Beloved Puppets: From Innocence to Resistance

Beloved Puppets: From Innocence to Resistance

“And when the Nazis occupied Prague during World War II, the puppet theatre helped to keep the spirit of resistance alive.”

Yesterday I volunteered as an usher for a film showing in the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) Danto Lecture Hall. I took tickets, passed out programs and when the film was showing I sat at a table in the in the hallway answering questions and assisting with late arrivals.

rodpuppetcrI was disappointed I couldn’t see the film, but happy that my table was opposite the rotating exhibit of the DIA Paul McPharlin Puppetry Collection – over 800 puppets gifted from the family of the puppeteer and puppet collector Paul McPharlin. McPharlin collected puppets from all over the world and some from nearly 250 years ago. Dozens of children walked by my table and gazed at the marionettes. To hold their attention I tapped the digital touch screen show of dancing puppets from shadow to rod.

Because the DIA’s puppets are made from light sensitive materials, they can only be displayed six months at a time. The current DIA exhibit is of rod puppets used to tell the Nativity story and the play “Death of Tintagiles.” Six months ago I was delighted to see a different special exhibit called “VIPs (Very Important Puppets) from the Paul McPharlin Puppetry Collection.”

Creative Commons, Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith
Creative Commons, Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith

The star of the exhibit was the original Howdy Doody marionette. When I was growing up there were few television celebrities more beloved by children than Howdy Doody. He was a red-haired, carefree and innocent, freckle-faced, “all American” boy marionette with a perpetual smile, and 48 freckles, one for each state of the union as on the American flag at the time. On January 3, 1959 Alaska was admitted and there were 49. Hawaii made it 50 when it was granted statehood seven months later.

I was a devoted fan and like many others considered Howdy and Buffalo Bob Smith, his sidekick, voice, and real person, my friends. I’ve never forgotten Howdy so I was thrilled when the Detroit Institute of Arts acquired and displayed the original Howdy Doody marionette dressed in his original red cowboy boots, buckskin gloves and wide smile.

Shortly, after my reunion with Howdy late last fall in Detroit, I visited the Czech Republic. There, I was reminded of the 300+ year old Czechoslovak tradition of puppetry. The people in Prague last November were definitely passionate about their puppets with puppet shows and puppet shops on nearly every block and a puppet museum, too. Somewhere I read that puppets may outnumber people in Prague!

Creative Commons, Spejbl and Hurvinek
Creative Commons, Spejbl and Hurvinek

They specialize in beautifully hand carved wooden puppets of many characters – devils, witches, princesses, kings, queens and even American icons like Superman, Michael Jackson, and Elvis.  But, perhaps, their most beloved marionette puppet characters of the past are a comical father named Spejbl created in 1919 and his rascal son Hurvinek created in 1926 by puppeteer Josef Skupa.

While working on promoting my late husband’s book, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, I discovered not all puppeteers and their puppets have lived carefree, innocent lives. When the Czech language was banned by the Austrian Hungarian empire in the nineteenth century puppeteers continued to perform in Czech as an act of defiance. And Czech puppeteers like Skupa have a tradition of radical puppetry.

When the Nazis occupied Prague during World War II, the puppet theatre helped to keep the spirit of resistance alive. The Czechs organized illegal underground performances in homes and basements with anti-fascist themes. Radical puppet shows were also performed in public. The Nazis were slow to recognize the work of the puppet theater as a center of national resistance because it was mere entertainment for children and in a foreign language. Just how subversive could a block of wood on a piece of string get?

But puppeteers like Josef Skupa and his leading character Spejbl, did wartime tours of adult puppet plays with subtle symbolic points unnoticeable to the Nazi censors. One of the best real-life stories of puppets during World War II is related to Spejbl and Hurvínek. Skupa AND the puppets were arrested* in 1944 for anti-fascist resistance activities and jailed by the Nazis after the Gestapo realized Spejbl and Hurvínek shows were underhandedly mocking Adolf Hitler and the Germans! Eventually the Nazi’s curbed all Czech puppetry and over 100 puppeteers died under torture in the concentration camps.

Last Saturday as I sat at the table across from the puppet exhibit at the DIA, a man looking at the puppets, turned to me saying, “My wife and I just returned from Prague on a tour. We visited the National Marionette Theatre and saw an entertaining puppet show.”

He hadn’t had heard the story of Joseph Skupa and his subversive puppets during the Nazi occupation of World War II. He was amazed to learn how Czech puppeteers fought for freedom in the resistance and sacrificed their lives sharing messages and airing their views through a seemingly harmless art form thought by the Nazis to only be for children.


* Josef Skupa escaped from a Dresden prison during an allied bombing in February of 1945. After his escape and after the war Skupa opened the Spejbl & Hurvínek Theater in 1945 in Prague 6 from where it has remained until today.

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