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History of and Differences Between Marionettes, Puppets, and Ventriloquists Figures

Beverley Byer has been writing professionally for a number of years. Her work has been published in magazines and newspapers.

What are the major differences between marionettes, puppets, and ventriloquist figures?

What are the major differences between marionettes, puppets, and ventriloquist figures?

Marionettes, Puppets, and Ventriloquists Figures

Most of us lump marionettes, puppets, and ventriloquist figures under the heading of puppets. However, there are historical, constructional, and operational differences unique to each. The biggest similarity is that they are all inanimate representations of humans (and sometimes animals) and have been used to convey sensitive or taboo social behaviors, teach culture and religion, or simply for entertainment.

A German marionette theater

A German marionette theater

What’s Unique About Marionettes?

Here is a bit about marionettes to get us started. We'll cover their history, construction and operation, and finally, famous marionettes and manipulators.

Historical Information

The word marionette is thought to have derived from the role of Mary, mother of Jesus as depicted in the Nativity story. There is also the belief that it stems from mariole, an Old French word for musical instrument.

Findings in Egypt indicate that marionettes have been around since around 2000 BC. The 800 BC writings “The Iliad” and “Odyssey” from the poet Homer, as well as the 500 BC writings of Plato and Aristotle, also mention marionettes. Additionally, in ancient Greece and Rome, marionette toys were unearthed from children’s tombs.

In 15th century Myanmar (Burma), marionette troupes were employed by the king to highlight and correct the misbehaviors of family members and save them embarrassment. Ordinary citizens also used the dolls as vehicles to respectfully express their dissatisfaction with the king and his court.

In Europe, Italy is considered the birthplace of the marionette, but dolls have also been found in Austria, Germany, and what is known today as the Czech Republic. In the 18th century, full-length operas were specifically written for marionettes. The tradition is still ongoing in regions of Germany as is the Austria Salzburg Marionette Theater in Salzburg, Austria.

Evidence of marionettes was also discovered in the Americas. Every March, the Native American Hopi Indians performed a ritual called Palu Lakonti in which they paraded huge snakes above the earth and over corn fields.

Construction and Operation

Strings or wires are attached to the head, hands, wrists, backs, and knees of the marionette and then to an overhead bar. These are controlled by a puppeteer called a manipulator. Construction materials and decorations depend on culture and usage.

Marionettes from Egypt as well as ancient Greece and Rome were made of clay, ivory, or softwood. Those in Myanmar were wooden with painted (tamarind paste) faces, hands, and feet, and human hair on their heads. Europeans used mainly wood and leather. In North America, clay and wood were common. In addition to the historical materials mentioned, synthetics and automation with pulley motors and computer programming are used in the construction of today’s dolls.

Famous Marionettes and Manipulators

Almost everyone has heard of Pinocchio. This famous marionette was created in 1881 by the Italian author Carlo Collodi in his work The Adventures of Pinocchio. In the United States, we are familiar with Howdy Doody. The voice was first invented by Bob Smith of NBC’s Radio America in the 1940s. The figure was created by Frank Paris, and E. Roger Muir produced a show in 1947 that featured the figure. There was also the 2004 movie spoof Team America: World Police, in which marionettes played the roles of heroes and terrorists.

There is also the famous scene from the 1965 film adaptation of The Sound of Music where Julie Andrews sings "The Lonely Goatherd" with the help of the von Trapp family children. You can watch the clip below; it features plenty of marionettes—both goat and human!

The traditional Punch and Judy puppet show.

The traditional Punch and Judy puppet show.

What’s Unique About Puppets?

Now, onto puppets!

Historical Information

Some credit India with inventing puppets around 1000 BC, while others give that distinction to China. Puppets have also been discovered in Turkey, Japan, Europe, and North America. In India, stick puppets were used to explain sacred texts and rituals. Chinese shadow puppets were used similarly in specially-designed theaters.

European puppets were used mostly in comedic dramas for the theater, especially from the 14th to the 19th century. During those years, the art form had been relegated to the same low-class status as gypsies, jesters, and jugglers. In North America, Native Americans used puppets in the same way they did marionettes, for religious rituals and seasonal ceremonies. In many places today, puppetry has been elevated to the status of fine art.

