"The puppeteers looked like giants"
During Meredith Bixby's career as a puppeteer, which lasted from the 1930s to the 1980s, up to a quarter million children a year saw his shows. The Saline resident wrote the scripts, created the puppets, sets, and props, trained other puppeteers, and booked his shows. His wife, Thyra, made the costumes.
Before taking his productions on the road, Bixby would put on annual preview shows for Saline kids at his studio in the Saline Opera House on South Ann Arbor Street.
"We'd come into the room and sit facing the black curtain," laughs Lisa Laramee. "The lights would go off, and I'd watch entranced as marionettes performed The Wizard of Oz, or The Magic Fish.
"When it was over, the lights would go on and the puppeteers would emerge to take a bow. So real was the experience that the puppeteers looked like giants"
Schools all over the country booked Bixby year after year. "They didn't worry," says Bixby. "They knew they would get classic stories with carefully chosen classical music."
Now in his late eighties, Bixby has been spending his time repairing his puppets, which will go on permanent display soon at the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce office at 141 East Michigan Avenue. He lives in a modest ranch in Saline, a house filled with art and books. His enthusiasm for his life's work is apparent in his conversation.
He still has a booming voice, which he would modify in performances so that it "could be the youngest boy, or the biggest, or the meanest, and reach to the last aisle."
In the early days, Bixby traveled all over the country to put on live performances. But as requests grew, he limited his bookings to nearby states. Life also got easier after he began taping his shows because then others could put them on. He enlisted family members, as well as local notables such as WAAM's Ted Heusel, to do the voices.
"You just followed the tape," remembers Bob Zorn, who took a break from college in the 1960s to work as a puppeteer and put on a Bixby show for a season. "But you had to be coordinated. The set was complicated and weighed about half a ton." Zorn traveled with one other puppeteer, towing a minivan with the equipment, and putting on two or three shows a day. Bixby showed up now and then to make repairs or just to see how things were going.
Creating the shows took both artistic and engineering skill—Bixby had both. He started college at Wayne State University studying engineering, but liked drawing better, so he switched to art. While attending the Art Students League in New York, he worked at the public library. One day, while perusing the shelves, he came across a book of plays for puppet shows. For fun, he made the puppets for Dr. Faustus. During a month's vacation, he gave a few performances. "People were just fascinated," Bixby recalls. "I decided to become a professional."
After World War II, Bixby moved to Saline, where his grandfather had lived, and where his dad, a dentist, had practiced for fifteen years. He read widely—classic children's literature, fairy tales, folk tales — to get ideas. While the crews were on the road, he created the next season's show. He designed posters and scenery and created incredible puppets: jugglers who really juggled, cossack dancers who lifted their feet in unison, fish that swam in and out of coral reefs, and a puppet who smoked.
Bixby retired in 1982 with a farewell show in his studio. In the final years of his career he filmed his shows, and videos of them will be included in the permanent exhibit of his work.
People often told Bixby that given his success at promoting his shows, he could have made more money as a salesman. But he wasn't interested. "I was one of the few people who made a living [at puppetry], and I loved doing it," he says.