Answer Man

July 25, 2014

Saturday morning TV on a string

Answer Man

Got questions? You've come to the right place

There is a commercial about cutting the wires to cable TV and subscribing to DirecTV instead. The humorous skit involves a wife on wires who is obviously a marionette. She, of course, is confused why someone wouldn't like wires. Are those real puppets or are those characters computer-generated? But my main question is: When I was a child in the early '60s, there was a kid show on network TV that I think was called "Fireball X-15." The characters were all marionettes. Do you have any information on that show and were any other shows done using marionettes? -- B.C., of Fort Russell

Since this is Saturday, what better day to answer this question and relive my days of jumping out of bed at the crack of dawn for a morning of Mighty Mouse, Popeye and Sky King. I still remember the traumatic week when I had measles, and Mom wouldn't let me near a TV because she said I'd burn out my eyeballs.

In any case, like so many things you see these days, the non-human characters in the ads are obviously CGI -- computer-generated imagery. Real marionette builders like Bob Kramer in St. Louis are darn good, but even they cannot deliver the constant subtle changes in facial expression you see in the ads.

As for other TV shows, you certainly can't forget the marionette that had the world on a string for more than a decade -- Howdy Doody.

As soon as "Buffalo Bob" Smith mentioned the character on NBC's "Puppet Playhouse" on Dec. 27, 1947, the public clamored to see the real thing. Puppeteer Frank Paris delivered a jeans-clad marionette that wound up with 48 freckles (one for each state) and eventually was powered by 14 strings.

For the next 13 years, Howdy, Clarabell (originally Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan) and Chief Thunderthud ("Kowabunga!") would entertain the Peanut Gallery until Clarabell, with a tear in his eye, said "Goodbye, kids" on Sept. 24, 1960 -- the only words the clown had ever spoken. After a legal battle, the original Doody is now at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit.

But if you're looking for string-puppet royalty, you need look no further than English TV producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. With CGI decades away, they developed a technique Gerry dubbed "Supermarionation" to create eight shows during the '60s, including "Fireball XL5" (not Fireball X-15).

The system featured marionettes controlled by thin wires. But these wires not only suspended the characters, they also were used as electrical cables to power tiny motors in the head that created the facial movements for speech and other functions. Because they moved awkwardly, the marionettes usually were shown standing, sitting or in vehicles.

Although the wires often were visible at first, the Andersons became better at masking them as time went on. At the same time, they developed a way to turn recorded audio into pulses that could more accurately sync the marionettes' lips with the actual dialogue.

His first series to use his early Supermarianation was "Four Feather Falls," a series of 13-minute episodes set in a fictional Kansas town. Indian Chief Kalamakooya had given Sheriff Tex Tucker four feathers that gave his gun magical powers and allowed his horse and dog to talk.

Anderson followed that with "Supercar" in 1961 and then "Fireball XL5" in 1962. Col. Steve Zodiac commanded a ship that featured a nutomi reactor, a neutroni radio for instant communications across the light years and oxygen pills for survival in space.

But Anderson was only getting started. You also may remember "Stingray" (1964-65), about a super-duper combat submarine, and his most successful Supermarionation series of all, "Thunderbirds." Set in the year 2065, the latter series followed the exploits of International Rescue, which saved people in mortal danger. It was inspired by a 1963 West German mine disaster, and featured characters reportedly based on Sean Connery, Charlton Heston and Lorne Greene, among others.

Finally, before graduating to live-action productions such as "Space: 1999," Anderson also used Supermarionation for "Captain Scarlet and the Mysterions," "Joe 90" and "The Secret Service" to end the '60s. After dozens of more projects using new puppet techniques, live action and computer-generated effects, Anderson died of dementia in 2012 at age 83.

Today's trivia

In honor of Monty Python: From what classical painting did animator Terry Gilliam borrow the foot that polishes off the Flying Circus' opening title sequence?

Answer to Thursday's trivia: The faint of heart (and stomach) had best steer clear of the Kingda Ka roller coaster at Six Flags Great Adventure park in Jackson, N.J. With a 418-foot drop, it is the tallest roller coaster in the world and, when it reaches its top speed of 128 mph, it is the fastest coaster in the U.S. However, it is a slowpoke compared to the Formula Rossa at Ferrari World in the United Arab Emirates, which beat out the Kingda Ka in November 2010 when it hit 149 mph.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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