TIME Art & Artists

The Nutty Ambassador: An American Puppeteer in India, 1962

LIFE celebrates the work of one of the all-time great American puppeteers: the brilliant and irreverent Bil Baird.

“Don’t think of puppets as little instant people,” advised master puppeteer Bil Baird in a February 1963 LIFE profile on he and his wife, Cora. “They have to be more than people, or less, or sharper, somehow more exaggerated — and then you just can’t beat them for kidding human pomposity and sham.”

Bil and Cora Baird, puppeteers, 1959
Bill and Cora Baird with some of their creations, New York City, 1959

Here, in recognition of the Bairds’ pioneering work with marionettes and other fancifully manipulated creatures — work that inspired the likes of the late, great father of the Muppets, Jim Hensen himself, to create a universe from wood, felt and string — LIFE.com celebrates the Bairds’ brilliance with a gallery of photos from a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of India in 1962.

(Baird dropped the second “l” from his first name when, according to LIFE, “he joined a nutty club in Chicago that required all members to have three-letter names.”)

And while the photos themselves provide a sense of Bil and Cora Baird’s creatively intense and whimsical lives, writer David Scherman’s words, from the article the article, “Puppets Puncture Pomposity,” add flavor to the portrait of this charming Greenwich Village-based couple, their two kids and their family-run entertainment business.

If you suffer from creeping conformism, acute squareness or an overstuffed shirt, an evening with Bil and Cora Baird, if you’re lucky enough to fall into one (they’re never planned — they happen) is a sure cure. If you play the one-string bass, the steam calliope or the sweet potato, it will help but it’s not mandatory. If you don’t dig music, don’t go. But if you do, you’re likely to hear a major American folksinger sing a bawdy folksong, either along or in harmony with the indefatigable Baird or a minor movie star, or eat a gourmet meal suddenly produced by Cora, or shake hands with a newly made puppet that looks suspiciously like a newly arrived guest, or get stuck in the elevator with a lovely dancer and a fat man playing calypsos on an accordion.

Like any good puppeteer, and he is he best, [Baird] is carpenter, electrician, artist, actor, athlete, poet, and plays most instruments, some very well, some awful. He is surprisingly dry-eyed about his wooden proteges, some of which may take him and his staff hundreds of hours to make: “People often ask if we love them, or feel like their parents. God, no. They don’t command love in their own right. They’re nothing if we don’t operate them. Besides,” he said, in a nonsequitur that somehow made sense, “I always give them blue eyelids.”

One final note: You know the trippy “Lonely Goatherd” marionette sequence in The Sound of Music? Bil and Cora Baird made the puppets, and were pulling the strings in that scene. There’s immortality for you!

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

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