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Puppeteer Larry Smith Dies At 79

John Kiesewetter
Larry Smith with Hattie the Witch and Snarfie R. Dog at his home in 2008.

Larry Smith, who entertained thousands of kids with his Hattie the Witch, Teaser the Mouse, Snarfie R. Dog and Nasty Ole Thing puppets, died Monday. He was 79.

Smith's puppet show was the first program broadcast by WXIX-TV in 1968, and helped make Channel 19 the nation's highest-rated independent station in a year.

Credit Media Heritage
Larry Smith publicity photo

The Dayton native started at age 14 on WHIO-TV in 1952. He came to Cincinnati in 1957 to work on the weekday morning "Uncle Al Show."  By the time he retired in 2006, Smith had done puppet shows for Channels 9, 12, 19, 25, 48 and Northern Kentucky's old Storer Cable (now Spectrum).

Credit Media Heritage
Larry Smith on his Castle set.

"During his 54-year career Larry racked up an estimated 6,319 hours of LIVE television. That’s LIVE television. No tape, no edits in post, no re-dos, but LIVE!," wrote Boston puppeteer Wayne Martin on Facebook.  

Martin, a Cincinnati native, was inspired and mentored by Smith.

"It was Larry Smith who lit the spark in me at three years old and started me on my life's journey as a puppeteer. When I was four my dad took me to Pogue's Department Store where Larry was appearing. Seeing Larry's puppets in person and in color for the first time just blew me away and it was here that I first met and spoke with my idol," wrote Martin, who will talk about "Larry Smith and His Puppets" Saturday, March 3, at the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting. The event was planned months ago. 

Smith founded the Cincinnati Area Puppetry Guild in the early 1970s. His Rudy and Teaser puppets were part of Media Heritage's display at the main public library in downtown Cincinnati in December and January.  Smith had been in poor health for several years, says Mike Martini, president of Media Heritage,  the local TV/radio archives. Media Heritage presented a lifetime achievement award to Smith in 2008.

"The nice part about receiving this award is that I can accept it, "Often they honor people after it's too late. I can enjoy it while I'm still alive," he told me in 2008, when I visited his Westwood home before the presentation and saw his basement workshop. 

Credit John Kiesewetter
Larry Smith in his Westwood basement workshop in 2008.

Smith learned to make papier-mache puppets in Bible school, and started doing puppet shows in Cub Scouts. "This was a hobby, but thanks to television, I could make it a career," he said.

At 14, he took a bus from high school to Dayton's WHIO-TV to appear with Joe Rockhold ("Uncle Orrie") on his weekday "Tic Tock Toy Shop." After studying for a year at Ohio State, he moved to Cincinnati in 1957 to work on Al Lewis' "Uncle Al Show."  He was seen on national TV when ABC picked up "Uncle Al" in the late 1950s. "All of my friends in puppetry in New York and California could tune in and see what I was doing," he said.

In 1960, Smith quit Channel 9 to work in New York with Burr Tillstrom ("Kookla, Fran & Ollie") on a Broadway stage show. He also produced a 40-episode syndicated TV puppet series for adults in 1962 called the "Contemporaries."

At Channel 19, Smith was so popular that pop music stars Tiny Tim and Bobby Sherman guest starred on his show. "16" magazine "did a page of pictures on us" from Sherman's visit to the old Woodlawn TV studio.

“Those were crazy days,” he said.

A memorial service will be 3 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at Bolton & Lunsford Funeral Home, 3042 Harrison Ave., Westwood. Visitation begins at 1 p.m.

At 7:30 p.m. that night, the VOAwill host "An Evening with Wayne Martin on Larry Smith Puppets" and a tour of the new "Larry Smith Puppets – The Works" in the Media Heritage section of the museum, 8070 Tylersville Road, West Chester Township. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.