I was introduced to Topo Gigio (an Italian name that loosely translates to “Johnny Mouse”) by my Mom, who used to watch him on the Ed Sullivan Show when she was growing up.
Little Topo Gigo seems to be barely remembered in Canada and the United States today, but he was a huge sensation in the 1960s and still enjoys a big international following. He’s a cultural icon in Italy and most Spanish speaking countries (here in Mexico it seems like almost every major store I walk in to sells Topo Gigo dolls or DVDs).
Topo was created by Italian artist Maria Perego and brought to life using a form of puppetry called Czech Black Theatre, which is sometimes referred to as the Czech “Curtain of Light” technique. To perform him, four puppeteers dressed in black and performed the ten inch tall mouse puppet against a black backdrop in the middle of the set. The studio lights to the left, right and above were carefully aimed and focused so that Topo would appear lit while the puppeteers would not. Although Topo’s performances weren’t always technically perfect, the overall effect was completely magical and audiences loved it.
Several clips of Topo Gigio performing on the Ed Sullivan Show are available online, including his first appearance. Most of the clips are promotional bits for Sofa Entertainment’s Ed Sullivan DVDs. If you’d like to pick one up to see more of Topo Gigio, I recommend getting Ed Sullivan Presents: Topo Gigio & Friends.
12/9/14 Update: Broken links in this post have been updated.