Van Snowden 

Puppet Master

click to enlarge TIM HILL
  • Tim Hill

You don’t know what Van Snowden looks like, but if you grew up in America, you’ve likely 
seen him countless times. Well, maybe not him, but his arm, or sometimes an extension of it, or maybe his entire body, only encased in layers of foam and fabric. Snowden, who died Sept. 22, was a puppeteer, an art without a particularly august heritage here in the United States. But we do have Hollywood, and chances are, if TV show creators or film directors needed a puppet during the past 40 years, it was Snowden’s phone number they dialed.

Available details about Snowden’s early life are sketchy, other than the fact that he was born in San Francisco in 1939 and grew up in Branson, Mo. At some point, most likely in the early to mid-1960s, he began working with Canadian puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft, who in 1969 created the seminal psychedelic children’s program H.R. Pufnstuf. Most sources 
state that Snowden was the person inside the costume of the titular friendly dragon throughout the show’s run (with the voice provided by actor Lennie Weinrib); in a rare 2008 interview with Toy Collector magazine, Snowden said he didn’t put it on until 1972. Regardless, once he did, he wore it whenever it appeared, in live performances and in guest appearances on shows ranging from CHiPs to George Lopez.

The Kroffts kept Snowden busy on their wealth of post-Pufnstuf projects; he appeared in The Bugaloos, Lidsville, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, Land of the Lost and other ’70s Saturday morning staples. As the Kroffts’ TV empire faded, Snowden moved on and kept working. He was the lead puppeteer on Paul Reubens’ much-loved Pee-wee’s Playhouse series. He operated the puppet of killer toy Chucky in several of the Child’s Play movies and worked on Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. He maneuvered the cadaverous Crypt Keeper puppet on the long-running horror anthology series Tales From the Crypt. He worked on fantastic big-budget blockbusters ranging from Francis Ford Coppola’s vintage-tech adaptation of Dracula to Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers to the X-Files film. Chances are, if you spotted an unreal moving figure on a movie or TV screen up until the advent of affordable computer-generated imagery, Snowden had a hand in it – at least.

The advent of CGI as the go-to solution for almost every effects challenge coincided with Snowden nearing retirement age. His last-known screen credit was an appearance inside the Pufnstuf suit on an episode of My Name is Earl in 2007. He died on Sept. 22, at age 71, but his work will live on via reruns and DVDs, anonymous and hidden in plain sight.

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