When Betty Brimmer was just a wee girl, she went mushroom picking in the forest near her house. There, she was captured by a Satanic cult and subjected to ritual abuse. This led to her possession by a demonic entity which never left her. After her escape from the woodland coven, she obsessively studied the art of dollmaking. This obsession became a business, and soon it was puppets, not dolls. Rather than crafting nice, pleasant things, she intentionally created a horrorshow to terrify children, whom she despised due to the demonic entity within her. During her time traumatizing youngsters, she was captured stereographically for VistaScreen Series 72: “Puppet Theatre”. She then faded into obscurity. It is said that, late in life, she was placed into private care by Bill and Hillary Clinton, who also erased all public record of her life.— A quote from a fake Wikipedia article I made up in my head while viewing the scary-o-views from this post.
Happy Halloween from Brooklyn Stereography!
While the above image may not instill you with a dread sense of fear, just remember that an autopsy theatre just looks like a nice clean room with a metal table until the body hits the slab. Halloween is meant to be a frightening affair, and I could have gone for the low-hanging fruit today. The Third Reich is always scary. Alternately, battle wounds could be viewed as frightening by the unempathetic. But what’s more frightening than a set designed for children which ought to be kept as far away from them as possible? House lights down, enter…
Vistascreen series 72 “Puppet Theatre”
Some time around 1958-1959, Stanley Long of VistaScreen shot four distinct series focused on the (creepy) puppets of one Betty Brimmer. The first of these is of Brimmer’s puppet theatre in general; the latter three are of specific puppet shows. Having discovered Long’s laziness (he made three series from one trip to ZSL London Zoo), one can assume these were all made in an afternoon. But while these were purportedly children’s sets – sold under the “VistaScreen Junior” imprint – the contents are decidedly not childsafe. Warning: the images you are about to see might wreck your childhood dreams. They are usually grotesque, occasionally racist, and generally unnerving. If you happen to have any tranqs handy, you might want to indulge before the horrorshow begins…
And now, putting on my best Bela Lugosi voice…
Velcome… to Betty Brimmer’s Puppet Theatre of Horrors!
Les Girls! I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be some sort of pidgin French, which connects with the French “Expresso” sign in the background. And of course, many young boys and girls must have dreamt of being / being with chorus girls at the Moulin Rouge. So a perfectly natural, and somewhat unexpectedly lusty, childhood fantasy. But harmless enough, especially by today’s standards (1958 might have taken issue). Slightly eroticized puppet theatre for children… erm… all good, right? Well not so much… viewing it on your computer monitor, you’re likely blissfully unaware of the faces of these young temptresses. Let me magnify the scene for you:
One of the first reverse image search results I got for a larger resolution version of this scene is a piece on art therapy for people affected by the conflict in Syria. And honestly, thinking about war just makes one sad. Fantasizing about these Texas Chainsaw family rejects is just a terrifying proposition. Leatherface got nothing on you, ladies. But, as they say…
…on with the (minstrel) show!
Oooookay… we’re on the second act of this nine-act performance and we’ve got some… blackface. Or at the very least, a golliwog doll knockoff playing a trombone. Isn’t that special? Definitely a stereoview I’d (never) buy for my niece and nephew. For those not familiar with the (disgusting) American practice of “minstrel shows”, thankfully no longer tolerated, here’s a free sample, courtesy of Wikipedia (the real one, not the one in my head). Compare the portrayal above with the advertisement for the practice of using blackface in an act below:
Horrors don’t have to be all vampires, bats, and skeletons, as Black Americans have known as long as Black people have been in the Americas. The excellent HBO series Lovecraft Country portrayed the realities of racism within the framework of cosmic horror – and it’s hard to tell which is scarier. My wife and I give it two thumbs up. But seriously – including this garbage in a kids’ puppet theatre show? And in 1958 no less? During the Great War, as well as the Second World War, Britain refused American requests to institute a colour bar for troops. I guess Miss Betty Brimmer’s demon (which I imagined in my fake Wikipedia quote above) told her that this shit was acceptable in the late 50s.
And now a weird respite…
Gay icon Liberace makes a sudden appearance! This seems particularly strange, as at the time this stereoview was taken, he was embroiled in his libel lawsuit with the Daily Mirror. Could this be a benevolent act on the part of Betty Brimmer? Could she be have been enforcing early gay pride in her mostly horrific puppet theatre slate? Not really. Homosexuality was still a crime in Britain, and was not looked upon with pride, but rather with shame. Perhaps this was a failed attempt on Brimmer’s part to corrupt the youth? Just a guess. Who knows what she learned as a victim of Satanic ritual abuse?
And now back to your previously scheduled horrorshow.
