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Exhibit honors Frank Oz's family legacy in puppeteering


There's a puppet in an exhibit that's opened at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco that might be startling - marionette with a wooden head, black hair drawn across the forehead and a stubby black mustache. It is a puppet Adolf Hitler, created in the 1930s by Mike and Frances Oznowicz in Belgium. The Oznowiczes would become Holocaust survivors. And their son, Frank - better known as Frank Oz - is, of course, the legendary actor and filmmaker who brought many famous and much more beloved puppet figures to life. The new exhibit is "Oz For Oznowicz: A Puppet Family's History" (ph). And the great director and puppeteer Frank Oz joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us, Frank.

FRANK OZ: Hi, Scott. It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Forgive me, but did you grow up with a Hitler puppet in a box in the closet?

OZ: No. I grew up with a Hitler and the other puppets up in our attic. I would occasionally go up there once every few years to, I don't know, take a look or grab something, and I just saw them there, and they meant nothing to me because, of course, what meant more to me than anything else was sports and girls. So - but then, when I became an adult, I realized, holy cow, it's amazing what's here.

SIMON: Tell us about how your parents came to make the puppet and how it fit into what they were doing at the time.

OZ: You know, I don't really know the details because I was born during the war, and so I was never alive in the 1930s when they did it. But as I understand it, my dad carved the characters out of wood. And then, when he met my mother, she is a seamstress from Brugge, or Bruges, Belgium, and she did the clothes. I imagine they did shows there. When they came the United States, they didn't do shows. But - and I don't know if the Hitler puppet was actually part of a show.

When the Germans were coming to Belgium - and my dad was very politically astute, and he sensed when they'd be coming - he knew they had to leave. My mother's mother - my grandmother - was concerned that if they left the Hitler puppet behind and the Germans found it, they would think they were making fun of Hitler, which they indeed were, and people would be killed for it. So they buried the Hitler puppet underground. And then, after the war, years later, there came an earthquake.

SIMON: Yeah. My. What kind of shows did they do? I mean, tell us about your parents. Their career was certainly larger than that one puppet, right?

OZ: In the small exhibit - it's just one room - there are other puppets as a band. It's like folk art, where instead of making beautiful parts of it, they'll use a nail for a cigarette. And so that kind of folk art is beautiful. And that was part of a show because alongside it, there's a black and white photo of the band that shows them during a performance. That's pretty much all I know about it - that's the thing.

SIMON: Wow. I understand your father was Jewish, your mother was Catholic, and they had to...

OZ: Well, my mother was lapsed Catholic. My father was not a practicing Jew. My whole - as he said, you know, this is always terrible to hear, but he said half his family was gassed. In the exhibit, there's an interview I did with my dad 50 years ago. My dad never really talked about the war, but I got him to talk about the war for about a half an hour, and he tells a story about he and Mom trying to escape and finally, without even knowing they were going, to Morocco.

SIMON: I have to ask - I mean, you are the best-known person who's ever been a puppeteer on the planet today, given your work with Jim Henson, your evocation of Yoda. What do you see when you look at your parents' puppets and that Hitler puppet specifically? What does it say of their artistry?

OZ: If you knew my dad, my dad was somebody who got by and through the war by the seat of his pants. I mean, he just was able to enjoy the moment. In the black and white interview, he says that he and my mom were on what's called a hunger ship. They didn't have food for seven days when they went to Morocco. They didn't even know where they were going. But he still brought her up when she was sick as a dog up to the top to show her the Pyrenees. He was that kind of a guy that, even though the worst times, he would see the fun in things. And so he saw Hitler as somebody you could make fun of. And he was just somebody who would create a character like that in order to be rebellious about it, and rebellious in the sense of doing the right thing.

SIMON: I didn't know until prepping for this interview that you - well, you began to work at puppet shows as a teen, right?

OZ: Yeah. Yeah. I was a weird guy.

SIMON: (Laughter) Well, it worked out, I think it's safe to say.

OZ: Not that I've outgrown my weirdness.

SIMON: Well, as a career choice, it worked out. But I have also read it wasn't necessarily a career choice.

OZ: No, by no means. I wanted to be a journalist. And I did puppets in the Bay Area, you know, like, $25 a show for supermarket openings and churches and bazaars and birthday parties. And then when I was 18, I said, enough of that. I'm not interested. I really wanted to be a journalist. And Jim had seen me work - my work about when I was 17. And so when I came back from my, you know, rucksack Europe trip when I was 19, he asked for me to come to New York. So it was a kind of thing where I quit it. And when I quit it and wanted to do something else, I was then hired for it (laughter).

So as much as I loved doing the Muppets, it wasn't the puppets that I loved. It was the Muppets that I loved. It was the characters and the people I work with - my brothers and sisters.

SIMON: Yeah. What do you hope people who see this exhibit will take away from the experience?

OZ: I really hope people will - in a larger sense, but in a very small way - sense the plight of refugees then, now and in the future. When we hear the word refugee, we really don't know how it feels, how it smells, how it looks. And so I hope in a larger sense that people sense that, oh, my gosh, this is what happens when you're a refugee from a war.

SIMON: Frank Oz - "Oz Is For Oznowicz" is an exhibit now at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

OZ: Thanks so much, Scott. Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.