New Frank Oz exhibit reveals family history of ‘Muppets’ co-creator who fled Nazis
The characters of master puppeteer and filmmaker Frank Oz are loved around the world. Many of them – including Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear – were born out of his collaboration with the late Jim Henson on television programs such as ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘The Muppet Show’. Another Oz character has also become a cultural icon: Yoda, Oz’s contribution to George Lucas’ “Star Wars” franchise.
But there’s a lesser-known side to Oz’s background. Born Frank Oznowicz in 1944, he grew up in a family of puppeteers based in Belgium. His parents, Isidore “Mike” Oznowicz, who was Jewish, and Frances Oznowicz, who was Catholic, used puppets to satirize Hitler before World War II.
After the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, Mike and Frances fled their hometown of Antwerp. A hectic transit of refugees followed with stops in Biarritz, Casablanca, Lisbon and the UK, where Oz was born, before a post-war return to Belgium until he was five, followed by relocation to the California Bay Area. Today, this family story is on display in an unconventional exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco.
“Oz Is For Oznowicz” debuted at CJM on July 21. Running through November, his signature piece is a wacky puppet depicting Hitler. Hand sculpted by Mike Oznowicz, it has its own WWII rescue story. He is on public display for the first time, along with many other puppets created by the parents of Oz in the years before World War II.
“These puppets hold a very special place in my family history,” Oz said in a statement. “I am so happy to finally share them publicly and honor the inspiring story of my parents and the stories of all refugees. This exhibit also celebrates their contributions to the person I am today.
It was not intended for Oz to follow in his parents’ footsteps – he initially wanted to be a journalist. However, while still a teenager, he became an apprentice at Children’s Fairyland, the oldest puppet theater in the United States. Through his work there, he eventually bonded with Henson, sparking a memorable partnership. On his way to stardom, he changed his stage name, although his legal name remains Frank Oznowicz.
“Frank Oz was Jim Henson’s primary creative partner, portraying such iconic characters as Cookie Monster, Grover, Bert, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear,” said Barbara Miller, assistant director of curatorial affairs at the Museum of the Moving Image. New York. and traveling exhibit curator Henson who is also at the CJM, concurrent with the Oz exhibit until August 14.
Since his initial success as a puppeteer, Oz has branched out into many other projects as an actor and director. Miller noted that the Oz-Henson partnership included two early ’80s films directed by Oz: “The Dark Crystal” and “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” Oz also directed the comedies “Little Shop of Horrors”, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, “What About Bob?” and “Death at a funeral”. His most recent project, “In & Of Itself,” is now available on Hulu.
“The comedic and creative chemistry between Oz and Henson has been a defining part of both of their careers,” Miller said.
Oz’s “Sesame Street” characters particularly resonate with CJM Senior Curator Heidi Rabben, who grew up watching them regularly, like many others in America.
“So many characters have come to Frank,” Rabben said. “They were the yin to the yang of Henson… Miss Piggy and Fozzie were sort of foils for Jim Henson’s character, Kermit the Frog. Frank’s Bert has always been a foil to [Henson’s] Ernie.
There is another lesson she draws from it.
“They were very contradictory characters – love and friendship, but also tension,” Rabben said. “It shows that the relationships are conflicted, but you work on it. You find love and joy through difference and coexistence.
A rare look at artistic resistance to the Nazis
The idea for “Oz is for Oznowicz” began earlier this year when the CJM hosted the Museum of the Moving Image’s traveling exhibit, “The Jim Henson Exhibit: Imagination Unlimited.” Although Henson was not Jewish, two of his closest associates were – Oz and Jerry Juhl, who both grew up in the Bay Area.
Rabben asked Karen Falk, the Jim Henson archives manager, if she knew of any Jewish stories relating to Oz or Juhl. Falk mentioned Hitler’s puppet and connected Rabben to Oz. He donated the puppet for display – along with a decades-old home video recording of himself interviewing his father about the family’s experience as a refugee during World War II.
“Obviously I said yes,” Rabben recalls.
