Maria Perego, an Italian puppeteer and creator of Topo Gigio, the lovable mouse who became famous to American audiences as a frequent guest on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the 1960s and early 1970s and was known worldwide, died Thursday in Milan. She was 95.
Her death was announced on her official Facebook page.
Perego, who worked alongside her husband, Federico Caldura, came up with 10-inch-tall Topo Gigio in the late 1950s. Topo Gigio was a sort of cross between a puppet and a marionette; three puppeteers, hidden in a black background, moved various body parts with rods.
According to “Sundays With Sullivan: How ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ Brought Elvis, the Beatles, and Culture to America,” a 2008 book by Bernie Ilson, Sullivan saw a tape of the puppet from Italian television and booked Topo Gigio for a series of appearances on his popular Sunday night CBS variety show. The first, the book said, was April 14, 1963.
Perego and two other puppeteers were on hand to impart the movements, and a fourth provided Topo Gigio’s voice — but, Ilson wrote, Sullivan had not realized that someone would also have to serve as the puppet’s straight man. Sullivan, who was famously wooden on camera, stepped into that task for the initial appearance, figuring he would arrange for a professional comic to take over for later ones if the bit caught on.
“It was evident from the very first appearance, however, that the chemistry between Sullivan and Topo Gigio worked extremely well,” Ilson wrote. “The exchanges between Sullivan and the mouselike puppet revealed another side of the host, a warm and humanizing element.”
Sullivan remained in the role of sidekick for what the book said were some 50 appearances by Topo Gigio over the years. (Other sources give higher numbers.) The appearances often ended with the mouse saying, in a thick Italian accent, “Eddie, kiss me good night.”
“The line became famous,” Ilson wrote, “and it was not unusual for passersby to call out, ‘Eddie, keees-a-me good night’ as Sullivan walked the streets of New York.”
The exposure on the Sullivan show helped make Topo Gigio a worldwide phenomenon.
“When I was called to have my puppet perform at ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in the now distant 1960s, I could not believe it was happening to me,” Perego told Italy Magazine in 2013. “It was like a dream. My puppet not only entered Americans’ households, I believe he also entered their hearts.”
Perego was born Dec. 8, 1923, in Venice, Italy, and later moved to Milan. She had homes there and in France.
In a whimsical account on the official Topo Gigio website, the mouse tells the story of how he came to be.
A Christmas tree cut out of a spongelike material caught Perego’s eye as it sat in a barbershop. The material, she realized, would be just right for making new types of puppets, ones that, according to the account, “would now have soft and smooth faces, easily supporting the close-ups on television.”
Also, because of the malleability of the material, a plastic foam, she could incorporate mechanisms that would allow the movement of eyes, mouth and fingers, creating a lifelike illusion.
In 1958 she and her husband began making puppets for the Italian variety show “Canzonissima” and other programs, according to the account. Sometimes when working on musical numbers, they would play with the recording — speeding it up, for instance, to get a sound that matched the personality of a particular puppet.
According to Topo Gigio’s account, one day in 1959 a recording by singer Domenico Modugno was played at fast-forward speed, and Perego exclaimed, “This is the voice of a little mouse!” A bit of cutting and sewing brought Topo Gigio into being.
At first the mouse didn’t draw as much interest in Italy as Perego had hoped, so she shopped versions of it to Swiss, Dutch, German and Spanish television outlets. Somewhere along the line, Topo Gigio came to Sullivan’s attention, and the character really took off.
Over the years there have been Topo Gigio books, cartoons, record albums, stage shows and films. One movie, “The Magic World of Topo Gigio,” drew a favorable review from Howard Thompson in The New York Times when it played in New York in 1965.
“The general tone is jaunty,” he wrote, “and the perky, pear-shaped mouse is a joy to see and hear as he outwits an evil magician and saves two pals, a golden-curled girl mouse and a tart-tongued worm with an inferiority complex. Put it all down as a nice treat for the kiddies.”
The character had a particularly big following in Latin America. In 2015 Perego published a book in Italy, “Io e Topo Gigio” (“Me and Topo Gigio”), and at her death she was said to be working on a new animated series featuring the character.
“Topo Gigio is a naïve character, but with his optimism he tries to justify himself, to invent, to introduce himself and to enter into fantasy and the absurd,” Perego recently said on a program on RAI, Italian state television. “He’s always on the edge between imagination and reality.”
Information on Perego’s survivors was not immediately available.