasy about a mass-produced laughing doll who unintentionally threatens the American industrial system.
In 1956 Baird's puppets Gargle and Snarky appeared in Adventures in Numbers and Space, a nine part series by Westinghouse Broadcasting designed to interest children in mathematics.
In 1958 to 1963, Baird's puppets would often appear on an educational show known as Parlons Francais (Let's Talk French), which taught young children how to speak French, for this show, Baird created two new characters named Patapouf and Cliquot, who were hand puppets that would often lecture children and hang out with Anne Slack, who was the hostess of the program.
In 1959, Baird helped create Schultz & Dooley, who appeared in advertisements for Utica Club Beer from 1959-1964.
In a career that spanned over 60 years, Baird and his puppets performed for millions.
They toured Russia, India, Tibet, Afghanistan, and Turkey, appeared in "The Lonely Goatherd" sequence in the film The Sound of Music (1965), as well as in the ABC-TV 1958 television special Art Carney Meets Peter and the Wolf and Art Carney Meets the Sorcerer's Apprentice, graced many World's Fairs, created commercials for Remington Razors, Wildroot Cream Oil, Wheaties cereal, Borden Dairy, United Cerebral Palsy and Young & Rubicam and were part of five Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parades. During the 1964/65 World's Fair in New York City, Baird's Marionettes hosted "The Show-Go-Round", an elaborate musical exhibit in the Chrysler Pavilion.
Opening in 1967, the Bil Baird Marionette Theater at 59 Barrow Street in Greenwich Village presented plays for more than a decade. Among them, Ali Baba, The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter and the Wolf, Davy Jones' Locker, A Pageant of Puppet Variety, Holiday on Strings, People is the Thing That the World is Fullest Of, Bil Baird's Band-Wagon, and The Whistling Wizard and the Sultan of Tuffet.
In 1972, Baird created an educational short film called Cartonella which told about the importance of milk, the short was a typical 'Damsel in Distress' story which featured the eponymously named "Cartonella", who was a fortune telling cow. this character would later become one of Baird's most popular characters, even having her own float during the 1974/75 Macy's Day Parades.
In 1977, Baird temporarily closed down the theater so he could create another show at Busch Gardens: The Old Country called Once Upon a Dragon, which replaced a show created by Sid and Marty Krofft called the Camelot Revue and was regularly performed at the Reynold's Aluminum Puppet Theater in the Hastings, England section of the park from 1977 to 1978. The show was notable for starting the careers of several puppeteers that would later go onto other projects, like Martin P. Robinson, who would later go on to play Telly Monster and Mr. Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street. Randy Carfagno, who would later go on to create the costumes of the Racing Presidents for the Major League Baseball Team, The Washington Nationals. Jonathan Freeman, who would later voice the Disney villain Jafar in 1992's Aladdin. And Craig Marin, who would later marry another Baird puppeteer named Olga Felgemacher and form a company known as "Flexitoon".
After Once Upon a Dragon ended, Baird Re-opened the company and help create several characters for commercials such as the "Flavor Fiend" for Bubble Yum, a family of puppets for an ad for the Now-Defunct Greenwich Savings Bank, a family of dogs and a Goldilocks character for Hartz Flea Tags, a Maid for Drano, and a puppet version of the mascot of RSO Records. Baird and his puppets would soon appear in another special for HBO called "I've Got The World on a String: The First Annual All-Star Puppet Spectacular", which featured famous singers like Rita Moreno & Ben Vereen.
Baird received many awards and honors, including the Medal of Achievement awarded by the Lotos Club of New York and Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Iowa, and was honored in 1980 by the Union International de la Marionette and Puppeteers of America at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
In 1983, Baird performed a puppet version of Igor Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat, which was his last performance before retiring due to Severe Arthritis.
On March 18, 1987, Baird died at his home in Manhattan at the age of 82 from Pneumonia and Bone-Marrow Cancer.
Baird's children Laura and Peter sold nearly all of the Bil Baird Marionettes at auction. This 800-lot auction sale was held at The Greenwich Auction Room, 110 East 13th Street, NY, NY over two days September 19–20, 1987. Marionettes depicting Elsie the Cow and her family were sold to a New York collector, a group of Rockettes and FDR and Truman puppets were sold to a Pennsylvania toy dealer; Olly Oilcan from the 1939 Chicago World's Fair sold for $11,000.00.
In December 1988 Bil Baird's Marionettes played at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York. The play Pinocchio, from the book by Jerome Coopersmith, was produced by Arthur Cantor, and performed by puppeteers Peter B Baird, Pady Blackwood, Randy Carfagno, Larry Engler, William Tost and Richard Weber. Mary Rodgers was the composer; Sheldon Harnick wrote the lyrics. (Playbill Vol.88 No.12).