Why is the Augsburger Puppenkiste the famed and successful marionette theatre that it is?

by | Feb 14, 2021 | Raise the curtain

It was above all the intensive television work that fast-tracked the Augsburger Puppenkiste to success: with countless programmes over almost 70 years, it has etched itself deeply into the (West) German cultural memory. Many of it’s programmes are available on DVD, and it’s books for young people are still bestsellers today. Since the family kept most of the built and carved material, the original association, founded in 1992, has been able to run its own museum since 1995: Die Kiste (The Box).

On 29 July 2013, the Augsburger Puppenkiste performed the play “Urmel’s Great Journey” at the Lübeck Puppet Theatre. Children and adults queued out into the street to see Urmel, Mama Wutz, Professor Habakuk Tibatong and some other stars from “Urmel aus dem Eis” (Urmel out of the Ice) live. 

With the guest performance “Urmel’s Great Journey”, the Augsburger Puppenkiste proved how popular the stories and the characters still are today.

But how did this popularity come about?

A well-connected family business

Walter Oehmichen (1901-1977) was an actor until 1945.  Head of the Augsburg municipal theatre.  He was also regional director of the Reich Chamber of Culture, well connected and popular in the theatre scene. He wanted to open his own puppet theatre after the war. 

His wife Rose (1901-1985) was also an actress who gave up her profession to bring up their two daughters. Utilising her sewing skills she supported his plans: the Augburger Puppenkiste (Augsburg Marionette Theatre), which could only be opened after Walter Oehmichen’s denazification in 1948, became a joint project. Both worked passionately, succeeding in infecting their daughters with their own enthusiasm for puppet theatre. Thus, a hard-working, determined, patriarchal family business was established from the very beginning. The younger daughter, Hannelore (1931-2003), learnt carving from her father and devoted her later artistic vocational training entirely towards a career in the theatre.

Walter Oehmichen had many contacts from his acting days; with an ability to inspire others in the concept of puppet theatre, he often met with enthusiastic and long-standing collaborators.

One of the most important of these became his narrator, dramatist and director of the television productions; Manfred Jenning (1929-1979). 

His successor from 1980-1992 was Sepp Strubel. But many other young people from the daughters’ generation are also enthusiastic about working with the company, some of them staying with it for years. Hannelore’s later husband Hanns-Joachim Marschall will one day take over the theatre completely.

Regional and Western European Tours

The venue, an intact 17th century hospital in the middle of Augsburg, which initially also housed the workshops and the extensive warehouse, is still being run successfully today. Cultural-political support is strong and the company is promoted with the proviso that it performs nationwide. Tours through Germany, Switzerland and Western Europe follow the domestic public performances. The company, including actors and technicians is a growing concern.

Target group: the educated middle class of the economic boom

With the choice of plays – fairy tale adaptations of well-known material such as Faust, Leonce and Lena, Peter and the Wolf, and later Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Bertold Brecht – Oehmichen’s puppet theatre appeals both to the educated middle class and to the general population.  

Kasper is supposed to be a funny lovable fellow.  Especially with Saint Exupéry’s  “The Little Prince”  – the book was staged as soon as the German translation appeared in 1951 – the Augsburger Puppet Booth achieved great nationwide success.

Walter Oehmichen tells the story as an actor together with the marionettes. In the Threepenny Opera (1960) he played the storyteller through song alongside the marionettes. Otherwise, however, speakers and actors are separated from the very beginning. Great importance is attached to good, trained voices. 

As audio technology became less complicated, playback tapes were immediately made with professional actors’ voices.

Early adaptation of a new medium: television

In 1952, a programme will be, for the first time broadcast on television. Oehmichen is approached and enters film work with Sergei Prokofjiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” in 1953. Here too, his contacts ensure him decades worth of productions with the Bavarian Radio and Television company and above all with the Hessian Radio and Television company.

