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A black and white image of a puppet pianist sitting at a piano and Madamoiselle Zizi in a long gown singing at the piano.

Puppetry at Leeds Heritage Theatres

In Variety performances, man’s best friend often takes the shape of a puppet and they’ve featured on our stages at both The Varieties and The Grand countless times. Next month we welcome Australian puppet comedian Randy Feltface to the stage at the Music Hall so what better time to delve into the world of puppetry and its place at Leeds Heritage Theatres.

Written by Sarah Jewers

 

Puppetry: a brief history

The 159 years of City Varieties is a mere scratch on the history of puppetry. The earliest mentions of puppets go as far back as the Ancient Greeks, with references to them in writings by Aristotle and Plato. A closer look at dolls discovered in archaeological digs in Greece has researchers believe they were actually used as marionettes – puppets controlled by strings.

Archaeologists have also made discoveries that confirm it wasn’t just the Greeks telling stories through humanised props. Research confirms puppets were being used in ancient Egypt, thought to be used for religious purposes. The popularity of shadow puppetry in China is believed to date back 3000 years with stories being told through creating shadows on a screen. This history continued through the Roman times and in fact, the word ‘puppet’ comes from the Latin word, ‘puppis’ meaning ‘little girl’. Regarded with fear during the time of witches and banned in England under Cromwell, puppets regained centre stage and remained a popular medium of entertainment amongst the newer forms in Restoration England.

Modern day theatre and entertainment proves the history of puppets will continue. The Lion King opened in the West End in 1999 and has been telling the story of Simba with help from puppets ever since. The popularity of shows like Avenue Q and the more PG Muppet TV shows and films including The Muppet Christmas Carol tells us puppets are here to stay.

Magnificent marionettes

The stage at City Varieties Music Hall has been graced by the weird and the wonderful over the years and the same can be said for the puppets that have featured.

Just like in Ancient Greece, marionette-style puppets have pulled in audiences. This includes the world-famous marionette puppet show, Mumford Puppets, the fruit of life-long puppet lovers Frank and Maisie Mumford’s labour. This show took to our stage several times and showed off the glamorous side of puppetry, finding itself more comparable to a cabaret than any school puppet show.

A black and white image of a puppet pianist sitting at a piano and Madamoiselle Zizi in a long gown singing at the piano.

The glamorous Madamoiselle Zizi. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

A letter from Frank Mumford reading 'I am enclosing photographs of a range of items in the repertoire that may be of interest to you. Normally I have an assistant, Maisie of course, until 1984. My present one opted out during negotiations. Mlle Zizi usually has a number with pianist and gags, leading up to the Kusseufest but in the audience. I'd be glad to know your proposition from City Varieties which Maisie and I played and televised from.

A letter from Frank Mumford to the General Manager of City Varieties. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

Perhaps the most famous of the puppets in Frank and Maisie’s show was Madamoiselle Zizi, who was described by Manchester Evening News as ‘sex appeal on strings’. In a letter to the General Manager of City Varieties in 2001, Frank says that Mlle Zizi usually had “a number with a pianist and gags” and would need “following spots” as part of her technical, showing a brain and a beating heart are not necessary when it comes to showbusiness glamour. It is believed that she was also the inspiration behind Miss Penelope in Thunderbirds with Gerry Anderson having met her in the 1960s. She was even banned by the Watch Committee at the Birmingham Hippodrome for kissing men in the audience!

The Varieties is very lucky to have played a part in the history of the Mumford Puppets. Following Maisie’s death in 1984, Frank toured his puppets solo and our stage was the place of Frank Mumford’s final performance of the Mumford Puppets in 2004, a decade before he passed away himself at the age of 95.

Black and white image of a string puppet of a bull and a string puppet matador with a traditional banderilleros' cloak.

The Mumford Puppets' matador in action. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

The bull and matador puppets in colour stood on some grass with a lake and some swans in the background.

The matador and bull giving some swans a fright. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

Ones for the kids

City Varieties has also hosted some of the most famous puppets in children’s entertainment including everyone’s favourite glove puppet Sooty.

