Judy B. Brown, master puppeteer, dies at 72


Judy B. Brown, a master puppeteer who performed for three presidents, died March 8. She is shown with her husband, Bob Brown. (Family Photo)

Judy B. Brown, a master puppeteer who performed for three presidents and staged puppet shows at the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Theatre, died March 8 at Inova Fairfax Hospital. She was 72.

The cause was atrial fibrillation and cancer, said her husband and puppetry partner, Bob Brown.

Mrs. Brown wrote, narrated and performed in several thousand productions during her nearly 50-year career with Bob Brown Puppets.

The puppetry company started in New York City in 1964 and relocated to the Washington area in 1967 after the Smithsonian Institution’s performing arts division hired the Browns to develop a Punch and Judy show for tourists on the Mall.

The Browns soon began performing in a newly designed 225-seat puppet theater in what is now the National Museum of American History. They also entertained at White House-sponsored parties and events, including the annual Easter Egg Roll and soirees hosted by Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter.

The puppetry company, originally called the Bob Brown Marionettes, became a traveling puppet troupe starting in the early 1970s. Around that time, they also began an association with the public television host Fred Rogers, who had admired the Browns’ Kennedy Center performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” Rogers wrote the Browns into nearly 50 shows of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as marionette puppeteers.

A majority of Mrs. Brown’s work took place behind the scenes; she conceptualized, directed and scripted the shows, and her husband designed the sets and props.

She also created original scores for many productions, despite having never learned to read music. “She would use windshield wipers as a metronome,” her husband said.

Judy Lorraine Barry was born Jan. 7, 1941, in Dallas and spent her teenage years in New York City. She was introduced to theater at a young age. Her father was a former stage manager for Minsky’s Burlesque, and her mother had once been a stuntwoman in Hollywood.

Mrs. Barry pursued acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and serendipitously fell into the business after she answered an ad for puppet voice actors in 1962.

Two years later, she met her future husband at a puppeteer’s festival in Miami. They married six months later and soon began Bob Brown Puppets.

The company performed puppet accompaniment in opera and symphony orchestra performances across the United States and overseas, including in Israel, Japan and Saudi Arabia. They once performed a marionette scene with Spanish tenor Placido Domingo during his performance of “Il Guarany” at the Kennedy Center.

The Browns worked out of a studio in Arlington until relocating to Oakton in the early 1990s. Mrs. Brown stopped puppeteering in 2011 because of the job’s physical demands, but continued to assist her husband with all other aspects of the show.

In 2008, the company received the Governor’s Awards for the Arts, a Virginia cultural honor. Mrs. Brown was a past president of the Puppeteers of America and, in 2009, co-wrote the book “A Pair of Cockeyed Optimists: The Puppetry Career of Bob and Judy Brown.”

Besides her husband of 49 years, survivors include three children, Michael Brown of The Plains, Va., Krista Robbins of New York City and Peter Brown of Oakton; a sister; and a grandson.

Mrs. Brown once told The Washington Post that puppetry “is the last place in our society where you can do your own thing. Where else can you write the script, direct the show, control the characters to the point of actually creating them, make the costumes, do the acting and collect the tickets yourself?”