Written By: Ben Cosgrove
In a 1963 LIFE profile of Bil Baird, a master puppeteer, and his wife Cora, Bil advised: “Don’t think of puppets as little instant people. They have to be more than people, or less, or sharper, somehow more exaggerated and then you just can’t beat them for kidding human pomposity and sham.”
The Bairds, who would later inspire Muppet maker Jim Henson, were accomplished enough in their craft that the U.S. State Department sponsored their tour of India in 1962.
(FYI, Bil Baird dropped the second “l” from his first name when, according to LIFE, “he joined a nutty club in Chicago that required all members to have three-letter names.”)
And while the photos from that tour of India provide a sense of Bil and Cora’s creatively intense and whimsical lives, writer David Scherman’s words, from the article, “Puppets Puncture Pomposity,” add flavor to the portrait of this charming Greenwich Village-based couple, their two kids and their family-run entertainment business.
If you suffer from creeping conformism, acute squareness or an overstuffed shirt, an evening with Bil and Cora Baird, if you’re lucky enough to fall into one (they’re never planned they happen) is a sure cure. If you play the one-string bass, the steam calliope or the sweet potato, it will help but it’s not mandatory. If you don’t dig music, don’t go. But if you do, you’re likely to hear a major American folksinger sing a bawdy folksong, either along or in harmony with the indefatigable Baird or a minor movie star, or eat a gourmet meal suddenly produced by Cora, or shake hands with a newly made puppet that looks suspiciously like a newly arrived guest, or get stuck in the elevator with a lovely dancer and a fat man playing calypsos on an accordion.
Like any good puppeteer, and he is the best, [Baird] is carpenter, electrician, artist, actor, athlete, poet, and plays most instruments, some very well, some awfully He is surprisingly dry-eyed about his wooden proteges, some of which may take him and his staff hundreds of hours to make: “People often ask if we love them, or feel like their parents. God, no. They don’t command love in their own right. They’re nothing if we don’t operate them. Besides,” he said, in a non sequitur that somehow made sense, “I always give them blue eyelids.”
One final note: You know the trippy “Lonely Goatherd” marionette sequence in The Sound of Music? Bil and Cora Baird made the puppets, and were pulling the strings in that scene—giving them, to this date, a bit of immortality.
Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.