Muppet Master Frank Oz Shares Haunting Puppets From His Family’s Past
“Thank goodness we have art,” said Frank Oz, the actor, director and puppeteer best known for portraying beloved Muppet characters Cookie Monster, Bert, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and, in another galaxy, Yoda.
It’s not the first thought you might expect to hear about a 1930s Adolf Hitler puppet. But the puppet, along with a selection of others made by the parents of Oz – carpenter and puppeteer dutch jew Iflabbergasted “Mike” Oznowicz and Flemish-Catholic seamstress/costumer Frances Oznowicz – form the small but intense show titled “Oz Is for Oznowicz” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It complements the exhibit on Muppets creator Jim Henson, running simultaneously through August 14.
A video message from Oz (Oznowicz remains his legal name) and a filmed interview of his father with several historic photographs contextualize the puppets with the harrowing details of his parents’ refugee story – details of which, like those of so many family histories of the Holocaust, are extraordinary.
In 1940, on the advice of Frances’ mother, Mike and Frances Oznowicz buried Hitler’s puppet in a backyard before fleeing Antwerp. After the war ended, the Oznowiczes returned to Belgium and managed to retrieve the puppet while they waited five years for a visa to the United States.
The Oznowiczes and their three children – Ronald, Frank and Jenny – eventually settled in Oakland, where they became community mainstays integral to the founding of the San Francisco Puppeteers Guild and regular performers at Children’s Fairyland. in Oakland. They taught puppetry to young Frank, who spent his summers performing at Fairyland.
In 1961, he accompanied his parents to the Puppeteers of America festival in Asilomar, where he met Jim and Jane Henson. At 19, Oz joined Jim Henson’s troupe.
As life went on, Hitler’s puppet and others from his parents’ past, including the disco musicians and the singer also in the show, remained holed up in the family attic..
“I never thought in a million years that I would share them,” said Oz, who viewed the old puppets as personally rather than universally significant.
But when contemporary curator Heidi Rabben, who knew Oz was Jewish, inquired about additional stories surrounding the Henson collection, archivist Karen Falk mentioned she had heard of Hitler’s puppet in the house of Oz.
Oz and Rabben see the puppets as a testament to his parents’ great tenacity for survival and their courage. Nonetheless, the undeniable charge of the Hitler puppet led the museum to post a content warning outside the exhibit.
The puppet itself is a lightweight, flexible doll 20 inches long, its wooden head and limbs carved roughly enough that the chisel marks are visible. Obvious craftsmanship mediates its disturbing subject matter; as you look at the puppet, your attention shifts from its depiction of the genocidal dictator to its exquisite and loving detail.
Since Hitler was threatening the survival of the Oznowiczes and cause the loss of their home, family and friends, one wonders how much care the couple gave the figurine. Mike sculpted semi-circular recessions to encrust the character’s squinting eyes, while Frances created a costume complete with chest flap pockets sewn with pinpoint precision. (Oz said his mother could thread a needle with one hand.)
“It’s a way of dealing with the unimaginable,” Rabben said. “There was a sense of urgency to do something. What can you do about this insurmountable terror, seemingly unavoidable at this point, coming straight at you, threatening your life. Where can you find agency, motivation, inspiration? »
Their view of Hitler is quite clear. Rabben points out that the Hitler puppet’s mouth “seems to have been formed by hammering a nail to form a tiny circle, almost as if no sound could come out of it”, unlike nightclub puppets with larger mouths. Overly elaborate eyelashes and ears stretched comically on the head make this Hitler stupid.
But, alas, humor alone cannot defeat a dictator. This haunting reality hangs from the puppet like his now tattered clothes. And yet, that does not mean that humor is powerless.
“I don’t think anyone would argue that humor alone has the ability to change something so toxic, massive, and structural,” Rabben said. “At the same time, desperation certainly doesn’t work. What humor can do is…give you hope, resilience, relief. Does art change the world in itself? Maybe not, but does it lead to ideas, expansive thinking, inspiration and energy? You can’t have that real change without those things.
Oz goes further.
“I don’t think you can live without it,” he said, meaning humor. “I would probably shoot myself over what’s happening in the United States today if I didn’t have a sense of humor.”
Oz is fully aware of its own limited political power – “I don’t think this exhibit is going to change the world” – but gives hope that at least some people “could be more aware of the refugees, (that) they might have more sympathy” after visiting the museum’s exhibition.
“When someone does something as small as mocking Hitler with a puppet,” he said, “it’s better than never having done it at all.”
“Oz is for Oznowicz: the story of a family of puppets”: Puppets, video interview, archival photographs. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday to Sunday. On view until November 27. $14 to $16; free for children 17 and under. Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., SF 415-655-7800. www.thecjm.org