Boy on a String:
From Cast-off Kid to Filmmaker Through the Magic of Dreams
By Joseph Jacoby
336 pages. Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN: 0786717114.
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Book review by Steve Fiorilla
A recent and mercifully short Fourth of July visit with some of my emotionally crippled relatives brought to mind the underlined dysfunction of every Punch & Judy performance ever given since its inception centuries ago. Those stick-wielding marionettes were a conduit for hostility, and my formative Boomer years were livened up by memorably abnormal arguments between the puppets Kukla and Ollie refereed by Fran on Kukla, Fran and Ollie, and a twitchy, bespectacled rabbit with acute carrot issues on Captain Kangaroo.
Such things became part of the groundwork for future memoirs of broken lives, a contemporary (and apparently unstoppable) genre of 12-Step confessionals that could fill its own aisle at Borders. With this in mind, it was a relief to find that Joseph Jacoby’s Boy on a String: From Cast-off Kid to Filmmaker Through the Magic of Dreams forgoes the expected drone of self-pity. Weathering a childhood steeped in negative influence, the author was blessed with built-in defenses to poor parenting and enforced isolation. (His father was Emmy-winning TV writer Coleman Jacoby.) On the surface his pubescent passivity could be construed as a withdrawal from reality, when in fact he was inadvertently priming himself for a career in puppet show entertainment.
Recalling a transient life and the hours spent alone in bedrooms he couldn’t consider his own, Jacoby would sculpt miniature clay actors with clay cameras directing imaginary scenarios, a make believe rehearsal for when it would happen for real. Early television fortified his imagination, and Jacoby latched onto the creative puppetry of Morey Bunin’s The Adventures of Lucky Pup (1948) and Bill Baird’s Whistling Wizard (1951), absorbing imagery at a time when one could literally wander into a career in live TV. By 1962 he was doing commercials with the Bunin puppets.
His determination morphed into success, and Jacoby temporarily put aside puppetry to do live action features in the late 1960s and ‘70s. After graduating from New York University (Martin Scorsese was a classmate and wrote the book’s introduction), Jacoby directed the low budget ($34,500) urban melodrama Shame, Shame…Everybody Knows Her Name (1968); the semi-autobiographical Hurry Up, or I’ll Be 30 (1973), co-starring a young Danny DeVito; and the Watergate satire The Great Bank Hoax (1979), where Jacoby directed veterans Burgess Meredith, Richard Basehart and Ned Beatty.
In his reminiscences, Jacoby blends dates and facts with analytical observations and suppositions. His detour from features back to television reunited him with the Bill Baird Marionettes (1995’s Davy Jones’ Locker for PBS) and his founding of the Children’s Video Theater (which is currently developing a film musical of Ali Baba & the Forty Thieves mixing animation and puppetry). Although the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of his work in 2006, Jacoby has led a shadowy, quiet career. That most of it’s been spent educating, enlightening and entertaining children reveals a man sensitive to the needs of the human spirit.
Above: Golden Book cover art for puppeteer Bill Baird’s Whistling Wizard (1952),
based on the popular television show of the time. (Click to enlarge.)