1 of 14
“Don’t think of puppets as little instant people,” advised master puppeteer Bil Baird in a February 1963 LIFE profile on he and his wife, Cora. “They have to be more than people, or less, or sharper, somehow more exaggerated — and then you just can’t beat them for kidding human pomposity and sham.”
Here, in recognition of the Bairds’ pioneering work with marionettes and other fancifully manipulated creatures — work that inspired the likes of the late, great father of the Muppets, Jim Hensen himself, to create a universe from wood, felt and string — LIFE.com celebrates the Bairds’ brilliance with a gallery of photos from a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of India in 1962.
(Baird dropped the second “l” from his first name when, according to LIFE, “he joined a nutty club in Chicago that required all members to have three-letter names.”)
And while the photos themselves provide a sense of Bil and Cora Baird’s creatively intense and whimsical lives, writer David Scherman’s words, from the article the article, “Puppets Puncture Pomposity,” add flavor to the portrait of this charming Greenwich Village-based couple, their two kids and their family-run entertainment business.
One final note: You know the trippy “Lonely Goatherd” marionette sequence in The Sound of Music? Bil and Cora Baird made the puppets, and were pulling the strings in that scene. There’s immortality for you!
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.