Reader seeks identity of Hazelle’s African American marionette
  • Worker by day turns after-hours into magic & marionettes
  • Readers ask about African mask & shadow puppets
  • " />
    Auction Finds

    A theater troupe’s African American marionettes

    At first glance, I could not tell what was in the row of cardboard boxes that filled the long tabletop at the auction house. There appeared to be about a dozen of them, with strings and pieces of painted wood and vintage clothes peering from the tops.

    As I got closer, I could see that on the outside of some boxes – in fact, they were moving boxes – were handwritten descriptions of the contents. What was actually inside the boxes, however, did not match what was written outside.

    Jerry Mahoney was not in his box. Neither were the Chinese, Czech, German, ermine and elephant marionettes. Bugsy and the Scarecrow were nowhere to be found. The “Live Cargo” donkey, though, was still in his Beatty-Cole Circus wooden box, his head protruding from its half-opened cover.

    Marionette and puppets.

    Four African American marionettes were among the puppets that had been retrieved from a theater company.

    The boxes were stuffed with wooden marionettes of people and animals, many of them intertwined in their own strings or the strings of others sharing the box. The auctioneer said they had been belonged to a theater company, but he didn’t offer any more information, likely because he had no more.

    From the looks of them, they had been stored for a long time and not very well. Bugs had left tiny holes in some of their clothes, along with their tiny carcasses. All of the marionettes appeared to be vintage, nearly 20″tall, with carved body parts and outdated clothes.

    As I examined each box, I approached one that really caught my interest. It contained four black male marionettes, two of them holding guitars and another with a saxophone. The fourth was armless and wore a gold lame jacket with tuxedo pants, apparently a crooner. His clothes reminded me of a 1950s or 1960s Las Vegas or nightclub act; the others wore country and western.

    Marionette and puppets.

    One box said Jerry Mahoney, but this looks like the ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy without his eyepiece.

    These marionettes were especially intriguing and spurred me to learn more about puppets and marionettes in general, and African American ones in particular.

    The last puppet show I saw was about 10 years ago – the wonderful “Avenue Q”  – in a small tight off-Broadway theater before it went Broadway and became a hit. The last group of marionettes I saw were Burmese made in Myanmar,  sold at an auction house three years ago and described incorrectly as shadow puppets.

    I have never been quite sure of the difference between puppets and marionettes. Until I found this explanation in an online interview with actor Vit Horejs, who co-founded the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater in New York in 1990.

    “All marionettes are puppets, but not all puppets are marionettes. A puppet can be hand, rod, shadow …  a marionette always has strings.”

    Marionette and puppets.

    At left, a dolled-up female marionette and a man who's lost his hair.

    Here’s a sampling of what I found out about marionettes:

    African American artist Alma Thomas’ marionettes

    Alma Thomas wrote her Columbia University thesis in the 1930s on marionettes and soon started studying under a master marionette maker named Tony Sarg. Thomas designed her own wooden marionettes and made their clothes. Occasionally, artist Lois Mailou Jones painted faces on them.

    Thomas put on her own shows – including some plays that she wrote herself – for the African American community at the YMCA, Howard University’s art gallery and two public schools. The Columbus Museum in Columbus, GA, has some of her marionettes. The Smithsonian Archives of American Art has some papers pertaining to her class with Sarg, along with a sketch of a skeleton marionette.

    Marionette makers in Washington, D.C., between 1935 and 1939.

    A Raggedy Ann doll was among one box of marionettes.

    This was a welcome discovery, and I’d love to see some of her marionettes.

    Tony Sarg’s puppets

    Sarg is considered one of the most influential of America’s puppet masters. He also made animated cartoons, mechanical designs for department-store windows, balloons for the Macy Parade, and illustrated children’s stories and books on marionette making. He toured the country with his puppet shows, along the way, revealing the tricks of his charges.

    He also made black marionettes, including Sambo and Bones.

    Hazelle’s Marionette Company in Kansas City, MO

    One of the largest and most important marionette makers was a woman named Hazelle Hedges Rollins, who founded Hazelle’s Marionette Company in Kansas City, MO, in 1932. She made African American marionettes, including Sambo and Topsy, and Minstrel Mike. She also studied with Sarg.

