From the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s a series of visits by companies from abroad left a lasting impact. There was The Hogarth Puppets (1954), John Wright’s Little Angel Marionettes (1955 and 1957), Joseph and Louis Contrijn (1960), The Salzburg Marionettes (1968, 1970, 1973) and Phillipe Genty (1975). These companies did not necessarily represent the cutting edge of the puppet theatre of their time, but in a country far removed from central developments or development of any kind, they showed amateur puppeteers that puppet theatre – when well designed, directed, organized and with excellent manipulation – could become a profession rather than a hobby. This repeated demonstration that puppet theatre is a viable art form was their common and most lasting legacy.
During the 1960s a number of amateur and semi-professional groups emerged. Francesca Bantock in Kroonstad and Graham Firth in Durban. Also the government-funded performing arts councils in the Cape, the Free State and Natal began selected groups.
In 1968 South Africa gained its first full-time professional marionette company. Housed in the Johannesburg Civic Theatre and founded by Michal Grobbelaar, it provided a platform for the talents of Alida von Maltitz who had studied under John Wright as well as Ann Bailes, a costumier with experience in theatres like Glyndebourne, later followed by people like Jean Watson and Irene Martin. For almost 20 years, till their closure in 1986, they built up a wide repertoire of plays for children and created casts of beautifully carved figures. Levels of professionalism were advanced by employing experienced directors and recording the voices of well-known actors; in the process, they provided a training ground for many of Johannesburg’s puppet manipulators.