My kids used to beg their dad to help out with their impromptu puppet shows. He complied by having our daughter’s favorite baby doll deliver an interminable curtain speech, hectoring the audience (me) to become subscribers and make donations via the small envelope they’d find tucked in their programs.
Like my husband, artist Paul Klee (1879–1940) loomed large in his child’s early puppet work. To mark his son Felix’s ninth birthday, Klee fashioned eight hand puppets based on stock characters from Kasperl and Gretl — Germany’s answer to Punch and Judy. The boy took to them so enthusiastically that his dad kept going, creating something in the neighborhood of fifty puppets between 1916 and 1925. The cast soon expanded to include cartoonish political figures, a self-portrait, and less recognizable characters with a decidedly Dada-ist bent. Klee also fixed Felix up with a flea market frame that served as the proscenium for the shows he put on in a doorway of the family’s tiny apartment.
When Felix set out into the world at the age of eighteen, he packed his favorite childhood puppets, while his dad hung onto the ones born of his years on the faculty of the Bauhaus. Felix’s portion of the collection was almost entirely destroyed during the bombing of Wurzburg in World War II. Dr. Death was the only member of the original eight to escape unscathed.
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Ayun Halliday is okay with puppets as long as she can hold them at arm’s length. Follow her @AyunHalliday