    Puppets and marionettes

    This photo of unidentified marionette makers in Washington, D.C., was shot between 1935 and 1939. From the Federal Theater Project Collection at the Library of Congress.

    Rollins started the company after a neighbor’s child asked her to make a mate for the marionette he had received as a gift from Italy (which is considered the birthplace of the marionette in Europe). She did, and enjoyed it so much that she began making more, and then writing plays for them. She designed more than 300 puppets.

    Wanting the puppets to have more movement, she created “airplane controls” – those sticks of wood at the top of the marionettes – to guide their movements. She patented it, along with three other designs.

    Other companies that produced African American marionettes included Pelham Puppets, based in the United Kingdom, founded in 1947 and still in operation. Here’s a Pelham minstrel. Another was Peter Puppet Playthings, founded in 1947 and closed in 1962. I found on the web a Sambo marionette that it produced, along with a Howdy Doody.

    The Effanbee Doll Co. made Joonga from the Congo, which does tricks, and Lucifer, designed by Virginia Austin Curtis as part of a series called the Clippo Club.” Yale Puppeteers had a papier-mache Dancing Girl from 1943 to 1960 that was said to resemble Josephine Baker.

    Here are some examples of each of their puppets and others from around the world.

    Puppets and marionettes

    This marionette could be a carnival caller or a clown.

    Ralph Chesse’s marionette theater

    In the late 1920s, actor and artist Ralph Chesse designed his own marionette show, starting with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and then Eugene O’Neill’s “Emperor Jones.” He spent the next six decades offering performances with his puppets.

    Black Historical Marionettes of Buffalo, NY

    This group was organized by Esther Wilhelm, a white woman who was said to have headed the Buffalo arm of the Federal Theater Group of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.

    With theater people (along with artists and other creative type) out of work, the federal government wanted to find a way to employ them to do public work. One of its aims was to bring theater to the people, among them projects for the African American community by African Americans.

    Puppets and marionettes

    Marionettes with the head of a globe (left) and a clown.

    The Black Historical Marionettes was not organized as part of the theater project, but its puppeteers were all black. The five men and three women manipulated the puppets, their identities mostly hidden. Outside of their work as puppeteers, they were known as the Jublilee Singers.

    Their black and white marionettes performed “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with spirituals, along with plays about Stephen Foster, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. They performed in schools and playgrounds, and on the radio. Their puppets were realistically drawn with no minstrelsy or buffoonery.

    Blackface minstrel marionette

    The Kansas City Museum has a blackface minstrel marionette that dates back to 1850. Like other forms of minstrelsy, the character was portrayed as a stereotype. It was donated to the museum by Hazelle Rollins.

    At auction, I bought the box containing the African American marionettes, but I had to fight for it. One other auction-buyer wanted it, too – I’m sure for the same reason as me.

    Puppets and marionettes

    Marionettes of a wolf (left) and the head of a dragon.

    Tagged as: , , , , , , ,

    Leave a Response

    Please note: comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.

    bbc galapagos las islas que cambiaron el mundogalapagos cruise reviewsbest cruise ships galapagos islandsbest family galapagos cruisebest time to go to galapagos and machu picchubest time to go to peru and galapagosbiotech bedrijf galapagosbiotechnologiebedrijf galapagosbudget galapagos boat toursbudget galapagos cruise pricescaracteristicas de las islas galapagos antiguascaracteristicas de las islas galapagos flora y faunacaracteristicas de las islas galapagos mas antiguascaracteristicas islas antiguas galapagoscaracteristicas islas mas antiguas galapagoscelebrity cruise galapagos machu picchucelebrity cruise lines galapagos islandscelebrity cruises galapagos machu picchucelebrity cruises galapagos reviewscelebrity cruises galapagos xpeditioncelebrity xpedition galapagos 2014celebrity xpedition galapagos cancelledcelebrity xpedition galapagos cruisecelebrity xpedition galapagos cruise 2014celebrity xpedition galapagos excursionscelebrity xpedition galapagos machu picchucelebrity xpedition galapagos price