Last week, a great injustice was set right. After 17 years, the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, NY, finally inducted ... the puppet.
The two other inductees this year were the game Twister and the water-blasting Super Soaker. Brand-name finalists that didn’t make the cut included American Girl Dolls, Battleship, Jenga, PLAYMOBIL, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Wiffle Ball; generic toys that were passed over included the coloring book, the scooter and the top.
As Children’s Fairyland prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of our historic puppet theater—the longest running in the nation—we couldn’t be happier that puppets were finally honored. But we are scratching our heads as to why this recognition took so long.
Puppets have been used for thousands of years and in nearly every culture. From the telling of folktales to the performance of religious morality plays, from political satire to vaudeville, puppets made of every type of material have been ubiquitous. More recently, and closer to home, a teenage Frank Oz was an apprentice in Fairyland’s puppet theater; his later work with the Muppets and as Yoda in the “Star Wars” movies helped catapult puppetry to popular culture on television, in movies and on the stage.
At Fairyland we have seen firsthand the magical effect puppets have on kids, both as performing objects and as toys of individual children. Our puppet shows captivate even the youngest audience members; they’re fascinated by the figures that are at both real and not real. In kids’ own hands, puppets allow children to create imaginary voices, plots and purpose.
To me, the best thing about hand puppets for kids is that the play is open-ended: It helps children develop coordination and manual dexterity, and the puppets become snuggly friends as well.
We’re so lucky to have the makers of the most innovative and engaging specialty puppets in the world right next door, in Emeryville. Since 1976, Folkmanis’s nature-themed puppets have won nearly every child-development, kid-tested and industry award. Right now, in our gift store, we carry the Folkmanis octopus, a little eagle, a baby sea otter, a zebra, a little porcupine, a honeybee and a screech owl.
Fairyland’s master puppeteer, Randal Metz, has observed the power of puppets over his 46-year stint at our park. Randal once saw a young girl who’d been terrified by dogs lose her fear after spending time with one of our friendly dog puppets. Last month, another girl wanted to come backstage to see, up close, a puppet that represented death. She and her father talked quietly about what death means. We’ve also seen many examples of autistic kids who are inspired by puppets to become more verbal.
Of course Randal is pleased about the puppet’s belated induction into the Toy Hall of Fame. “They’re toys—but come to life,” he says. There was only one time Randal adamantly refused to bring puppets to life: when a company wanted to hire him to do a special puppet show to be recorded and shown to employees who were being fired. Apparently there are a few places puppets shouldn’t go.
To see the complete list of Toy Hall of Fame inductees, including Fairyland favorites bubbles, blanket, stick, ball and cardboard box, go to www.toyhalloffame.org/toys
C.J. Hirschfield has served for 13 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry. C.J. is former president and current board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District. C.J. writes a weekly column for the Piedmont Post and OaklandLocal, where she loves to showcase the beauty of her city and its people. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.