Punch and Judy on the West Coast of America

Anything relevant

Punch and Judy on the West Coast of America

Postby CharlesTaylor » 19 Sep 2008, 00:32

I started a new topic because I realize it was not fair to the bibliography to be carrying on this dialogue on that page. Mind you, I speak from limited experience in Southern California.

Chris S. Thank you, Your comments were exactly what I wanted and needed to hear. I am aware that I may suffer from myopia and only see what is directly in front of me.

I had missed an earlier message you wrote in which you included the quote “American Punch is far more in the puppetry mainstream than it is over here.” I DID miss the word Puppetry before Mainstream or interpreted that as meaning puppetry that mainstream American audiences see. Another indication of myopia allowing me to see only what I want to see.

My letter must have crossed yours in cyber space. You are also very correct that this country is so large with many regions there are bound to be different attitudes towards Punch and that I am limited to my experiences on my side of the country, from which of course I speak. So take it for what that is worth. I enjoy and learn from the discourse.

I began the following letter without seeing your earlier posting. I send it for those with idle time and curiosity of a small piece of American history to explain my limited viewpoint:

It would seem that those collecting Punch and Judy memorabilia would be of two groups, puppeteers and British immigrants. They would likely buy anything they could related to Punch and Judy. That is the only collectible I enjoy. I don’t collect other puppets. I make my own. As to the first web site starting in America, I am not surprised because of the early adoption of technology by our universities where web sites began. I’m not familiar with Pinxy Punch sets but should think if they are intended for children, as toys they would be popular. It is difficult right now to find commercial and relatively inexpensive puppets for children in toy stores. There are popular soft puppets making their headway into all sorts of boutiques, teacher supply stores and on line. But Punch appearing as a logo or reference on American puppeteers publicity and Christmas cards are very much an in house amusement not enjoyed or appreciated by the much greater population. That is because puppeteers by in large appreciate the Punch Icon as a very important and defined puppet. We, if I may be permitted to use the collective we puppeteers of America, consider it the great grand daddy of all American Puppetry. I don’t dispute anything you said. And you say it so well.

You are very correct in contrasting British Punch and Judy show men with other puppeteers. That is a very important distinction that I am happy you clarified. I knew only one Punch man personally that was almost exclusively Punch and Judy, Preston Hibbard. That doesn’t mean there aren’t others, It is just that other Punch shows, I know on the West Coast, are performed by puppeteers who use it in their repertory.

The conception that Punch and Judy shows are disappearing in Britain may be caused by distractions of other activities and entertainment's that you mentioned. That would apply here also. But the proliferation or disappearance of Punch and Judy is a matter of subjective thinking without actual data that can verify it one way or another. One could go on the web sites and count the actually number of Punch men listed.

Although I have traveled all over the United States, probably more than eighty percent of the population, I have not seen Punch and Judy outside of Festivals. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it just means they are not so ubiquitous to be on every street corner as a tourist passes through. Being aware of Punch and Judy, I would have noticed. I have not been to other Renaissance Fairs outside of L.A. County.

I am sure there are more Punch and Judy performers on the East Coast than anywhere else. And you are so right about the size of our country being so large. We have many dialects and cultural differences that are regional. For instance: My family left the east coast after nearly two centuries and became pioneers and settled the mid west in the early part of the nineteenth century around 1820.

In Illinois, The Taylors had a farm that was next door to the Lincoln farm. In fact my third great grand aunt married Sarah Lincoln’s grandson and after Abraham’s death lived in the Thomas Lincoln log cabin until Sarah died and they sold it. The Taylor farm which had been large with a federal style house and many barns became part of the Lincoln farm and is now an historical park. The Taylor buildings no longer exist. The Lincoln log cabin is a replica since my Great great great aunt sold the building to Chicago investors. It ultimately was lost.

