Mary Ritts, 95, Half of a TV Puppeteer Team

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Mary Ritts, who died May 14 at 95, was half of the husband and wife team responsible for the Ritts Puppets, a small menagerie of animals that appeared on children’s TV shows between the 1950s and the 1970s.

They presented small morality plays for children, beginning as “In the Park,” a CBS show produced in Philadelphia, starting in 1952. The act soon slipped from the bonds of daytime programming, and more adult material was added for frequent appearances over the years on shows hosted by Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Dinah Shore, and the like.

The Ritts Puppets consisted of Geoffrey the Giraffe, Albert Chipmunk, and Calvin Crow, all voiced by Ritts’s husband, Paul; Mary Ritts voiced Magnolia, a long-lashed ostrich with a luxuriant drawl.


Mary Ritts had no background in show business, and one of the more remarkable parts of the couple’s story is how they became a nationally syndicated puppet act without quite meaning to.

Ritts was raised in Philadelphia, the daughter of schoolteachers, and was trained in art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She became a fashion illustrator for Bonwit Teller and John Wanamaker, and also was a good enough pianist and organ player to make occasional radio appearances. During World War II, she volunteered at the local USO as a graphologist. One of her clients was Paul Ritts, then an Armed Forces Radio announcer stationed in Texas. Family lore has it that her analysis of his handwriting showed a deep well of creativity. The two soon married.

After the war, Paul Ritts found work as a radio announcer and soap opera actor at WCAU, the biggest station in Philadelphia. When WCAU launched a television station in 1949, Paul Ritts was reluctantly drafted as a director, a common scenario in the days when any broadcast experience at all was a qualification for a new medium. Among the early shows he directed was Sealtest Big Top, starring a clown played by Ed McMahon, whose career proceeded with remarkable monotony.


In 1951, Paul Ritts was directing a sports program hosted by Bill Sears. They thought it would be a charming diversion if a chipmunk puppet emerged occasionally from a filing cabinet on the set. Paul Ritts, skilled at crafts, carved the puppet head. Mary Ritts painted it. Albert the Chipmunk was born and within months was starring on “In the Park,” with Sears cast as a Manhattan gentleman who communes daily with the animals in the Central Park Zoo.

Jack Gould, writing in the New York Times, said the show was every bit as good as “Kukla, Fran and Ollie.” “Fun for the whole family,” he actually wrote.

The Ritts Puppets also starred in “Family,” a live hour-long morning show with guests that aired on WNBC in the early 1960s.Their son, Mark, became a member of the team, too, voicing and manipulating puppets alongside his parents.


One frequent guest on the show was Jerry Lewis, who developed an odd, emotional relationship with Bobo the Clown, a tiny new puppet among the cast. Lewis returned frequently for weepy reunions with Bobo, whom he later cast for an unsettlingly serene interlude in the otherwise slapstick 1961 film “The Errand Boy.”

Mary Ritts, possessed of an excellent soprano voice, often closed the show by singing requests while seated before three keyboards – a piano, a Hammond, and a celesta.

The Ritts Puppets were regulars on the 1960s series “Exploring” and “Watch Your Child,” and went on to star in several TV specials. In the ear ly 1970s, they hosted “The Pink Panther Show on NBC.”

Paul Ritts succumbed to a heart attack in 1980, at just 60; Mary, a decade older than he, retired. She spent her retirement years in Princeton, where she pursued portrait painting. Her canvases were good enough to win awards in juried exhibitions.

Her accidental profession gave her pleasant memories, even if her late husband hadn’t always been thoroughly enthusiastic.

“My father was very amused that that was what they did for a living,” said their son, Mark Ritts, who went on to write and produce children’s shows, and has a sideline playing Lester the Rat on “Beekman’s World.” “He said, ‘Puppets don’t really get to me that much,'” Mr. Ritts said.

A few years ago, Mary Ritts moved to California to be nearer to Mark. Even as her mind began to slip a bit, she continued to play the piano and sing.

Mary Donnelly Ritts
Born June 16, 1910, in Philadelphia; died May 14 of natural causes in a retirement home in Pasadena, Calif.; survived by her son, Mark, and three grandchildren.

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