The Muppets return to Henson family control got me thinking about what a goliath they’ve been in the last half-century of worldwide puppeteering. Between the base Muppets, the Fraggles and the Sesame Streeters in every language, there isn’t much room for anybody else.
Not that the competition has been tough, of course. Alf couldn’t hold Kermit’s Sesame Street News notepad. But there have been some worthy of respect and of more recognition than they have today. Here’s my top five non-Muppet puppet list, in no particular order:
1. Pepe Locuaz – picture
I choose Univision’s “Loquacious Pepe” from a non-Spanish-speaking viewer’s perspective. Hablo un poco espaÃ±ol pero no mucho. Although mostly incomprehensible to me, Pepe succeeds on the Zeppo, the least expressive, end of the Marx scale. If you haven’t seen Pepe in his various Univision roles — I’m pretty sure I’m familiar with him from Sabado Gigante — then think of Sam the Eagle crossed with Guy Smiley. Professionalism interrupted by brief bouts of insanity.
2. Senor Wences’ hand puppets – picture
The hand puppets, boxed and otherwise, of master ventriloquist Senor Wences are the first of the two Ed Sullivan-appearing selections on my list. I blame Elvis, pre-Blockbuster Erols Video and the late WFTY’s rerun budget for my Ed affliction. I also blame my love of spinning plates. Returning to the subject: Wences differentiated himself from the ventriloquists I had seen on TV before (before age 12 or so). Instead of doing the Charlie Bergen, dummy-on-the-knee style, Wences offered himself to his puppets as a psychologist. The touchy-feely interaction offered a strange amount of reality in the sometimes-supernatural amount of star power on the Sullivan show. In America’s run to splintering audiences, Wences was a unifier worthy of both vaudeville and Comedy Central. The county was moving away from World War II’s “us” and toward the 1970’s Me Generation, but Wences asked about “you” and how you were doing. “S’ok?” “S’alright.”
3. Topo Gigio – picture
In the waning days of European ethnic stereotypes, before the silent majority found new opposition, there would be Topo Gigio, “The Little Italian Mouse.” His Ed Sullivan appearances and own appearance were unique. Although less than a foot tall, he popped in with the tiny, accented squeak of a full-ranged man high on helium, theater paint fumes and overdone marinara. But there was something basely appealing in that. Like any swooning toddler, he was cute in his contagious giddiness. Some detractors have pointed to his 1963 debut as when Sullivan jumped the shark, essentially comparing Gigio to the kid-friendly additions of the Cosby Show (Olivia) and Scooby Doo (Scrappy); but having missed living through that time, to me Gigio seems to have been the perfect add to an aging vaudeville formula. The televised cartoon was on the rise forward, and Gigio countered their parries with context. He wanted Eddie to kiss him goodnight. On Sunday nights, the accent aside, the mouse’s loving and frantic pleas segued warmly into the youngest demo toddling off to bed.
4. Daniel Striped Tiger – picture
Daniel Striped Tiger wore a watch and lived in a clock, yet his problems in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe were mostly emotional instead of logistical. He showed us the difference between timid and neurotic — the timid keep their nerves to themselves; the neurotic tell everyone. And while Daniel Tiger was neurotic, that flaw was okay in his case. He was neurotic for our sake. Because we were the timid ones, if you remember, and we needed all the exposition of fear we could get. Just as fortunately, he also helped with the answers to our problem. Sounding like “a 3-year-old with a two-pack habit,” he scratched out his main lesson over and over again: “Ugga-mugga.” His secondary lesson was implicit: Wear a watch. A lot of love and little legwork.
The Captain hears the children sing, adds his baritone to the final verse and runs to catch Maria. He apologizes and asks her to stay. “If I could be of any help,” she says. “You have already,” he replies. “More than you know.” The next scene begins, and the lonely goatherd finds love. Lay-ee-odl, lay-ee-odl-oo.