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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. Baird 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 parent's home.
In 1934, Baird formed his own company, the Baird Marionettes. Their first performance was at the Chicago’s World’s Fair.
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 a career that spanned over 60 years, Baird and his puppets performed for millions.
They toured Russia, 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, graced many World's Fairs, 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, and The Whistling Wizard and the Sultan of Tuffet.
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.
Bil 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).