||Larry Smith's puppets still make the kids smile. Even the 40-year-old youngsters.|
L arry Smith would like to bring back the Flying Purple People Eater.
“I'm trying to build a flying saucer and revive the bit," the puppeteer explains, making a violet-hued marionette dance above the basement workbench where a silver disk is being fitted with lights.
You remember the song about the Flying Purple People Eater? Then you know that this one-eyed, one-horned puppet has probably been gathering dust for a while. So what makes Smith want to resurrect it?
A shrill voice explains. "Everything old is new again." caws Hattie the Witch.
The same could be said about Hattie's career. Today, some of Larry Smith's biggest fans are also his oldest ones: adults who grew up watching Hattie, Rudy the Rooster and Teaser the Mouse on television. Smith, who had a television show before he had a driver's license, has been entertaining children for five decades. That means there are a lot of old fogies around who are nuts about Battie Hattie from Cincinnati, and about the still-youthful man who created her.
Puppets peer out from every corner of Smith's basement workshop in Westwood. Some, like the Crown Prince of Eeny Meenia, hang upside down with their "skirts" over their heads. Others dangle from wires as if frozen mid-fairy tale. Smith picks up Horace the Horse - a regular on the Uncle Al Show - and with a slight, swift tug on two strings, transforms him into a pair of clowns. He manipulates an elaborate devil marionette that does the same trick, changing from one big devil to a half-dozen little demons. Smith made the puppet years ago for a Halloween show at Johnny's Toys. "We called it 'Satan Takes a Holiday."' Not the best theme for a family show." Parents wrote to protest.
The most famous of Smith's puppets are also the simplest - Hattie and her cohorts, the hand puppets that became local celebrities. Smith heads to a storage rod that holds Snarfie R. Dog, Miss Abigail Chicken and Teaser the Mouse. Snarfie's looking quite sexy in a black leather jacket and Abigail sports a beret - "Her Monica Lewinsky look," Smith points out. But no trendy gear on Teaser, who debuted on Dayton television with a 14-year-old Smith in 1952.
Smith can barely remember a day when he wasn't a puppeteer. In a scrapbook he has a picture of himself at his family's Dayton home, a 5-year-old with a monkey puppet on his hand. In elementary school he put together his own shows with homemade figures ("I learned to make papier mache in vacation Bible school"), and a stage mounted on a wagon that he'd wheel around to neighborhood bus stops. As a freshman in high school he was earning the princely sum of $3 a show, appearing on WHIO's Tic Toc Toy Shop. By the time he graduated and came to Cincinnati to work for "Uncle" Al Lewis at WCPO, he had as much on-air experience as some adult performers.
"It was an exciting time," Smith recalls. "It was when I learned to work with a live audience." Beginning at 6 am, his puppets hosted cartoons, then he joined the gang on the Uncle Al Show before returning to his off-camera job in the station's art department. There were personal appearances and even a yearlong stint of Saturdays on national television. "At one point I was beating the hell out of Captain Kangaroo."
Puppets were perfect performers for those early years of live television. More adaptable than humans and more current than cartoons, they weren't confined to children's pro-grams. The elegant Bil Baird Marionettes, for example, appeared on Jack Parr's show. But it was Burr Tillstrom, creator of the program Kukla, Fran and Ollie, who set the standard. His engaging characters and gentle satire appealed to adults as well as children. "Burr Tillstrom excelled at acting and ad-libbing," Smith says. "[Muppets creator] Jim Henson once said, 'Burr was the one who showed us how to do it."'
Smith met and worked with Tillstrom at a convention as a teenager and came to consider him a mentor, joining him on a short-lived Broadway show in 1960. Those who've followed Smith's work say that he owes his gentle, goofy style to Tillstrom's guidance.
But it wasn't all kid stuff. In the early 1960s Smith had a television program called The Contemporaries. In it, humanoid figures - beatniks, "John and Marsha" and other nebbishy characters - pantomimed to novelty tunes and comedy routines by the likes of Stan Freberg, Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
It was adult entertainment - or as adult as entertainment got on local television in those days. Smith recalls getting close to censorship once. He created a character inspired by fan dancer Sally Rand - a Styrofoam ball for the head, fuchsia fringe for hair and a hot pink glove for the body. The climax of the act was when she slipped out of her dress, revealing a stark naked . . . hand.
"It made the station management a little uncomfortable," Smith says.
But entertaining children was always his forte. In 1968, Smith and his puppets signed with WXIX on the air, and within months his afternoon program on the new station was rated first in its time slot. The show lasted until 1974 - long after the other puppet shows of early broadcasting had ended. It was an amazing testament to the popularity of Smith's characters. Even after Howdy Doody, Lamb Chop, Kukla and Ollie were history, Hattie, Rudy and Teaser were stars.
A nd it seems they still are. Scratch a middle-aged Cincinnatian and you'll find a fan. Smith has even performed at least one woman's 40th birthday party.
Recently Skip Fenker, a local theater director, was assisting Smith with a holiday show at the Museum Center when he discovered the depth of the Baby Boomer affection.
"The kids had no idea who the characters were, but their parents were going nuts! They were standing around the poster and naming the characters, and when the puppets came on stage it was . . . Oh my God, it's Hattie!"
"Larry has always been pigeon-holed as a kid's host," says Dick Von Hoene (a.k.a. The Cool Ghoul), who worked with Smith on WXIX. "But if you go to one of his shows, you'll discover that his appeal goes way beyond children.
"His appeal is simplicity and honesty. I think there's a lot of Larry's own essence, his gentleness, in Rudy the Rooster and Teaser the Mouse. His playful side comes out in Snarfie R. Dog and Nasty Old Thing. And Hattie - well, she's the star. Or so she thinks."
Hattie is not wrong in thinking this. The hapless, often-exploded-but-never-destroyed witch does seem to be Smith's queen of hearts. Some of local television's great moments have involved Hattie, such as her nose-to-nose confrontation with freaky singer Tiny Tim and her Tunnel of Love “date” with Von Hoene’s Cool Ghoul.
Wayne Martin, who is now a Boston-based puppeteer, says, "Seeing Larry Smith's puppets on the Uncle Al Show is my earliest memory; it's why I got into this business. And for me it was Hattie the Witch that did it. There was something about her that was mesmerizing.
Years ago, Cincinnati Post’s radio/television columnist Mary Wood fell under Hattie's spell, too, and wrote about the character often. According to Smith, she would interview Hattie over lunch. As Smith recalls it, “Lunch usually began with Bloody Marys and ended with Courvoisier at the Maisonette.”
Hattie no longer travels in the fast lane, but she keeps busy. Smith does live shows, private parties and special holiday events. He also spends time working with young puppeteers in the Cincinnati Area Puppetry Guild. And he remembers what it's like to be a kid with a squeaky voice and a sock puppet; he loves to show tomorrow's puppeteers the tricks of the trade.
What he loves most is to build a new puppet and put it to work. But it's doubtful that he could come up with a face or voice that could replace the characters he's already created. And if many of those “children" are getting gray, it doesn't matter.
Recently a hard-drinking, chain-smoking resident of a local retirement home suggested that he write a show to entertain the residents.
"And Larry," she growled, "make it dirty."