I mention this bit of first hand family history to explain attitudes toward entertainment's and specifically Punch and Judy. The Lincoln log cabin was lost because Abraham’s son was aghast that his grandfather’s house would be exhibited as the type of home in which Abraham grew up. One of social prominence, to protect the future marriageability of their children, must have the appearance of breeding, social connections and wealth. It would not do to be so recently come from poverty. Lincoln’s son sued the investors, won and prevented the log cabin from being displayed in a Chicago museum. The original dismantled log cabin was lost in history. No one knows what happened to the logs. In this century we looked upon Abraham Lincoln as evidence that the poorest person can aspire to being the leader of the greatest power of the world. That was not accepted by Lincoln’s children in the nineteenth century. They would have been horrified that their father was held as such a repugnant example.

Social stigmas, prudery and holding a firm grasp on social position plays a very strong roll in our middle class. Although in our Democracy we claim we don’t have a class system, in fact we do. The more money one has, the more power and respect one gains. A social acceptable person is never seen in the wrong place, on the wrong side of the street or socializing with the wrong people if one doesn’t want to be ostracized by the more powerful. Parents of daughters make sure they are in the proper environments to meet eligible bachelors. Young men may have more freedom depending on their social status. All this is reinforced in American movies reflecting our society. It may be out of vogue today in entertainment giving way to “realism” but it still exist in small towns all over the country. It is very much a part of the social fabric and hierarchy in Long Beach, known as “Little Iowa By The Sea.” I don’t think this expresses my pessimism as much as looking at it realistically. Perhaps these ideas I hold give evidence to my lower middle class prudery!

The next two generations of my family pioneered Kansas and Indian Territory on the Plains. There were such hardships for the pioneers to eek out a living on land that had never been plowed, the ground was like cement. There were no trees. M y great grandparents dug four foot deep holes in the ground and made four foot walls above the ground out of the sod they dug up for their house. The ceiling was made of wooden planks from their Calastoga wagon that contained all their worldly possessions in an old camel back trunk that still remains in my family. The house could be no bigger that the planks used for the roof with canvas and sod on top to prevent rain from coming in. My grandmother was born in such a house.

Your ancestors did all this before the first century when the Romans arrived. My great grandparents struggled to stay alive. Those living in large cities on the East Coast would have been exposed to entertainment's but there were none on the plains or prairies. They were the “Sooners” during the land rush into Indian Territory. There was no time for “funning”. Chores were from sun up ‘til sun down and everyone worked from the time they were old enough to do chores. It was a matter of survival. Older children were sent out to work and send money home. There is a record of our family on a piece of paper that covered two years in the early 1880s. Each person had a pencil and added to the letter as it was sent by pony express to various siblings recording events in their life. One piece of paper was all they could afford. Any free time was used in reading the bible and reinforcing a strict pattern of life that existed for over a few thousand years.

It wasn’t until my generation that had it easier with the depression over and technology improving our environment.

Middle America is called the bible belt. It had/has very puritanical thinking. You don’t sing, dance or whistle on Sundays. Heaven forbid if you go to the movies or see any entertainment on the Sabbath! Punch would not have been tolerated and would just now be able to find some friendly acceptance in small quarters with suspicion looked at it at best. You can believe that the towns minister would be warning his parishioners of fire and brimstone if they went to see Punch and Judy! It is difficult to go against the mores of the small towns and church minded elders. That’s one of the reasons of the migration to the West Coast, besides the dust bowl of the Great Depression, by my grand parents and parents.

During the depression, OKies, people from Oklahoma, were turned away from the California borders. California was not so hard hit by the depression as the rest of the country. California had its own economy not dependent on the East Coast. Our largest industry was the movies. The depression helped the movie industry as people needed to escape their own depression. There are a few examples of Punch and Judy in those movies. Los Angeles had a more liberal attitude toward entertainment in general. Puppetry flourished here. And there were early examples of Punch and Judy in California.

After world war II many service men settled in California and our population grew exponentially. Many brought their midwestern values with them. So California changed rapidly. By their first generation midwestern stock, any one going into the arts was looked down upon as worthless and unable to be employed or earn a living. To be a puppeteer was going against the tide and took great stamina and bullish instincts to pursue that life. It is no wonder why I pessimistically perceive our general public as having a prejudice against Punch.