She characterized Hitler’s puppet as a particularly unknown story.
“Very little has been said or written about this puppet,” Rabben said. “There were maybe two articles… that talked about it [previously]but there were no photographs and very limited information.
For sensitivity reasons, a content warning informs visitors about the artifact in advance: “This exhibit contains an Adolf Hitler puppet that may be disturbing to some viewers. Our intention in exhibiting these objects is to highlight a history of artistic resistance linked to the Holocaust. By sharing first-hand artifacts and stories that encourage conversation and contemplation, we hope to deepen Holocaust education and lessons in the fight against anti-Semitism, hate, and authoritarianism today.
Mike Oznowicz built the puppet and Frances Oznowicz hand-sewn her clothes. This was also the case for other puppets in the exhibition.
“There’s a cabaret-themed context,” Rabben said of these puppets. “A lot of them are wearing matching white tuxedos. They’re sort of band members. The lead singer has a beautiful satiny red dress.
And, she says, “Following the Hitler puppet are seven puppet heads – likely caricatures of other characters. We don’t know if some of them are direct caricatures of other political figures or people. they knew at the time. They are hand-carved heirlooms, truly beautifully crafted.
In Antwerp Mike was a window cutter and sign maker and owned a sporting goods store; Frances was a seamstress and a former seamstress. Both became amateur puppeteers, Mike learning the trade from his own father, a carpenter.
The purpose of the Hitler puppet was to ridicule the Führer during his consolidation of power in the late 1930s. By 1940, Nazi Germany had become much more than a distant threat to the Oznowicze after the bombing of Antwerp by the Luftwaffe. Mike and Frances fled, burying Hitler’s puppet after Frances’ mother expressed concern that it might be discovered if the pair were apprehended by Nazis while in transit.
In the home video recording – which is now nearly 50 years old – Mike Oznowicz reflected on an all but certain escape.
“You know, it was just a matter of pure survival,” he said in a transcript provided to The Times of Israel. “[We] didn’t even know where we were going.
At the time, none of the couple’s three children – Ronald, Frank and Jenny – had been born. Mike and Frances traveled to southern France with a group of Dutch Jews. They reached the port city of Biarritz, where two couples, including Mike and Frances, were initially denied passage out of France because they had no children. Mike then convinced the authorities to put his wife and the other couple on a boat to Casablanca.
In the famous Moroccan port, Mike and Frances were held in a concentration camp for several weeks. Eventually, a visa allowed them to stay in North Africa for 11 months. Then they went to Lisbon, where Mike received an offer from the British government to join an anti-fascist military unit called the Dutch Brigade. Mike agreed and went to the UK for training. Frances eventually joined her husband in the UK, where both Ronald and Frank were born. In the video, Mike confessed he wasn’t really a soldier and got into a fistfight with a sergeant.
After the war, the family returned to Antwerp. Improbably, they were able to dig up Hitler’s puppet. Five years later, they came to the United States.
Pillars of the puppet
In America, the family carved out quite a legacy. Mike, Frances and Frank joined their local puppeteering community, including as founding members of the San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild. The Oznowicz puppets were a longtime attraction at Yosemite National Park.
“Mike and Frances were mainstays of puppetry nationally and internationally,” wrote Lettie Connell Schubert and Randal J. Metz in an article on the guild’s website that mentions Oznowicz’s puppets, as well as the puppet costume tutorials from Frances and the couple’s son and future star. , Frankie.
“It was through my parents,” Oz said in his statement, “that I was introduced to puppeteering and it is especially poignant that this story is shared at WJC and in the Bay Area where they were members. so active in the community and where I grew up and started my career.
After getting a job at Henson, Oz received a suggestion regarding his last name from a co-worker.
“It was Don Sahlin, one of the original Muppet puppet designers and builders,” said Rabben, who “suggested Frank shorten it to ‘Oz.’ But it was never formal. It was more of a stage name, never legally documented or altered in any way. He’s still Frank Oznowicz, very proud of his first name.