While at first performances are simply filmed, filming and recording procedures gradually become more professional.  Manfred Jenning takes over the television dramatisation at the end of the 1950s. He introduces the popular multi-part series. The younger generation now brings new books for young people and other authors into the picture: Michael Ende, Max Kruse, Paul Maar, Ellis Kaut … Here it pays off that two generations have shaped the Puppenkiste from the beginning. The authors, especially Max Kruse (1921-2015), are open and enjoy working closely with the ensemble. Sometimes a book is written after the television production.

Recordings of the Augsburger Puppenkiste with the Hessen Radio and Television company.

The television adaptations, are not filmed in the television studio but rather in the foyer of the puppet theatre during the off-season in summer.  The whole house becomes a studio complete with workshops. Many sets are specially made, venues cleverly joined together through audiovisual editing thereby negating the need for scene changes to create a seamless television experience. 

Many well-known and popular puppet films are made. Their heroes are not shown in the theatre because of the completely different artistic techniques involved (frequent scene changes, camera effects of the figures). 

A version of “Urmel” exists today as an openly performed touring production with 1:1 duplicates of the original characters; however, it appears for the viewer very differently to the television shows. This production was successfully performed at the Puppet Theatre in Lübeck in 2013 as part of the exhibition “Die Augsburger Puppenkiste – Stars an Fäden zu Gast in Lübeck” (The Augsburg Marionette Theatre – Stars on Threads as guest artists in Lübeck).

Playing with the cuteness factor in an “ideal world”

From 1953 onwards, the Augsburg Puppet Booth appears on television. Their sets are discreetly colourful and skilfully matched to the scale and effect of the marionettes. The set material contrasting effectively with the puppets. Over the years, the films keep pace with the popular books produced for young people – the book market benefits from the productions and vice versa. Incorporated into the timeline are shows with less familiar plots which, due to it’s success the Augsburger Puppenkiste can bring into the limelight.Besides the cute fairy tales, cheerful stories from an ideal world are shown. Though not necessarily family stories: Friends leave the past behind; go on adventures; accept their differences, remain together. The first young visitors from the early days now come with their grandchildren who also can relate to the friendly atmosphere of the films, the theatre productions or watch the DVD’s.

Rigorous, strict standards are part of the brand

Hannelore Oehmichen carves tirelessly in the workshop for decades; her husband Hanns-Joachim Marschall (1927-1999) takes over in 1972 the second generation, mainly the commercial management of the theatre until 1992.  Her two sons Jürgen and Klaus grow up in this atmosphere.  Jürgen (1958-2020) continues to carve. Klaus Marschall (*1961) runs the theatre today. 

Hannelore Oehmichen keeps her characters close to the illustrations of children’s and young peoples’ books. 

The Augsburgers develop a long marionette thread technique for their raree show. While in the puppet world a lot of thought is given to weights and joints, to handheld playing crosses and lacing techniques, Hannelore remains faithful to the ring-screw joints and lead weights in the shoes. The resulting typical charming gait of the Augsburg puppets remains the same over the decades; for Klaus Marschall, these are now signs of the Augsburger Puppenkiste becoming a brand.

In 1996 the Augsburger Puppenkiste gains Warner Brothers as co-producer for the successful cinema film “Monty Spinneratz”, which is released in 1997.

Walter Oehmichen pursues successful advertising strategies from the beginning. The national theatre work is always accompanied by elaborate publications and, of course, media coverage. The typical facade with the well-known lettering accompanies the stage over the decades.

In September 2020, the writer Thomas Hettche publishes the modern fantasy novel “Herzfaden” (Heart strings), in which the story of the Augsburger Puppenkiste impressively plays the central role. With this novel, Hettche has been nominated for the German Book Prize 2020.

Through stringent family business practices, a tasteful feeling for the educated middle classes zeitgeist and an extremely successful media presence, the Augsburg Puppet Booth is almost synonymous with West German puppetry to this day.

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