What exactly are we supposed to take from this “puppet theatre” scene? I’ll provide the brief capsule description from the back of the novel on which it was based:
Stupid Jane received a strange invitation to a “Teddy Bear Picnic” in the post one day. Delighted, she put on her best dress, and followed the map out to the secluded cave in the woods where the Bear Family awaited her. Upon seeing that the only bear there was larger than she, and looked mighty hungry, Stupid Jane screamed. Her scream would soon be cut short as Stupid Jane was set upon – for she was to be the starter course at this picnic!–“Stupid Jane”, by some author marginally better than Ernest Hemingway
The psychedelic break from the grotesquerie
So let’s retreat from straight up horror to weird horror. This isn’t particularly frightening, excepting that it is almost certainly the product of voluminous consumption of lysergic acid diethylamide. Honestly, I would probably stare at this for an hour if I did have a couple hundred mcg of LSD floating around my bloodstream. I don’t, so I’m just trying to understand this trippy scene. Googling the title gives me nothing. So let’s just look at the image – a bunch of alien-looking things (the “Peanuts” I guess?) are indeed motoring around. They appear to be half-rodent-half-snowman. This is still creepy, and given that not too long ago my nephew was creeped out by The Dark Crystal, I don’t think I’ll be adding this to his Christmas VistaScreen pack. I will pull it out next time I decide to go “full Hofmann” for a day.
Christopher Robin… and the vicious witch schoolmarm
Exactly where in “Winnie-the-Pooh” does Christopher Robin have to pray (presumably to Satan, being that this is Betty Brimmer’s Puppet Theatre)? And with a vicious, ghoulish schoolmarm looking on disapprovingly? Of course, if this is no schoolmarm, but rather Christopher’s mother (and thus, A.A. Milne’s wife) Dorothy, then Brimmer is really making a harsh commentary on the beloved woman! This old crone, with her bulbous nose, looks like a less delightful Eeyore. Perhaps this image is meant to contemptuously portray C. R. Milne himself – mockingly making him recite his father’s poem “Vespers” – which he HATED. This disrespectful answer seems the most likely, given the first line of the poem. Clearly, Brimmer’s hatred of children didn’t extend only to real ones!
Back to bigot country…
A reasonable assumption here is that evil, Satanic witch Betty Brimmer has, in fact, named this jazz combo after… herself. Who Marianne is remains a mystery. A half-hour of internet searching turned up nothing about an actual group with this name. Still, once again, we see a Black saxophonist with emphasized facial features. We see a drummer with a large nose; characteristic of antisemitic stereotypes common after a certain regime seized power in 1933. We see what I can only fathom is “Betty’s best guess at what an Italian looks like from looking at the side of commercial pasta boxes” on piano. Meanwhile a white woman in fishnet stockings croons her flabby head off. This is again rather dreadful; any of these characters would be better suited for a Gingerdead Man film. Fits the halloween theme; decidedly does not fit a children’s stereoview set. Or scary-o-view set.
OK, I’m content to give this one a pass. Sure, the “Italian-style” piano caricature is recycled from the previous scene, but some musicians take side gigs. Not a problem. But observe Mazie for a moment, and then contemplate what make & model of lorry must have crashed into her face. I mean her nose is flattened! While not as overtly chock-full-o’-stereotypes as the last scary-o-view, this scene from the puppet theatre is basically telling kids “if you have no nose, it’s okay, you’ll find employment as a xylophonist”. She looks like a villain from Fraggle Rock, but at least she’s not in blackface.
The Puppet Theatre Horrorshow’s Grand Finale
Where to start with our grand finale? Well, we’ve changed pianists, which is nice, but the star of the show is a drag queen named “Madame Screachy”. Sporting the Van Dyke facial hair style supplemented with stubble, this is a true oddity. Do you know any drag queens who wear full-on facial hair when performing? Or take inelegant names like “Madame Screachy”? Because I’ve seen plenty of drag performances, some at upscale joints, and more often than not at the Starlite Lounge before it closed. It’s weird enough to include a drag queen in a puppet theatre series; perhaps it’s someone for Liberace to hang out with in the Green Room. But this seems like someone’s idea of a drag queen who had never actually seen one. So once again, it’s horrific in its inadequacy.
The Curtain Falls on Betty Brimmer’s Puppet Theatre…
…but I hope you’ve enjoyed our adventure into the grotesque through the lens of Stanley Long, and the grotesque creations of Ms. Brimmer. Sadly, there is literally no information on this woman or her puppet business online anyhow, so I’ve invented some for the holiday. If there are any living relatives that wish to dispel the rumors of Satanism and demonic possession reported here, let them come forth. And in case you missed it a couple of years back, this is not our first foray into creepy-ass scary-o-views for a holiday. Meanwhile, a Happy Halloween from Brooklyn Stereography and our spooky scary-o-views!