Written by Karen Backes as a Puppeteer Profile
|Everyone who has a serious interest in puppetry should know something about its history, and the figures of the past who brought us to where we are today.
Of all the people who developed the art and inspired others, one of the most important is Tony Sarg.
|Anthony Frederick Sarg, known as Tony, was born April 21st, 1880 in Coban, Guatemala. He was the only son of German Consul Francis Charles Sarg, and his English wife, Mary Elizabeth Parker.
Tony had one sister, Charlotte, who was called Lottie. She spent her later years in Chicago, and lived near Burr Tillstrom when he was young. (She helped him get interested in puppetry, and he became the famous puppeteer who brought Kukla,Fran and Ollie to television audiences everywhere.) Tony spent his first six year on a plantation, exposed to his artistic family: a father who was an artist, a grandfather who taught him woodcarving and a grandmother who painted.
His grandmother had a collection of dolls, animals, miniature houses and mechanical toys. He inherited all of these after her death. When Tony was six years old he designed his first invention, for which he is famous. He rigged up a couple pulleys and ran a line from his bedroom window to the sliding door of the chicken coop. He spread grain in the yard the evening before, and released the chickens by pulling the rope in the morning. His father was so happy that he designed this mechanism, that Tony never had to feed the chickens again. And I wonder if his poor sisters were stuck with this job.
In 1887 the family moved back to Germany and Tony attended school in Darmstadt.
They moved to England and two years later they had a daughter, Mary.
He was a great illustrator, and went into the commercial art business. One day he noticed a bus of mainly American tourists driving to the original "Old Curiosity Shop" of Charles Dickens. Tony was looking for a studio and rented the upstairs of the building, and sublet the bottom to an antique dealer. When the tourists started asking to see "Little Nell's Bedroom" Tony had an idea. He restored the room as Dickens had described it, and put up a sign "Little Nell's Bedroom. Admission Six Pence". The first year he took in two thousand dollars in American money.
Tony wanted to be a successful and independent artist. A shy man, Tony attended large meetings where he knew he would be called upon to speak, to develop his confidence. He learned his salesmanship abilities from the famous Allen Francis, and eventually made sketches for advertising agencies.
When meeting with artists and illustrators, he knew that to become well-known he would need some kind of a gimmick. He decided on performing a marionette show, as he had them in his toy collection. He was working as a theatrical artist and one of his assignments was to attend a performance by the famous puppeteer, Thomas Holden. Afterward, he experimented on his own and made some marionettes. He set up a stage and gave performances as the highlight of his evening parties, attended by artists and newspaper friends.
In 1914, the outbreak of the First World War caused Tony to send his wife and daughter to Cincinnati, and then soon followed.
The family moved to New York in 1915, where Tony rented a studio in the Flatiron building at Madison Square Garden. He again focused in on artists, editors and publishers. He hosted a party in his studio and halfway through the evening surprised everyone with a marionette show. He was soon well-known among the editors and artists for his friendly, outgoing personality.
#Individuals usually stayed with the show for a couple years, as the schedule was demanding. They often went out on their own afterwards.
In 1935 Tony Tony designed the mechanically animated window display for Macy's Department Store. Every year after he produced a new animated window which ran from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and cost $50,000 to install. His staff of experts built the displays at the 38th street workshop, but Tony was the mechanical genius, and designed them. Tony is credited with future animated window displays across the country.
Tony Sarg productions came to Minnesota several times.
The Sarg Company performed most of the famous stories, such as Rip Van Winkle,The Bremen Band, The Stolen Princess, Ali Baba,The Rose and the Ring, Don Quixote, Uncle Wiggly's Adventures, Robin Hood, Sinbad the Sailor, and Alice in Wonderland, to really name just a few.
In 1928 Tony designed a series of helium filled, rubberized silk animal balloons for the Macy's Thanksgiving parade. Bil Baird supervised the construction, and called them "giant, upside down marionettes" as the strings were below them. One rubber dragon, the biggest, was 125 feet long and took 50 handlers to operate him. This balloon later floated over Long Island, while aviator Clarence Chamberlain was flying. The balloons had to be carefully moved under the NYC elevated train structure. One set paraded, and the second set was released and allowed to fly away when the parade reached Macy's store. Some of the balloons were found a hundred miles away. A reward was offered for their return in any condition. Kids shot the balloons with their air rifles, and the balloons were returned full of holes. In the minds of the public this gained Tony most of his fame in New York. Rubber balloons remain a tradition of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Millionaire Barber Bill commissioned Tony to design a chain of children's barber shops, which were very successful.
For a while, Tony's daughter, whom he adored, toured with him. She had her own little troupe of puppets that she made with help from her dad.
Tony's endeavors made him rich and famous. At his peak, he earned $80,000 a year (in today's money, something like $1.7 million.)
Between 1925 and 1933 he became known as America's Puppet Master.
The late thirties were times of change for Tony. His production methods continued in the same manner as before, but new artists came on the scene. His plays appeared to decline in quality, and in 1939 he produced his last play and the following year the company closed. His career as a puppeteer had ended.
He filed bankruptcy in 1939 listing $36, 259 in debts. In humor, though, he listed his assets as: four suits, a couple overcoats, an evening suit, several pairs of socks, and several shirts, ties and collars, worth about $200. Also a few reference books, an easel, and a chair of no value.
In 1940, on his 60th birthday, he was presented with a portfolio containing greetings from many puppeteers, some of whom had worked for him. His eyes filled with tears as he read the letters.
The qualities which earned him early success in America had stayed with him throughout his career. With all his talents he was making a strong financial comeback by 1942. On February 17, 1942, at the age of 62, Tony underwent emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. He died three weeks later of complications.