Construction and Operation

In general, puppets are controlled through various means by people called puppeteers. The Egyptians used clay, softwood, or ivory to make their puppets. As mentioned already, puppeteers in India used wood sticks. Chinese shadow puppets were made of the dried, stretched skins of the donkey, buffalo, sheep, or pig. They were painted, and positioned before a translucent screen and were controlled below by strings attached to necks and hands.

The Turks attached strings to the waists of their dolls and manipulated them sideways. Japanese puppets were larger with a lot of expressions. Europeans used a more intricate pattern of a central rod to which the puppet’s head was attached, and rods in its hands. The body was covered with and connected by clothing.

Hand puppets made an appearance in 17th century America. They were cheaper to make and simpler and easier to operate than marionettes. Shows could be performed from the backs of wagons and portable stages were cheaper than stages and venues. Hand puppets include the sock puppet where a hand is placed inside a sock and manipulated to indicate a speaking head. Eyes, eyelids, etc. were occasionally added for a touch of realism.

Famous Puppets and Puppeteers

Some of the world’s famous puppets include the hand puppets Kukla, Fran, and Ollie created by puppeteer Burr Tillstrom in a 1947 television show. Jim Henson’s puppets—The Muppets—created by the Jim Henson Company in 1955 have had an enduring legacy and continue to appear in film and television.

There is also the musical adaptation of The Lion King, originally directed by Julie Taymor, that debuted in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1997 and has played on Broadway since. Many of the characters are puppets that entail using the entire actor's body to operate.

Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney dummy

Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney dummy

What’s Unique about Ventriloquist Figures (Dummies)?

And lastly, a bit about ventriloquist figures, more commonly referred to as dummies.

Historical Information

Ventriloquism began in the 6th century BC in Egypt and Greece. A Greek priestess named Phyia would enter into a trance, and without moving her lips, would throw her voice before an audience who thought the gods, heaven, or their idols were speaking directly to them. This specialty became known as ventriloquism, which is Latin for belly/stomach speaking.

From this, so-called prophets created necromancy: spirits residing in and speaking through stomachs. In some cultures, it was considered illegal and punishable by death. People in the Middle Ages called it witchcraft and the Christian church labeled it taboo. Louis Brabert, a member of the French Court of King Francis I, is historically regarded as the first European to engage in the farce.

Ventriloquism returned to 16th century England in the form of comedic entertainment and spread to North America by the 18th century when the show business genre Vaudeville was in full swing. Fred Russell who is referred to as “the father of ventriloquism” was the first to create and perform with a ventriloquist figure. Today the art form is popular in nightclubs and on television.

Construction and Operation

Ventriloquist figures or dummies were traditionally made from paper mache or wood. Over the centuries, materials extended to textiles, foam, rubber, fiberglass resins, and latex. They varied in size from rather huge to rather small. They were given facial features, expressions, and voice tones to reflect unique personalities as desired by their creators.

The figures usually sit on the lap of the ventriloquist or on a stool. They are operated from a hole in their backs through which the hand is placed to control the movement of the head and facial features. The skill of voice throwing without lip movement is specialized and requires practice.

Famous Ventriloquist Figures (Dummies) and Ventriloquists

Vaudeville's acts of the 19th century included Arthur Prince and his ventriloquist figure Sailor Jim. Beginning in the late 1930s, American actor Edgar Bergen created an international stir with his figure Charlie McCarthy. In the 1950s and 60s, actor, comedian, and inventor Paul Winchell performed with his Jerry Mahoney figure.

Also in the 1950s and 60s on American television was puppeteer Shari Lewis with hand puppets, Lamb Chop, and Charlie Horse. Today among others, we have comedian Jeff Dunham with his varied, funny, and unique ventriloquist dummies including Achmed the Dead Terrorist, Walter, and Bubba J. He appears frequently on the American television show Comedy Central.

Though America and Europe produced many celebrated ventriloquists, there are also the Padhyes of India. They turned the art form into a family business beginning with grandfather Y.K., followed by son Ramdas, and then by grandson Satyajit. They are considered the first family of ventriloquism in India.



Beverley Byer (author) from United States of America on October 11, 2016:

Jimmy, thanks for your comments! Jeff Dunham is good. Enjoy the show!