Popular television programmes in the early 20th Century

by | Feb 19, 2021 | Raise the curtain

A little television history in advance

From the 22nd March 1935, the Deutsche Fernseh-Rundfunk (German Televsion and Radio) service broadcast regular live recordings and became the first regular television service in the world (for 250 viewers!).The first portable television camera was developed for the 1936 Olympics and in 1939 the cathode ray tube (CRT) televsion receiver – which was later used throughout the world, was made available for purchase for 650 ReichsMark (The German currency in that period) – had the war had not begun…

Television was now reserved for military purposes. The broadcasting facilities set up regionally by the Allies remained under Allied control until after the end of the war. It was not until December 1952 that regular broadcasting began in NWDR Hamburg to ca.1500 television receivers and also in East Berlin; the other stations in the various occupation zones – Bayrischer Rundfunk, Südwestfunk, Hessischer Rundfunk, Saarländischer Rundfunk, SFB and others – quickly followed.

Twenty years later, there were televisions in at least 93% of all West German households. In 1963 the ZDF, followed by DFF 2 in 1969(Two more television stations); colour television was introduced in 1967, and to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1969.

In 1984, the way was legally cleared for private broadcasters: the public broadcasters continued to provide the basic service on the basis of a standard of content, general reception and diversity of opinion; private broadcasting is therefore only permitted alongside the public broadcasters as long as the latter provide the basic service. In 1997, the KIKA was founded by ARD and ZDF.

In the beginning, the West German programme makers understood television primarily as an educational medium.

Initially designed for three hours of broadcasting time daily, by the end of the 1950s that increased to a five-hour daily television programme. Until 1965, children under the age of 6 were not allowed to watch television.

As a relatively new medium, television attracted many young people seeking to explore it’s possibilities. There are many reports of the open-mindedness and eagerness of the young though not particularly well-paid editors and camera operators.They not only experiment and develop dramatic or technical ideas, they sometimes also help to build the characters and settings and very much shape the creative spirit during this period.

Television and Puppet Theatre

The Augsburger Puppenkiste (The famous Augsburg Marionette Theatre), of course, stood for the puppet medium and dominated the entire scene with production and broadcast programmes. (BLOG post) However, the decentralised nature of the stations also offered great opportunities.

Albrecht Roser: Bluebox Process and Fliewatüüt

The puppeteer Albrecht Roser (1922-2011) was inspired by the medium of television until the mid-1970s. After his first television appearances in 1955, there followed performance recordings, short films, Adventures with Telemekel and The Adventures of Strong Wanja.


Albrecht Roser in the programme “Telemekel” © Studio Roser

An important work will be Robbi, Tobbi und das Fliewatüüt, broadcast from 1973. Here the new Bluebox process was used for the children’s programmes, which made completely new techniques in illusion creation possible. Roser and his colleagues quickly built an impressive ensemble of figures from paper, stiffened with Agoplast (a chemical product); they developed construction methods with internal rod guidance or special lacing for the relatively large figures, which were filmed in realistic landscapes on large stage sets.

Hans Scheu: biblical rod puppet plays and Agoplast

Hans Scheu, director of the Wuppertal Puppet Plays, developed 40 biblical rod puppet plays from 1962 onwards with the puppet design of his daughter Hannelore Labbé and the internal rod guidance of Karl Heinz Drescher, who also helped design Roser’s television works. They were recorded on videotape using the new MAZ process though later unfortunately, overdubbed. Other television productions by Scheu appear to have suffered a similar fate.  He introduced Albrecht Roser to Agoplast, a chemically stiffenable cardboard used in the construction of prostheses. It was not only excellently suited for Roser’s television works, but also inspired him and other West German puppeteers in the further artistic construction of puppets.

Scene photo Oedipus with Puppets created using Agoplast

Walter Büttner: Hand puppet films with a 12m long stage

Walter Büttner, originally came from a carnival background and grew up around fairground puppet shows.  He created 18 hand puppet films from the 1950s to the 1970s in addition to his theatre work. The scenery was lined up behind the 12m-long play bar to a 4m stage depth in the studio, so that the lone actor Walter Büttner was able to calmly direct the hand puppets without interruptions while the camera filmed from a variety of angles.

Studio set-up of a forest scene for a hand puppet show by Walter Büttner.

Many interesting television programmes have sadly been lost due to the recording techniques of the period being in rather a primitive stage of development.  Storage of recordings was not considered important, and children’s programming was not held to be of such quality and importance that it should be preserved.  Here it can be seen how the film production of puppet plays was in it’s infancy, created by producers who were less aware of the potential for after-show sales as they came from a time of live stage productions only; where once a show had been played the moment was gone forever.

