The Nixon & Agnew PuppetsIn the late summer of 1970, I sculpted the heads of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. I used instant paper mache, and made crude but funny costumes for them. For the fun of it, I made a second set of puppets with little body bases. I painted both sets with acrylics. The plan was to use them at the cover shoot for the October issue.
Abbie Hoffman, whom I knew, agreed to pose with them. The day of the shoot it was raining, and Abbie had the flu. I picked him up at his loft on 13th street to take him to the photographer’s studio on the Upper West Side. You wouldn’t have known Abby was a voice of his generation: that day he had no voice, he croaked out instructions to stop at Bigelow’s pharmacy, and he complained like an old man. We made it part of the way uptown when Abbie realized he’d forgotten his American Flag shirt. We circled back. He gave me the keys and I went up to get it while he sat in the Volvo sneezing all over the dashboard.
Still, when we got to the shoot at photographer Michael Gold’s studio, Abbie performed like a trouper, a grumpy one who wanted to be paid in cash, but a trouper. He managed to hold the puppets for a few photos. We got our cover, and I got his cold.
Whether it’s a great cover or not, I don’t know. A brown background? Brown was big in the early ’70’s. What was that? An “Earth” thing? This was before Photoshop, so we used what we shot. But seeing Abbie wearing that infamous flag shirt, which so inflamed tempers in so much of the public, and holding my adorable effigies of the president and the vice president of the United States… well, the cover had a lot of impact at the time.
I was approached by two guys who wanted to produce my Nixon/Agnew puppets and sell them through the Lampoon. They found a puppet manufacturer in Germany who could make them in vinyl and hand paint them. The plain blue cloth outfits they came up with were not what I wanted, but we had to keep the price down to $9.00 for the set. Nine bucks! They manfactured 3,000 pairs. A few months after they started selling them, the two guys, an art director named Alan –, and a copy writer named George –, were deep in debt, having sold only half of what they needed to sell to pay off Der Gepetto Works in Frankfurt. They turned off, tuned out, and then dropped out. They vanished, I heard, to California.
I’m not making this stuff up.
Late in 1971, Alan — resurfaced by phone. He called my agent, Darwin Bahm, who eventually bought the unsold 1,500 pairs of puppets from him. This sounds like a bad movie, but here is how we got the puppets. Darwin sent a postal order for the money to a PO Box in LA. once he cashed the check, Alan instructed Darwin to go to a kitchen supply store owned by his parents. It was on the west side of the Bowery, just below Houston street. I went with him. The puppets (3,000 of them!) were in boxes labeled “old dishes” in the store’s basement. This, I assumed, was to hide them from Alan’s creditors. We had to carry them up to the car by ourselves because Alan’s father was mad at Alan for taking up storage space in his basement full of old crap.
Darwin and I gave the puppets out for years as gifts and as promotion for my work. When he retired he sold his remaining sets to a dealer, and he became a Thousandaire.
As a weird addendum: I recently was contacted by the Andy Warhol Museum. They have a set of the puppets in their collection. They asked if I knew how Andy acquired them. I had no idea how Andy got hold of the puppets. He received them as gifts? He bought them? In those early days of the National Lampoon’s existence everybody was reading it. Maybe Andy was too. So, who knows? But it’s a cool factoid. And if you’d like to see them, his set of Nixon Agnew puppets are in his Museum, on Sandusky Street, in Pittsburgh, PA.