Puppetry Journal – Fall 2010 Volume 62, No. 1
Complimentary Online Article
Mary Chase Lombard - Master Puppeteer and Television Pioneer, by Tom Andrae
In the early years of commercial television, Mary Chase Lombard (then Mary Chase) was among the first to recognize the new medium as a golden opportunity for puppets.
During the lean years of the Depression a young girl received a Christmas present that changed her life. It wasn’t a doll or a new pair of shoes but a small scrapbook her mother had made of articles clipped from the Christian Science Monitor on how to make marionettes. The scrapbook would launch Mary Chase on a thirty-five year career in puppetry, and secure her a place in history as a television pioneer.
Mary’s expertise grew as she gave puppet performances for children’s camps, schools and civic groups. These performances were usually vaudeville routines in which the music was provided by phonograph records, operated by her mother who functioned as clothes designer and general factotum for Mary’s budding puppet troupe.
Mary had an unshakable conviction that marionettes were a natural for television. She knew instinctively what television programmers would later learn: that a puppeteer could bring a whole cast to the television screen at a fraction of the cost of the same number of human actors. Chase also knew that marionettes had a universal audience appeal. Not only did children love them, their playfulness, creativity, and spontaneous joy appealed to the child in every adult. Convinced of the validity of her mission, in l94l Mary went to Chicago’s first television station, WBKB, and talked them into putting her marionettes on the air. These were some of television’s first puppet shows, Chase pioneering a whole new avenue of television programming.
In l945 Chase landed her first major professional job on WNBT an NBC affiliate in New York. At
that time the Borden company had launched an experimental twenty six week series and hired Mary to do a program called “Elsie’s Little Show,” starring their trademark character Elsie the Cow. Of her performance a Billboard reviewer remarked, that it was “the first NBC marionette act that was good video” concluding that Mary’s show was “okay plus.”
Soon afterwards, Chase was hired by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency to do a series of Seven-Up commercial films that were shown in theaters. After breaking into the film medium, Mary formed a partnership with Hyland Chesler, an independent producer of business documentaries and owner of Films for Industry. Together they would do a series of campaign films for the community chest starring an elf named Red Feather.
Mary had studied sculpture for a year, enabling her to create marionettes so lifelike they seemed able to breathe and was particularly adept at making marionettes of well known celebrities. Indeed, her creation of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope marionettes had been instrumental in getting her professional work. Chase also excelled in the creation of imaginative special effects for film. For her Seven-Up films, for example, she created marionettes that seemed to perform the impossible feat of playing ping pong, an illusion created through sound effects and the fast movements of the puppet’s paddles. “That effect required some fancy stringing,” she recalled. “The marionettes had to be strung from the side so their arms would cross over.” Mary’s expertise in sculpting believable personalities and creating novel special effects would become hallmarks of her later work.
The highlight of Chase’s career was her creation of an NBC television series named after Al Capp’s famous comic strip character Fearless Fosdick. The show debuted on June 15, 1952 and lasted thirteen weeks. Other than announcements about its premiere, few articles about the series have been written and its unavailability for viewing has led te
levision historians largely to ignore it. Those who originally watched it, however, remember it as one of the wittiest and most imaginative children’s programs of its time.
Mary’s involvement in that program resulted from a marionette performance she gave at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Paul Dozdoff, her late husband, was a concert pianist and played the musical accompaniment to an act they had created. By chance, the director of the Academy was friends with a young salesman who was trying to sell Jerry Capp, Al Capp’s brother and business manager, on the idea of doing a Li’l Abner marionette show on television. The director told the young man that he knew just the right person for the series and introduced him to Chase.
At this time Al Capp was at the pinnacle of his success. He was a frequent guest on television, Sadie Hawkins Day had become part of the national folklore, the schmoo a merchandising bonanza, and Li’l Abner’s wedding to Daisy Mae a subject of a Life cover story. Capp was very particular about how others would make his characters look. Before he would grant permission for a Li’l Abner television show, Capp asked Chase to make marionettes of the Yokum clan. Closely following Capp’s art , Mary made a trio of Li’l Abner, Daisy Mae, and Mammy Yokum marionettes so authentic that they seemed to have stepped out of the comic strip. These puppets convinced the artist that Chase would be able to bring his characters to television. However, Capp did not want to give her and Chesler the rights to Li’l Abner. “He thought that Li’l Abner was too big for a novelty like a TV puppet show,” Chase recalled, “so he gave us the rights to do Fearless Fosdick instead.”
Fosdick was Capp’s parody of Chester Gould’s comic strip Dick Tracy , and followed the strip-within-a-strip format in which Abner followed the daily adventures of his “ideel” in the newspapers. Modeled on the famous gumshoe, Fosdick wore a yellow fedora, black suit, and had the sharpedged jaw which had been Tracy’s trademark. Because she molded her marionette after Capp’s design, Chase’s version of Fosdick also resembled Tracy. However, Jerry Capp thought that the television Fosdick might be considered a copyright infringement, and asked Chase to renovate the marionette. The trick was to depart from the Tracy profile and costume, while retaining the basic resemblance to Fosdick. Chase solved the problem by replacing Fosdick’s chin with a blockier, lantern jaw, changing his black suit to a natty tweed, and jettisoning his fedora for the derby hat that he began to wear in Capp’s strips of the fifties.