Fritz Fey: Fiete Appelschnut

Children’s programmes were also created in the 1960s with the marionette theatre of Fritz Fey senior (1912-1986). Fritz Fey had invented the character Fiete Appelschnut, who quickly became popular together with Bello and his friend Hein Segelohr. Fiete Appelschnut was already well known regionally, as he was skilfully incorporated, dramatically into most productions – including the fairy tales.

Fritz Fey during the shooting of the films with Fiete Appelschnut © KOLK 17

The further development of Children’s Programming  as a genre.

In the mid-1960s, Friedrich Arndt (1905-1985) ended his theatre work with the Hohnsteiner’s altogether and focussed on television productions – including Kasper and René.

Rudolf Fischer (1920-1998), also a former Hohnsteiner and later director of the Darmstadt Puppet Theatre, also turned to television and worked as an actor and dramataticist on many programmes, including those of Albrecht Roser and Wolf Buresch.

Stoffel and Wolfgang (left) and Rudolf Fischer

Wolf Buresch (*1941), 1959-1963 with the Hohnsteiners, became a television specialist with such programmes as Maxifant and Minifant, Hase Cäsar, Plumpaquatsch and Stoffel and Wolfgang.  He conceived them for smaller children who joined the television audience from around 1965. The genre ‘children’s programme’ develops rapidly:”What do children actually perceive? How does perception vary depending upon age?  What values do we as creators of children’s programmes and inventors of figures with whom children can identify with- want to convey? What stories do we want to tell?”These are the guiding questions that accompany Buresch’s intensive and successful professional life.

Wolfgang Buresch with “Hase Caesar”

The character as a presenter

As an actor’s on-screen partner in presentation, the television character appeared sporadically at the end of the 1950s; as a presenter, they remain very popular today.Many programmes follow the course of the presenter, others repeatedly develop multi-part film episodes. With René Marik, Michael Hatzius and Sascha Grammel as conversation partners, the TV puppet also conquers the adult programmes.

Productions with characters are still successful today.

The German frame story featured Samson (Peter Röders) and Tiffy (Sibi Röders) with Lilo Pulver and Henning Venske.

Creativity virtually explodes from the 1970s onwards: Sesame Street, prepared and developed for years in America with the help of educational professionals, and with it the American folding-mouth puppet conquer the living rooms. The puppeteer learns to control his puppet play with the monitor, and many programmes and characters follow: Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Show, Hallo Spencer, Ratz und Rübe, Der Spatz vom Wallraffplatz, Siebenstein, Bernd das Brot, … the long-running East German series Flax, Krümel und Struppi (from 1955-1970 created by and featuring Heinz Fülfe), Rolf und Reni (1961-1972 created by and featuring Wolfgang Hübner), Puppendoktor Pille (1959-1988), … and, of course, Sandmännchen along with Abendgruß/Unser Sandmännchen with all its countless character contributions. The East German Sandmännchen (Sandmen), by the way, relied for decades (just like the Austrian series Kasperltheater – from 1957, from 2008 Servus Kasperl) on the reliable recognisability of the protagonists. Fox, Magpie, Pittiplatsch, Schnatterinchen and Bummi Bear/Mischka who, among others, are still cult figures today.

Mr Fox and Mrs Magpie with other stars of GDR children’s radio.

How do television productions feel from the puppeteer’s point of view?

Thomas Rohloff (*1961), in addition to his puppet theatre work, has experimented with film and television since 1986. Among other things, he played Ferdinand Friedmann (1992-1995) in Boulevard Deutschland and the talking suitcase (1987-2018) in Siebenstein. He takes stock: For him, the 80s and 90s were still a field of experimentation. A lot has changed due to commercial conditions and competition for ratings; programmes are produced quicker and more superficially. Above all, the dramatic and visual qualities of the earlier years are falling victim to today’s hectic pace and computerisation.

Thomas Rohloff plays the suitcase in the series “Siebenstein”.

He also describes a special aspect of the feeling of being a puppeteer in television work: you really only play for the three to five people sitting in front of the television camera, but behind them sit perhaps a million more. You don’t see them, you don’t know anything about them, but you are somehow aware of this together with the whole filming team.

It is striking that over all these decades there are hardly any girls / women as puppets with whom children can identify (and no female editors): Tiffy remains decidedly pale and cute like a duckling which is a question of taste … children’s programmes with characters are a decidedly male domain.

A detailed insight into puppeteer work on television can be found in the special issue “Das Andere Theater” No. 61 from UNIMA Germany. www.unima.de

The BW – Photos are taken from this puppet-theatre magazine.

Special issue of ‘Das andere Theater’ on the subject of “Puppetry on Television”

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