Farewell, My Facebook Friend and Hero
Puppet pioneer Judy Folkmanis has died, but leaves behind a legacy of love and laughter.
There are certain moments that we remember throughout our lives. One of mine was the day I received a “friend” request on Facebook from Judy Folkmanis. Judy was one of the co-founders of the irresistible puppet brand, Folkmanis. Years earlier, I remember I had been so surprised when I discovered that Folkmanis was a real last name and a real person—it wasn’t a dreamed-up sales mascot like Ronald McDonald or Betty Crocker. (Yep, Betty Crocker was a customer-service ploy created by the Washburn Crosby Company.) No, Judy Folkmanis was a real woman, with a real life story, admirable accomplishments, and a variety of dreams.
Years into my plush-pal life, I had a chance to communicate directly with her via Facebook. I was honored and I readily accepted. I can’t express the thrill I’d feel when Judy would send me a comment on one of my doll or bear blogs. It was truly an emotional high to think that she was reading and responding to my observations. Among plush purveyors, Judy had a fabulous reputation and standing. She was able to create a line of toys that were essentially so much more than mere playthings—not that there is anything wrong with that, of course, to channel Jerry Seinfeld!
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Judy was educated at Antioch College in Ohio and graduated in 1963 with a degree in biology. That was one of the reasons why her puppets always looked, moved, felt, and seemed to be totally alive. She studied and understood the mechanics of what drives and motivates a life-form. When her husband, Atis, was working as a post-doctoral student at the University of California in the early 1970s, Judy drew upon her arts-and-crafts background to design realistic, well-constructed puppets, which she sold on the streets of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. As one can imagine, her handiwork caused quite the buzz. People had never seen puppets that were so captivating and so personable.
By 1976, Judy and Atis Folkmanis founded a company called Furry Folk Puppets. Eventually it became known as Folkmanis. The menagerie that they produced is astonishing. It runs the gamut from docile domestic characters (kittens, puppies, gerbils, hamsters) to exotic, bold, unfamiliar entities (dragons, lions, eagles, dinosaurs). All of her designs were easy to manipulate and grabbing hold of one instantly transformed you into a Jim Henson wannabe. I confess that one of my most favorite stops at the annual Toy Fair is the Folkmanis show space, where performance art is the order of the day and one can’t help but smile at the colorful characters and the very warm, engaging sales staff.
Judy Folkmanis was 74 when she passed away on January 9, 2016. She’d lived with multiple sclerosis for four decades, but she never allowed it to compromise her zest for life and her passion for seeing the world. She had an adventuresome spirit.
During one of my past blogs, I’d written about my affection for the 1953 movie “Lili,” starring Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer. In that musical, Caron plays a naive young waif who believes that the puppets in a traveling carnival are real. Judy private-messaged me that that movie had a huge impact on her life. She’s seen it as a 12-year-old and she fell under its spell. She then confided she’d never imagined that she’d grow up one day to be like Lili in many ways, believing and hoping that her puppets would be seen as real to their owners and collectors everywhere.
I told Judy then, and I’ll tell everyone now, her puppets brought so much joy and inspiration and creativity to the world. Each time one was slipped over a hand, or cradled in an arm, we were all connected in a world of make-believe and pretend—a place where all is possible.
Judy Folkmanis made it possible for people everywhere to hold dreams and wishes in our very own two hands. That is a legacy to be admired and respected.
Good-bye, Judy. You made the world a happier place.