Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Portrait By Bil Baird

[This post was written for the 7th Edition of the Cabinet of Curiosities]

The portrait above, executed by Bil Baird in pastel crayon, is of my great-uncle Gregory Austin. I discovered it in The Box a few weeks ago while I was selecting items to scan for Scanfest. I had heard stories of Bil from my great-grandparents, John Ralph Austin and Therese McGinnis Austin but I never really understood who he was until I did a bit of research. And that research brought back many memories.

As I was told, Bil Baird lived in the apartment building across the alley from my great-grandparents' building on the Upper West Side in New York City. This was in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Bil would put on impromptu puppet shows for children from one of his windows, so that all the children could watch from across the way. My great-grandparents knew Bil and his wife Cora well enough that he drew this portrait of my uncle when he was about 14 (this is my estimation). This would have been about 1941.

I would wager that not many people under 50 remember Bil Baird or his puppets. Do you remember the movie The Sound of Music? Do you remember the "Lonely Goatherd" song where the children sing a song while the father performs a puppet show with marionettes? Those puppets and that sequence was designed by Bil Baird.

Born in 1904 in Nebraska, William Britton Baird grew up in Mason City, Iowa and attended the University of Iowa and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. In Chicago he produced a show for the Chicago World's Fair and more than 30 years later he would do the same for the New York World's Fair. Bil Baird passed away in 1987.

Baird's performance credits also include many television commercials as well as appearances on The Jack Paar Show, Sid Caesar's "Show of Shows." Perhaps his most famous puppet character was Charlemagne the Lion.

Imagine the thrill I got when I discovered this portrait! I was able to establish that various family stories I had heard about Bil Baird are credible. Now I need to do justice to this somewhat worn work of art and get a proper frame!


Miriam Robbins said...

Fascinating story! And a lovely portrait, to boot!

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

What a treat it must have been for the kids to have puppet shows from their windows! I don't remember any of his shows or puppets but I must have seen some of them.

LindaM said...

Pretty awesome...the work is worth framing.

Anonymous said...

Bil's talents were so enormous, so wide-ranging. He and Cora were my godparents, great friends of my parents, Burl and Helen Ives. Bil made a a marionette theater, which was featured in my room in Manhattan, and with the present of Charlemagne hand puppet, a source of many impromptu productions by myself, friends and family. You've discovered a great treasure! Congratulations! Alex Ives

Thomas MacEntee said...


This makes total sense - my great-grandparents also talked of meeting Burl Ives and up until now I never knew the connection!

Unknown said...

I had the wonderful privilege of being hired as an apprentice by Bil Baird, in the early 1970’s, and worked along side him on a number of the last few musical puppet productions he produced for his theater on Barrow St. NYC. This is a wonderful and historical find. Thank you, for sharing it.

Pictures from two of those productions are posted on my website.


Michael Baroto