Yellow bear Sooty was discovered on Blackpool North Pier in 1948 by Harry Corbett. Back then, Sooty didn’t have the iconic black ears we see today but was already wielding a magic wand. After perfecting Sooty’s show, Sooty and his new best friend Sweep appeared at The Varieties as early as 1957. In 75 short years, Sooty has become an icon of children’s entertainment, receiving an OBE for charitable services, a Magic Circle induction, and a Guinness Book of Records entry for having the longest-running children’s TV programme in the world. A beloved character on and off screen, Sooty is still touring to this day and we’re very fortunate to have hosted the star in the bear’s very early days in show business.

Children’s entertainment and comedy have also been defined by one puppet fox who has celebrated nearly 60 years in entertainment, the mischievous Basil Brush. Unlike Sooty, in the early days, the human behind Basil Brush was unknown and has always been hidden when performing. For 48 years, the fox was portrayed by Ivan Owen, until he died in 2000 and Owen chose to remain mostly anonymous to avoid ruining Basil’s magic. Still appearing on screens and touring the comedy circuits today, we were lucky enough to have Basil headline the final The Good Old Days in September 2022 and he even spoke to us about his glistening career which you can read here. We don’t think we’ve ever had a bartender quite so foxy. Ha Ha Ha! Boom! Boom!

City Varieties programme from Sooty's Christmas Show in 1957 featuring a large illustrated image of Sooty the bear's head and black ears with a photo of Harry Corbett holding up hand puppets Sooty and Sweep the dog in front of a small keyboard. Text reads: The Famous City Varieties. Booking Office Open 10am to 9pm. Telephone 30808. Commencing Thursday Dec. 22nd Afternoons only for 16 days only. Two shows daily. 2pm and 3.45pm. Sooty's Christmas Show. Television's famous personality Henry Corbett presents Sooty and Sweep in a wonderful holiday show for all the family.

Programme for Sooty's Christmas Show, 1957. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

Basil Brush performing at the final Good Old Days.

Basil the bartender.

The weird and wonderful

One of the most common uses of puppets on our stage has been by ventriloquists. Ventriloquism is a form of stagecraft in which a person keeps their mouth shut but is still able to speak and move the mouth of a puppet or ‘dummy’ on their hand to make it look like the puppet is talking. If done successfully, the show can have multiple characters but only need one actor. From Neville King in 2008, to City Varieties-regular Andrew Newton, to the new namesake of the auditorium Sir Ken Dodd, comedians have been showcasing their talents in ventriloquism on our stage for many years and its misleading simplicity has continually been admired.

Andrew Newton holding a microphone to the mouth of a dummy.

Andrew Newton: hypnotist and ventriloquist. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

Now for the weird. We have even had the perhaps Not Safe For Work Puppetry of the Penis, the Australian comedy-art performance featuring what Wikipedia describes as “genital contortions”, take over our stage. In one of our old brochures, the show advert gave the warning “Puppetry of the Penis is a non-sexual show featuring full frontal nudity”. Hopefully, these descriptions can help you imagine what the show entailed. It’s fair to say the art of puppetry has developed quite a lot since the Ancient world.

Puppetry in 2024

We’ve already been wowed by some incredible puppetry this year at Leeds Heritage Theatres. Back in January, we had the honour of welcoming Life of Pi to the Leeds Grand Theatre stage. The show features very large puppets to bring zoo animals to life including Richard Parker, a Royal Bengal tiger that needs two puppeteers to operate it. If we want to talk about how far puppetry has come in a few thousand years, we need not look further than this spectacle. It is puppetry on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of the first puppeteers.

And then there’s Randy. In a very contrasting use of puppetry, we are gearing up to host Australia’s purple funny man in July. TV star and fixture of the comedy circuit, adorned in a yellow suit, Randy is coming to tell us why he believes the downward spiral of humanity can be blamed on the appearance of the first banana 10,000 years ago.

The rave reviews for Life of Pi and the limited availability of tickets for Randy Feltface: First Banana must mean puppetry is here to stay. We can only wonder which puppets will take to our stages next.

Two puppeteers moving a lifesize tiger puppet

The tiger puppetry in action. Credit Johan Persson.