A theater troupe’s African American marionettes
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    Auction Finds

    Reader seeks identity of Hazelle’s African American marionette

    Friday at Auction Finds is readers’ questions day. I try to guide readers to resources to help them identify their items or determine the value of them. I’m not able to appraise their treasures, but I can do some preliminary research to get them started. For those seeking a value, I offer market values based on prices I find on the web, not appraisal for insurance purposes that I suggest for items that have been determined to be of great value.

    Today’s question is about a Hazelle’s African American marionette.

    Hazelle's Sambo marionette

    Up-close view of the reader’s marionette, which appears to be Sambo.


    I recently got a Hazelle’s doll pat number 2,113,839 but can’t find him anywhere. He’s African American, but dressed in red pants, and red and white checkered shirt. Do you know his name?


    What the reader has is not a doll per se, but a marionette (or puppet). I was familiar with Hazelle’s marionettes because I had written about some vintage hand-carved African American marionettes that I had bought at auction two years ago. The reader had come across that blog post about marionettes, which are controlled by strings or wires attached to what is called an airplane bar.

    She told me that she got the marionette from a friend, who found it while cleaning the home of a grandparent who had passed. She sent me photos of the figure but no identifying info.

    Googling, I found a Hazelle’s marionette with the same patent number as the reader’s in Debbie Garrett’s 2008 book “Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion.” That one wore blue and white checkered pants, a yellow shirt and red tie. The marionette was 12 ½” tall and made of plastic (called tenite).

    The marionette is named Sambo, which was sold with a companion called Topsy. The Topsy name came from the little black girl in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and many doll-makers created their own versions of her. There is also a Hazelle’s Sambo Jr. and Topsy Jr., with eyes staring to the left.

    The reader's marionette

    Full view of the reader’s marionette.

    The marionettes are part of Hazelle’s play “Topsy and Sambo Join Teto’s Circus.” (Teto was a clown and the most popular of her marionettes.)

    So, the reader’s marionette is likely a Sambo.

    Hazelle’s made a number of African American figures, all with pretty much the same face as its white characters, except for Sam with a grotesque face.

    The marionettes bear the name of their maker, Hazelle Hedges Rollins, who made her first figure around 1929 after a neighbor’s child asked her to fashion a mate for his Italian-made marionette. An art student at the time, she studied his toy, made the head out of wood and painted the face. She made marionettes for herself and other people, and put on shows for schoolchildren.

    She spent a summer in New York in 1935 where she studied and worked with Tony Sarg, the renowned puppeteer at the time. She learned how to make marionettes and to produce shows.

    Hazelle Hedges Rollins

    Hazelle Hedges Rollins with one of her marionettes. Photo from womenscouncil.org.

    Rollins made her marionettes in the rec room/basement of her father’s home in Kansas City, MO, but outgrew it and moved into a factory in the 1930s. She married J. Woodson Rollins in 1947, and he set up an assembly line and mechanized the company.

    When “The Howdy Doody Show” appeared on television in the 1950s, it sparked a demand for marionettes and the company grew. Hazelle’s began making hand and finger puppets, and Rollins wrote plays to accompany her creations so children could put on their own shows. Her company, Hazelle Inc., was the largest puppet manufacturer in the country, and sold products all over the world.

    Rollins created more than 300 character designs, according to the Puppetry Arts Institute website. She made animals, clowns and people, including Little Red Riding Hood, Wizard of Oz characters, Little Bo Peep, Uncle Sam, Native Americans and a “Latin from Manhattan.”

    She got patents and trademarks for mechanisms for the mouths of her marionettes, movement of their shoes and ankles, and the airplane control for manipulating them.

    She also collected early ethnic and folk puppets that she and her husband donated to the Smithsonian Institution and other museums, along with her own creations. You can see some of her  puppets and marionettes at the Puppetry Arts Institute in Independence, MO.

    Rollins and her husband owned the company until it was sold in 1975. She died of cancer in 1984.

    As for the value of the reader’s Sambo, I found two that had sold recently on eBay, both with original boxes, for $50 and $159.

    Hazelle's Topsy

    Hazelle’s Topsy marionette with original box. Photo from eBay listing.


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