World On A String: All About Hazelle's Marionettes

Smack Dab In The Middle: Design Trends Of The Mid-20th Century

June 7, 2019

Some things come with strings attached. At the Puppetry Arts Institute (PAI) of Independence, Mo., that’s a good thing. The PAI is home to the Hazelle Rollins Puppet Museum, housing the masterful marionettes created by the premiere puppet-maker of the mid-20th century.
For baby boomers, each Christmas often meant a new Hazelle marionette under the tree. Others will certainly recall Bill Baird’s marionette squad romping through “The Lonely Goatherd” in “The Sound of Music.” But, at PAI you’re in for an eye-opener. Here, hundreds of colorful, exquisitely detailed marionettes hang from the racks and rafters. There are clowns, witches, buckaroos, pirates, and glamour girls. Fairy tale favorites include Alice (direct from Wonderland) and “The Wizard of Oz” gang. Representing pop culture: “Blondie and Dagwood,” “Daniel Boone,” and “Batman and Robin.” Each and every one of these mini-masterpieces sprang from the limitless imagination of one person, Hazelle Hedges Rollins.
Hazelle Hedges embarked on the pursuit of puppetry in 1932. A recent graduate of Kansas University with a degree in fine arts, Hazelle was pondering a career in fashion design, until a visit from an 11-year-old neighbor boy. Donald Newlin had just received an Italian-made marionette and was eager to show it off. He also had a request. One marionette was nice, but two would be much nicer. That way, he could put on shows. And who better to come up with a companion puppet than his artistic neighbor?
Hazelle was intrigued by the creative challenge. Her first marionette, “The King’s Jester,” was a hit. Donald and his brother, Dick, began putting on shows for local schools, with Hazelle painting the backgrounds, and, of course, coming up with more marionettes as the scripts became more complex. The tiny troupe moved on to paid appearances at birthday parties, toy stores, and special events (a Kansas City auto show hired them for 45 performances.)
For Hazelle Hedges, a career was born. Next up, teaching puppet-making at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, followed by an invitation to display her wares at the 1935 New York Toy Fair and study with famed NYC-based puppeteer Tony Sarg. With a bundle of Toy Fair orders in hand, Hazelle then returned to Kansas City, determined to succeed as a marionette maker. What began as a one-woman, at-home enterprise quickly transformed into a full-scale operation, “Hazelle’s Marionettes,” with its own fully-staffed factory in downtown Kansas City.
What accounts for the company’s amazing success during the height of the Depression? First off, Hazelle’s Marionettes were something new. As the ads put it, they were “dolls that come to life.” And, they were affordable, as imported marionettes were out of the price range of most Depression-strapped budgets. They were also child-size, unlike professional marionettes. An easy-to-use “airplane control stick” handled the movements of legs, arms, head, and (eventually) mouth. Most importantly, Hazelle Hedges was a tireless promoter, willing to make personal appearances and give demonstrations at every opportunity. Following her 1941 marriage to John “Woody” Rollins, Hazelle was free to focus solely on design and promotion, with Woody focusing on engineering and production. (He spearheaded the company’s move to “Tenite” plastic for puppet heads and body parts, replacing the previous, much less durable composition pieces.)
With the advent of TV, puppet superstars emerged on such shows as “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” “Howdy Doody,” “The Shari Lewis Show,” “Captain Kangaroo,” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” At Hazelle, business boomed. By the 1960s, over 250,000 “Hazelle’s Marionettes were produced annually.
Hazelle and Woody sold their company in 1975, and the last “Hazelle’s Marionettes” were released in 1984. For baby boomers, however, the memories of mastering those “aircraft controls,” and keeping their eight strings from tangling, live on. And, at the Puppetry Arts Institute in Independence, memories of Hazelle Hedges Rollins live on too. Her merry band of marionettes are ready and waiting to live up to their reputation as “the dolls that come to life” (strings attached).
The Puppetry Arts Institute, home of the Hazelle Rollins Puppet Museum, is located at 11025 E. Winner Road, Independence, Mo. Among PAI’s numerous exhibits and events are a display of puppets from around the world, marionettes by acclaimed puppeteers Pady Blackwood and Robert Leroy Smith, monthly puppet shows, touring productions, and the opportunity to create marionettes and hand puppets using vintage Hazelle stock.
For full details, visit www.hazelle.org. Hazelle Rollins’ career is chronicled in the book, “Hazelle and Her Marionettes” by Mike Joly, available from the Institute.
Special thanks to Anitra Steele and Kraig Kensinger of the Puppetry Arts Institute.
All photos by Hank Kuhlmann.

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. He recently purchased a Hazelle marionette and is attempting to master its intricacies. Please address inquiries (or pointers) to donaldbrian@msn.com.

Donald-Brian Johnson

Donald-Brian Johnson

Donald-Brian Johnson is a nationwide columnist, and the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles. His most recent, "Postwar Pop," is a collection of his columns.

 

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