Master puppeteer and filmmaker Frank Oz’s characters are beloved across the globe. Many of them — including Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear — originated through his collaboration with the late Jim Henson on TV programs such as “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.” Another Oz character has also become a cultural icon: Yoda, Oz’s contribution to George Lucas’s “Star Wars” franchise.
But there’s a lesser-known side to Oz’s background. Born Frank Oznowicz in 1944, he grew up in a family of Belgium-based puppeteers. His parents, Isidore “Mike” Oznowicz, who was Jewish, and Frances Oznowicz, who was Catholic, used puppetry to satirize Hitler before World War II.
After the German invasion of the Low Countries in 1940, Mike and Frances fled their home city of Antwerp. A hectic refugee transit followed with stops in Biarritz, Casablanca, Lisbon and the United Kingdom, where Oz was born, before a postwar return to Belgium until he was five, followed by relocation to California’s Bay Area. Now this family narrative is on display in an unconventional exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco.
“Oz is for Oznowicz” debuted at the CJM on July 21. Running through November, its signature piece is a farcical marionette depicting Hitler. Hand-carved by Mike Oznowicz, it has its own WWII-era rescue story. It is on public display for the first time, as are numerous other marionettes created by Oz’s parents in the years preceding WWII.
“These marionettes hold a very special place in my family’s history,” Oz said in a statement. “I’m so happy to finally share them publicly and to honor my parents’ inspiring story and the stories of all refugees. This exhibition also celebrates their contributions to the person I am today.”
It wasn’t preordained for Oz to follow in his parents’ footsteps — he initially wanted to be a journalist. However, when he was still a teenager, he became an apprentice at Children’s Fairyland, the oldest surviving puppet theater in the United States. Through his work there, he eventually connected with Henson, sparking a memorable partnership. En route to stardom, he changed his stage name, although his legal name remains Frank Oznowicz.
“Frank Oz was Jim Henson’s primary creative partner, performing such iconic characters as Cookie Monster, Grover, Bert, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie Bear,” said Barbara Miller, the deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York and the curator of a traveling Henson exhibition that’s also at the CJM, running concurrently with the Oz exhibition through August 14.
From his initial success as a puppeteer, Oz branched out into many other projects as an actor and director. Miller noted that the Oz-Henson partnership included two early-’80s films directed by Oz: “The Dark Crystal” and “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” Oz also went on to direct the comedies “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “What About Bob?” and “Death at a Funeral.” His most recent project, “In & Of Itself,” is now available on Hulu.
“The comedic, creative chemistry between Oz and Henson was a defining element of both their careers,” Miller said.
Oz’s “Sesame Street” characters particularly resonate for CJM senior curator Heidi Rabben, who grew up watching them regularly, like many others in America.
“So many characters came to Frank,” Rabben said. “They were the yin to Henson’s yang… Miss Piggy and Fozzie were kind of foils to Jim Henson’s character, Kermit the Frog. Frank’s Bert was always a foil to [Henson’s] Ernie.”
There’s another lesson that she takes from this.
“They were very much contradictory characters — love and friendship, but also tension,” Rabben said. “It shows relationships have conflict, but you work through it. You find love and joy through difference and coexistence.”
A rare look at artistic resistance to the Nazis
The idea for “Oz is for Oznowicz” began earlier this year when the CJM welcomed the traveling display from the Museum of the Moving Image, “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited.” Although Henson was not Jewish, two of his closest collaborators were — Oz and Jerry Juhl, both of whom happened to have grown up in the Bay Area.
Rabben asked Karen Falk, the head of the Jim Henson archive, if she knew of any Jewish stories relating to Oz or Juhl. Falk mentioned the Hitler marionette, and connected Rabben to Oz. He offered the marionette for an exhibition — as well as a decades-old home-video recording of himself interviewing his father about the family’s WWII refugee experience.
“Obviously, I said yes,” Rabben recalled.
She characterized the Hitler marionette as an especially unknown story.