You are absolutely correct in saying that my pessimistic view is locally colored. Now you know why I came to that point of view. But as far as Punch being well known or quite forgotten, it is the actual performances of Punch that keeps it alive. I would SUSPECT that for the size of our population, there are only a very small percentage that actually see Punch and Judy.

When I classify people as liking or disliking Punch according to class systems I do not mean to infer that Punch should be relegated to that expectancy. Of course It is a gross generalization that I castigate the middle class for turning it’s nose up at Punch. But I believe that is because they are conditioned to do precisely that by their religious and midwest conservative upbringing. Of course not all middle class people in California are like that. Many will watch with a detached lack of concern and see Punch as a mild amusement, nothing more. The majority of people will say they enjoyed it and it was their first Punch and Judy show.

I DO know that my other shows, marionettes, hand puppets and shadow shows receive wildly enthusiastic reactions. Children do love Punch. It is only a few and rare adults that may express squeamishness. But again, they only speak after the show, never before. That is because they have no idea what Punch and Judy is about.

I make my judgments on observations of the society in which I live and perform. I am totally ignorant of the East Coast. They would be another breed altogether. I would be interested to read what Fred Greenspan has to say about the East Coast, its knowledge and acceptance of Punch. I know he is extremely talented and respected. He writes frequently on Puptcrit. I would like to see him write on Punch Booth. He might be able to fill in the blanks on the East Coast which might be of interest to other Punch men in the world including Great Britain.

I’v e been to a few Renaissance fairs over the years near Los Angeles County. The greatest performer I saw was a teenage Bruce Swartz with his brilliant comedy, A Rat of Huge Proportions. I haven’t seen Punch and Judy there. Not to say it isn’t performed. Our greatest local Punch and Judy man was Preston Hibbard who died a few years back. He would have done the Renaissance Faire circuit between playing Santa Claus at high end shopping malls. But now he is gone. Although we were friendly acquaintances, I wish we had this discussion. He had a great deal of experience performing Punch and Judy. It was his baby spiting act that I incorporated into my show. Performed in a coffee house in Pasadena, his was the FIRST Punch and Judy I had seen as a teenager. I loved it and wanted to do Punch and Judy ever since. Now my daughters perform it. Carol seems to enjoy performing more than Emily and has mostly taken it over. She’s very enthusiastic.

Yes Chris, I did seek your comments. I value them. Thank you for your Charles Dickens defense of Punch. To defend Punch implies there had been some controversy of note or he wouldn’t have felt his defense necessary. I must agree with Dickens. He expresses his thought so clearly. And the last line ‘. . . the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstances that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about without any pain or suffering’ clearly speaks to a cathartic value.

I believe Punch is of great value. But then, I also think that Jerry Springer show has more value to the American people than just the titillating moment that shocks most socially and economically secure families would like to admit.

Our American society is in a constant state of flux. I have heard an expression, “It’s shirt tales to shirt tales in four generations!” I don’t know if anyone is familiar with that expression in Great Britain but here it means that the first generation works hard, grimy and sweaty with shirt tales hanging out, to earn the wealth that the second and third generation spend thus reducing the fourth generation back to poverty having to earn money working hard with shirt tales hanging out once more.

As long as Punch professors enjoy performing, Punch will survive. Who knows, he might even morph into a new fad or mania.

Tony inspired me to write this long epistle. It was meant to be an explanation of my perception of the difficulty in Punch being accepted readily as a tradition in our post modern American society. The British people have their own experiences that are a little different. Your society, being older, has a stronger tradition than our young Republic. We have had only less than four hundred years of cutting down forest, tilling hard ground and dealing with a multicultural society, religion, different customs and values during ALL that time. We have just reached a moment in time when we are readjusting and finding some cultural standards that embrace all of us. In the fifties the privileged white class thought everything was honky dorey. We didn’t consider the poverty and persecution of minorities or anyone not Anglo-Saxon, white, protestant. Things have changed. And forces at work that take much attention from light heartidness seem to prevail.
Thick Link
Thick Link
Posts: 171
Joined: 11 Aug 2006, 17:56
Location: Long Beach, California, USA

Return to Punch Chat

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest