Puppet theater has long enjoyed popularity in Washington. The region has often generated a vibrant children’s theater scene offering a multiplicity of styles for a variety of audiences. One particularly effervescent strand in the tapestry of Washington puppetry began to be woven in 1967 when Bob and Judy Brown arrived from New York.
Bob Braunschweiger, the son of a German immigrant baker, had grown up in New Jersey where he discovered puppetry at an early age. By his teen years, Bob began seeking out master puppeteers in nearby New York. Bil and Cora Baird, who had already gained notoriety, became enthusiastic mentors. Various New York puppet performers soon invited him to join in on tour.
Though still a teen, his career of making puppets and building sets had taken off. His first television appearance came when he helped Len and Patsy Piper launch “Poochie’s Playhouse” on WKOW TV in Madison, Wisconsin. Around this time Bob changed his name to Brown so that future audiences could more easily spell it.
Bob Brown accompanied the Bairds on a three-and-a-half month State Department tour of India and the Soviet Union. In 1964, after having been drafted into the Army, Bob found himself creating live puppet shows for his fellow GIs.
Judy Brown was born in Dallas and moved to New York as a teenager where her father – a former stage manager for Minsky’s Burlesque—and her mother – a former Hollywood stuntwoman – introduced her to theater. A student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Judy answered a call for puppet voice actors. Two years later in 1964 she met Bob at a puppeteer’s festival in Miami.
The couple soon married, and established the Bob Brown Puppets. Bob and Judy divided their responsibilities. She primarily conceptualized, directed and scripted the shows while her husband designed the sets and props.
Meanwhile, Smithsonian secretary Dillon Ripley had been looking for a resident puppet company and, after a successful audition, brought the couple to Washington. Within weeks they were performing a Punch and Judy show in a tent set up on the National Mall. Before too long, they were performing at Trisha Nixon’s Halloween party at the White House.
Bob and Judy had become chary of placing too many hopes on Punch and Judy. Instead, they carefully studied the reaction of children to develop storylines that could hold their attention without frightening or upsetting them. Judy tackled the script writing, expanding their repertoire with her own takes on old stories. Her interpretation of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” for the 1968 holiday season cemented their place in the hearts of Washington audiences.
The Browns were so successful that the Smithsonian decided to open a puppet theater inside the new National Museum of American History. The Browns were an instant hit, drawing 100,000 audience members their first year to the 225-seat Museum’s third floor children’s theater.
The Browns began to perform in ever wider circles. In 1971, they took on the part of the Wolf in a National Symphony performance of “Peter and the Wolf” at the Kennedy Center. Fred Rogers happened to be in the audience and invited the Browns to join in his show for PBS, “Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood.” The Browns would appear in nearly 50 episodes of the popular series.
The company had agreed to an annual contract and a split of the profits with the Smithsonian. Wanting to build on their fantastic success, Judy proposed that the Smithsonian expand the theater to 400 seats. Instead, the Smithsonian brought the curtain down on their show on September 7, 1970 after a three year run. Fred Thompson replaced the Browns as the resident puppeteer. Thompson’s opening was delayed by several weeks when fire engulfed the theater shortly after his arrival. The Smithsonian Puppet Theater eventually evolved into today’s highly successful multi-media Discovery Theater.
Their tenure at the Smithsonian convinced the Browns that they should avoid touring, as was the norm for many puppeteers then and now. Remaining at one stage allowed the company to develop intricate, mechanical productions reliant on complex lighting effects. They calculated that setting up and breaking down a production required three hours, time better spent on keeping their marionettes and equipment in good repair.
Having lost their Smithsonian home, the couple looked around the city and reached a deal with the Washington Theater Club to move into the club’s carriage house theater at 1632 O Street. The Club was looking for revenue to support its expanded operations at a new revenue in a remodeled at 23rd and L Streets NW.
The Browns opened their new theater in November 1970 with a production of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” They replaced the old theater’s 142 adult seats with child-sized seating accommodating 200 tots. Their popularity did not diminish. Jeannette Smyth reported on a production of “Cinderella” in the October 25, 1971 edition of the Washington Post, writing, “two recent audiences – one of five-year-olds and one of second-graders – loved it… The five-year-olds were awed, for the most part, but didn’t squirm throughout the 45 minute show. The second-graders were cracking up and responding in the audience-participation part.” Just a few weeks later, in February 1972, the company shut down unable to sustain audience enthusiasm in a decaying facility and neighborhood. The puppets were displaced once more and the Club went out of business in 1974.
The Browns moved to Northern Virginia where they became embedded in the local cultural scene. They continued to perform around the region at such venues as Maryland’s Glen Echo Park, DC’s National Zoo, and Virginia’s Wolf Trap. They have performed for three presidents, and in 2008, Virginia’s Governor honored the company with the Commonwealth’s Award for the Arts. Judy died in 2013, while Bob and his company continue to delight young audiences to this day.
Puppetry in our area:
Bob Brown Puppets in Oakton, VA
The Puppet Co in Glen Echo Park, MD
Beale Street Puppets in Baltimore
Playwrights favor puppets as well. You might remember Puppet Kitchen’s work on Snow Child at Arena Stage.
Pointless Theatre can always be counted on for unique puppetry.
And for those interested in meeting and training with other puppeteers, contact Rhizome Puppet Lab in DC.