Like Fosdick, other characters in the show bore a resemblance to those in Li’l Abner but were
essentially new characters Mary had to design herself. Fosdick’s “faithful assistant” was a human character named Schmoozer who closely resembled a schmoo with a small, bulbous head, no nose, a rotund body, and the characteristic schmoo whiskers. The Chief, whose appearance changed from story to story in the strip, was solidified into an Irish cop who was perpetually frustrated and angered by the antics of the thick-headed Fosdick. Rounding out the cast was Sen-Sen O’Toole, a sexy brunette who was a take-off on the voluptuous women that peopled Li’l Abner.
The pilot convinced Capp that a Fosdick puppet show was a viable idea and he placed the responsibility for supervising the project in the hands of his brother. However, as Charles Guggenheim, later producer of the show, notes, “Jerry Capp didn’t seem able to bring it off. He had no experience with producing a television show.” Consequently, Capp brought in veteran radio and television producer Louis G. Cowan. Cowan had created a number of highly successful radio programs like Quiz Kids, Stop the Music, and The Herb Shreiner Show. In the late forties he brought these programs to television, becoming an important independent producer. Cowan became partners with Chase and Chesler on the Fosdick show and was instrumental in selling it to NBC.
Charles Guggenheim was an inexperienced twenty-five-year-old who had been working as a messenger boy on The Herb Shriner Show. But now Cowen, busy with other things, gave Guggenheim the job of producing the Fosdick show. “I always tell people I started from the top down,” Guggenheim later admitted, “I knew nothing about filmmaking. The cameraman had to tell me what to do. I used to take him out to lunch everyday and ask him questions.” Guggenheim went on to become one of the foremost documentary filmmakers in America, and has won three Academy Awards.
Initially there were problems in filming Fosdick. Jerry Capp hired a Hollywood film director to direct the series. “But when the time came and he was faced with the marionettes on stage,” Chase recalled, “he didn’t know how to direct them.” The director had made the mistake of trying to direct the marionettes as if they were a live cast; Mary was brought in to solve this problem because, as a puppeteer, she knew that it was the puppeteers, not the puppets, that should be guided.
While Chase directed the action, Guggenheim supervised the recording of dialogue and blocked out scenes for filming. All the dialogue on the show was pre-recorded so that the biggest problem in filming was in trying to synchronize the movements of the puppets’ mouths with the sound track. “We would record the audio,” Guggenheim explains, “then transfer it to sixteen millimeter film which was played back on a projector over the stage. The sound and the camera were going at the same speed so that we could maintain lip sync.” Operating the marionettes from a nine foot platform, the puppeteers were able to monitor their performance by watching a large mirror placed in front of the set. Chase herself manipulated the puppets in close-ups to ensure the the final synchronization. Dick Tracy had routinely featured bizarre villains, and Capp occasionally parodied them in the Fosdick strip. However, grotesque villains became an integral part of the Fosdick TV series and showcased Chase’s genius at character design. Many of these were take-offs of movie monsters like “Batula,” a Dracula parody, which featured a vampire bat who hung upside down and stole men’s toupees, and “Frank N. Stein,” a monster who has springs for legs and jumps over houses.
Perhaps the most ingenious of Fosdicks’ villains was “Evil-Eye Fleegle,” the master of the whammy, a zoot suited, Brooklynesespeaking hood who shriveled opponents by zapping them with the evil eye To suggest the intensity of Fleegle’s gaze, Chase gave him “light bulbs that lit up and came out of their sockets.” When Fosdick tries to duplicate the power of the whammy in his lab, constructing a mock-up of Fleegle’s head, he reduces the entire room to rubble in a burst of smoke, giving Chase the chance to create one of the series’ most spectacular special effects.
Fosdick had been a summer replacement, a time slot network programmers utilized as a trial run to determine the commercial and popular interest in a program, and whether it merited becoming a regular series. Due to lack of commercial interest the network decided not to pick it up and the show lasted only a scant thirteen weeks. It aired its last episode on Sept. l2, l952. Guggenheim claims that a major reason for the series’ failure was that neither Cowan nor NBC was much interested in it and misconstrued its audience. “NBC did not know what to do with it, and mistakenly saw it as a children’s show, putting it on the air on Sunday afternoons. Li’l Abner was an adult comic strip and a satire. The writers and I always looked at Fosdick the same way.”
Mary Chase went on to a successful career producing a series of films for the State Department, then for commercial advertising. Her mechanical ingenuity was perhaps best displayed in a series of motorized exhibits humorously depicting the history of the telephone and communications technology that she produced for Southwestern Bell. These so-called “teletheaters” toured five states over the course of three years. Mary devised a means of animating the figures by means of rods connected to hidden motors beneath the floor. By this means she was able to create what were startling effects for the time, such as a barbershop quartet in which the singers mouths moved, their mustaches twitched, and the man in the barberchair kicked his feet in time to the music. Mary’s last commercial puppetry job was for Kroger Groceries for whom she created a boyscout character called “The Buy Scout” and his bespectacled pooch, “Little Bill.” She retired in 1976. However, she keeps her puppetry skills honed by performing for friends and family with her alter ego, the irrepressible Judy Witch. A deeply religious person, Mary credits her success to “praying for inspiration” when confronted with new projects and deadlines. Summing up her career Mary comments: “it’s been a wonderful experience bringing fun and laughter to so many people for so many years.”
Tom Andrae is senior Editor and co-founder of Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture. He has taught at the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University. He is the author of numerous articles on film, popular culture, and cultural studies.