Square Dance BOOMIron Lung Life Support

Jim"s Puppet Pantomime History

Hello Puppeteers!

Sometimes good comes out of bad.

Jim Vickers-Willis was lying in an iron lung after an attack of polio in 1954 (that's Jim on the right in the photo holding "Grr Grr" the Bunyip). There had been a boom in square dancing in Melbourne in the 1950’s (for more information refer HERE) and Jim was at the centre of this boom - he had been a caller running several radio programs, training other callers, and five nights a week calling the dancing for ballrooms full of square dancers - sometimes up to 4,000 a night - when he collapsed with polio.

With the aid of some devoted hospital nurses, Jim managed to "wean" himself out of the iron lung with a most tremendous effort.

Television was just about to start in Australia and Jim decided puppets would become much more important on television - because they would be the same size as a human being (amazingly, this was 20 years before Jim Henson put puppets on TV in 1976 with The Muppets).

So, Jim asked for a push-button tape recorder to be placed alongside his bed and a microphone beside his head. Partially paralysed, he had just enough movement in his hand to be able to use it for stopping and starting. Then he set about composing puppet stories and puppet tunes, putting them down on the recorder. The nurses would go past his bed and would hear strange growls of the Wolf chasing people, or the Little Pig squeaking, or the Old Crocodile singing away. He was sure some nurses wondered about him!

Shortly after Jim emerged from hospital in late 1954, he purchased a Magnecorder - a new and ground-breaking reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder - and professionally recorded the "sound-tracks" which contained the puppets' voices, music and sound effects. Magnetic tape recording, (war booty, developed secretly by the Germans during WW2 but commercialised by a group of Americans, who included Bing Crosby), revolutionized the audio recording industries. In an age when all radio, and later television, was live, magnetic tape recording allowed programs to be pre-recorded. Also, these recorders enabled the sound track to be edited by splicing the magnetic tape - prior to this, recordings had to be done in one take.

The “Oz Puppets’ pantomime was unique in the 1950's - Jim used this revolutionary tape recording technology to replace live voices. Most puppeteers at that time used their own voices - but Jim animated his mainly string and glove puppets to the pre-recorded sound track of voices, music, and sound effects. The puppet operators would simply have to manipulate the puppets as they mimed the audio tape. That's why he used the word "pantomime". Jim purchased a number of his string puppets, including Skeleton, from the now famous UK based Pelham Puppets - see online link at right.

Jim had big ideas, but little money. He designed a stage which allowed them to use all varieties of puppets in one show: string puppets; glove puppets; shadow puppets; stand puppets and stick puppets.

Initially Jim hired a ballroom in the middle of Melbourne and put on his first shows - not knowing whether anyone would attend or not. The ballroom was packed out! Jim moved the show to the Melbourne Town Hall, and was packed out again - for six weeks. This was school holiday time, but Jim and his team found fewer paying jobs between school holidays.

The puppet pantomimes were presented in the bigger retail stores, and on television around Australia - one of the TV plays can be viewed by clicking the link (above right). Jim and his team presented several puppet pantomime shows a day in Melbourne, Geelong and Sydney and various Victorian country places, plus had a Puppeteers Club (which in Melbourne had 26,000 members). The Nasty Old Wolf, the Old Croc, Red Robin, the Wicked Witch, and Vicki and Willi (the Singing Bunyips) wrote to thousands of children who attended their shows in the big retail stores, in Melbourne Town Hall and at the Royal Show. Willi The Bunyip ("Grr. Grr." to his friends) had a close look-alike of him dragged through the streets of Melbourne at the head of the Moomba procession for several years.

Click image below to view the Jim Vickers-Willis Puppet Pantomime "The Old Croc" (7 minutes) as shown on early Australian TV c1957

Jim’s puppet pantomimes were played for five years (1954 to 1959).

It was a great joy to Jim to see hundreds of children coming in to his puppet shows and clapping and cheering the puppets his team had created.

One of Jim’s most devoted square dance fans, an artistic young man named Dan Bartley, helped to design and produce the first puppets. He became the unique and unforgettable "voice" of the wolf, and one of Jim's best puppet operators. The leader of Jim’s square dance band, Bob Patey, became another fine puppet operator.

So, that's how ‘OZ Home Puppets’ was born.

Now, you can run your own puppet pantomimes using the resources Jim and his team created.

Jim hopes you and your family have much fun with your OZ Home Puppets show – he enjoyed his time as the creator of ‘Oz Home Puppets’, and making these characters and their plays for you to enjoy.

Jim Vickers-Willis showing off Grr Grr

Link to

In the late 1950's Jim purchased his string puppets from Bob Pelham. In 1947, Bob formed Pelham Puppets in Marlborough, Wiltshire, England after serving in the armed forces. He employed returning soldiers and his puppets were originally made from Government War Surplus - puppet bodies from ammunition cases, feet & legs from coat toggles. and clothes from parachute materials. Pelham Puppets became very successful. In 1961 a fire destroyed their factory and 10,000 puppets. The business ceased trading in the mid to late 80s and their puppets are now highly sought after collector's items.





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