“Very little has been said or written about this marionette,” Rabben said. “There were maybe two articles… that mentioned it [previously], but there were no photographs and very limited information.”
For sensitivity reasons, a content warning informs visitors about the artifact beforehand: “This exhibition contains a marionette of Adolf Hitler that may be disturbing for some viewers. Our intention in displaying these objects is to bring to light a story of artistic resistance connected to the Holocaust. Through sharing objects and firsthand stories that encourage conversation and contemplation, we hope to further Holocaust education and lessons in fighting antisemitism, hate, and authoritarianism today.”
Mike Oznowicz built the marionette, and Frances Oznowicz hand-sewed its clothing. That was the case for other marionettes in the exhibition, too.
“There’s a cabaret-theme context,” Rabben said of these marionettes. “Many wear matching white tuxedos. They’re sort of band members. The lead singer has a beautiful satin red dress.”
And, she said, “the Hitler marionette is accompanied by seven marionette heads — likely caricatures of other figures. We don’t know if any of them are direct caricatures of other political figures or people they knew at the time. They’re hand-carved, really beautifully crafted family heirlooms.”
In Antwerp, Mike was a window trimmer and signmaker who owned a sporting-goods store; Frances was a dressmaker and ex-couturier. Both became amateur puppeteers, with Mike learning the craft from his own father, a woodworker.
The goal of the Hitler marionette was to lampoon the Fuhrer during his consolidation of power in the late 1930s. By 1940, Nazi Germany had become much more than a distant threat to the Oznowiczes after the Luftwaffe bombed Antwerp. Mike and Frances fled, burying the Hitler marionette after Frances’s mother voiced concern over its possible discovery if the couple was apprehended by the Nazis while in transit.
In the home video recording — now nearly 50 years old — Mike Oznowicz reflected on an anything-but-certain escape.
“You know, it was just a matter of pure survival,” he said in a transcript provided to The Times of Israel. “[We] didn’t even know where we were going.”
At the time, none of the couple’s three children — Ronald, Frank and Jenny — had been born. Mike and Frances made their way to southern France with a group of Dutch Jews. They reached the port city of Biarritz, where two couples, including Mike and Frances, were initially denied passage out of France because they were childless. Mike subsequently convinced the authorities to get himself, his wife and the other couple on a ship to Casablanca.
In the famed Moroccan port, Mike and Frances were detained in a concentration camp for several weeks. Eventually, a visa allowed them to stay in North Africa for 11 months. Then they went to Lisbon, where Mike received an offer from the British government to join an anti-fascist military unit called the Dutch Brigade. Mike accepted and went to the UK for training. Frances ultimately joined her husband in the UK, where Ronald and Frank were both born. In the video, Mike confessed that he was not much of a soldier, and got into a fistfight with a sergeant.
After the war, the family returned to Antwerp. Improbably, they were able to dig up the Hitler marionette. Five years later, they came to the US.
Pillars of puppetry
In America, the family carved out quite a legacy. Mike, Frances and Frank joined their local puppetry community, including as charter members of the San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild. The Oznowicz Marionettes were a longtime attraction at Yosemite National Park.
“Mike and Frances were pillars of puppetry nationally and internationally,” Lettie Connell Schubert and Randal J. Metz wrote in an article on the guild website that mentions the Oznowicz Marionettes, as well as Frances’s puppet-costume tutorials and the couple’s son and future star, Frankie.
“It’s through my parents,” Oz said in his statement, “that I was first introduced to puppeteering and it feels especially poignant for this story to be shared at The CJM and in the Bay Area where they were such active community members and where I grew up and began my career.”
After getting a job with Henson, Oz received a suggestion about his last name from a colleague.
“It was Don Sahlin, one of the earliest Muppet creators and puppet builders,” Rabben said, who “suggested Frank shorten it to ‘Oz’. Essentially, that’s what happened. But it was never formal. It was more of a stage name, never legally documented or changed in any way. He’s still Frank Oznowicz, very proud of his given last name.”
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