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Bil Baird
1904 -1987

William Britton "Bil" Baird was an American puppeteer of the mid- and late 20th century. He and his puppets performed for millions of adults and children. One of his better-known creations was Charlemane the lion. He and his wife Cora Eisenberg Baird (1912–1967) produced and performed the famous puppetry sequence for "The Lonely Goatherd" in the film version of The Sound of Music. His son Peter Baird was also a puppeteer, and he continued his family's legacy until his own death in July 2004. He wrote The Art of the Puppet (1965) and provided the puppets for Dark Shadows.

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Baird also created the expandable nose Peter Noone wore as Pinocchio in the 1968 musical adaptation of the Carlo Collodi story that aired on NBC as a Hallmark Hall of Fame special. Born in Grand Island, Nebraska, Baird grew up in Mason City, Iowa. He traced his love of puppets to the moment when his father made him a simple string puppet when he was eight. In 1921, he attended a local performance of the Tony Sarg production of Rip Van Winkle, which cemented his interest. By the time he was 14, Baird was creating his own puppets and giving performances in the attic of his parents' home. In 1928, he helped Tony Sarg create the giant balloons for Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

A graduate of the University of Iowa and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, he began work with childhood idol Tony Sarg in New York City in 1928. Several years later Baird formed his own company, the Baird Marionettes, which performed initially at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. In 1950, Baird and Producer Yul Brynner created a show based on his character Snarky Parker called Life With Snarky Parker, which was a satire of American Westerns. The show featured numerous characters who were previously created by Baird, including "Snarky Parker", the lion "Charlemane", "Flannel Mouse" and "Slugger Ryan", a piano-playing rod puppet. In 1959, Baird helped create Schultz & Dooley, who appeared in advertisements for Utica Club Beer from 1959–1964.

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They toured RussiaIndiaNepalAfghanistan, Turkey, and appeared in "The Lonely Goatherd" sequence in the film The Sound of Music (1965). In 1974, Baird married actress Josie Lloyd, 36 years his junior, and they remained together until his death in 1987. Baird continued his puppetry work and helped create several characters for commercials such as the "Flavor Fiend" for Bubble Yum, a family of puppets for an ad for the now-defunct Greenwich Savings Bank. In 1983, Baird performed a puppet version of Igor Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat, which was his last performance before retiring due to severe arthritis. In 1985, Baird made a brief return in which he performed one of his own plays called "The Dragon and The Dentist."

On March 18, 1987, Baird died at his home in Manhattan at the age of 82 from pneumonia and cancer. Six months after his death, on September 19–20, Baird's children Laura and Peter sold nearly all of the remaining Bil Baird Marionettes at auction. The 800-lot sale was held in New York City at The Greenwich Auction Room located at 110 East 13th Street. Bonnie Bien invited a class of young students to a puppet show during the exhibition. Peter Baird and others from the Bil Baird Troupe entertained the children. Bonnie as the gallery public relations expert worked all summer until Rita Rieff who wrote the New York Times Auction picked up Bonnie's press release for print.

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Marionettes depicting Elsie the Cow and her family were sold to a New York collector. A group of Rockette figures and caricature puppets of U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were purchased by a Pennsylvania toy dealer. Another character, "Olly Oilcan" from the 1939 New York World's Fair, sold for $11,000 (equivalent to $30,000 in 2023). Baird received many awards and honours during his career, including the Medal of Achievement awarded by the Lotos Club of New York and the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Iowa. He was also honoured in 1980 by the Union International de la Marionette and Puppeteers of America at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC.

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