Human Puppet

One day while browsing through the book catalogue in Davenport's I came across a small booklet entitled "Living Marionettes" and I was intrigued so I bought it.

The booklet detailed an old Music Hall/Vaudeville act where two performers would be standing behind a cloth, on the front of the cloth was attached a small body. One of the performers would supply the head and hands of the body while the second performer would place their hands into the shoes of the small body. The small body would then interact with the audience and dance. The illusion was perfect.

I loved the idea and decided to work on it to see if I could adapt it for the street, then I remembered seeing a guitarist many years ago who would get a young lady out to help and she would sit on his lap with the guitar in front of her. The guitarist would be covered in a large cloth before the lady sat down then his hands would come out from the cloth and he would play the guitar. It was a cute idea and not very politically correct but it was a starting point and I knew it was going to be a good street routine.

The first thing to think about was a way of covering the assistant while they were standing. It was autumn at the time and I thought an overcoat wouldn't look out of place. Next stop was the used clothing shops and I found an old overcoat that was fairly heavy so it would stay in place but it was also transportable.

Anna split the back open up to neck and sewed back the opening at the back so that I could get to the armholes but it would still give enough weight to stop it shifting too much with the movement.

After I was satisfied that it would be easy to slip over someone's neck I needed a trick to go with it. The trick needed to be very visual, and I had to find some way of injecting a few surprises.

I decided on the "Three Rope Trick" or "Professors Nightmare" as they sometimes call it. The reason for this trick was that I could do it without looking at the ropes, I had been doing it in my close-up work for so long I could do the routine surrounded and not give any hints how it happens. From the start I knew this routine would be about the assistant and how they would react to what was happening so If I could fool them then their reaction would be huge and the laughs would come naturally.

Another reason for using that routine was that it needed three objects and this gave an ideal situation for the assistants hands to move around in and out of pockets, which would add to the illusion.

The booklet stressed that I should not use extra hands because it would break the illusion; I was going for entertainment value and I reasoned that if I introduced a third hand at the correct spot, it would only enhance the illusion and get a laugh. The third rope would provide a perfectly logical reason for a third hand.

This new routine was an instant hit on the street, it got laughs no matter what the assistant did, if they played along as most of them did then it was hilarious and if the assistant was embarrassed they would usually watch the hands for something to do and this was funny. As I suspected, when the three unequal lengths of rope all became the same length then the look of surprise on the assistant's face really "sold" the effect.

There were other visual touches put to the routine, after the ropes all became the same length one of the visible hands would disappear into the coat and bring out a handkerchief to mop the assistant's forehead then help to blow his nose, followed by a wringing out of the handkerchief. Another time one hand would casually drop and scratch the crotch area of the puppet. After the hands had taken out two of the ropes one hand would start patting the pockets and then one of the assistant's hands would come out from over the top button of the overcoat and it would have the third rope. By the time the third hand appeared the crowd were used to the two hands and when the hand appeared the crowd weren't sure whose hand it was - the only recourse they had was laughter.

I used the overcoat for a long time, then when I had the long contract in Vancouver I bought a silk dressing gown and Anna attached a padded out over-the-top cravat to enhance the elegance of the costume. The gags were the same but it weighed a lot less and was not as hot to wear in the heat of the summer.

In 1987 I was booked to perform at the First Annual Vancouver International Comedy Festival - this was a great festival and I think it is still going. Well, one day Anna and I were checking out toy shops and found a large witch puppet. The puppet had a tube at one side instead of an arm, the idea was so that the puppeteer could use their own arm as one of the witches arms. I enjoyed playing with the puppet (I've always been fascinated by puppets) but didn't buy it because we were travelling and I couldn't justify the extra space it would take.

When we got back to our apartment we'd rented I thought about how to use the puppet, then I thought it would be great to turn a member of the public into a puppet. The overcoat/dressing gown was halfway there already. We bought some black material, some wadding, a small white shirt and Anna found a pattern for making babies booties - the body was sorted but how to hide me was a bit of a problem and as luck would have it I went into a kite shop that I knew sold spares for a Yo-Yo I have and they sold material for building your own kite. This was perfect, the material is lightweight, hard wearing and the creases fall out easily.

We based the puppets costume on the one I was wearing and to have it look like a miniature version of my costume as it would be at the time I was to do the routine. At that stage in the act half my bow tie was missing so the puppet would only have half a bow tie, my jacket had large white buttons that did a trick and this same trick was built into the puppet but with and added ending. By adding the trick with the buttons it reminded the crowd of something that had happened earlier and when an audience gets the connection, it's like a private joke between me and them - this takes the act onto a more emotional level and is a powerful weapon in any performers arsenal.

Anna hand stitched everything as she didn't have a sewing machine, life on the road is hard, and thirty years later the prop is still in one piece. We made everything to be removable for washing and it still looks as good as new.

A few people have ripped this idea off and especially the human puppet element but what I find interesting is that the three rope trick is still being used although nobody seems to understand the full importance of it and the fact that it was used to get a third hand logically involved.

I'm not pretending that standing behind someone and using my hands instead of theirs is my idea, it is a very old idea but using that idea with turning someone into a human puppet is original with me. When I first started doing this routine on the street I was watched by a well know comedy duo and they introduced the idea of standing behind someone and using your own hands as if they belonged to the person at the front into a TV show we had in the UK and now it is a staple comedy conceit in all improvisations shows.


Standing in such close proximity to anyone is always fraught with danger and I have had my testicles squeezed so tight that my eyes watered and occasionally I have been thrown over the shoulder of the assistant. My arms would be through the sleeves of the puppet and I was trapped in position so when I was thrown I just had to go and I landed on my back with my arms stuck in the sleeves of the puppet.

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