When I was eight years old, my aunt Viva helped me make a puppet. To be honest, when Red was done, I’d have to say I helped Viva and Mom make a puppet. Viva was the artist in the family, and was constructing a marionette show with the intention of doing shows professionally. Red was a marionette with the same head and parts as one of Viva’s puppets.
Viva sculpted the head of soft clay, and helped me make a Plastic Wood replica. She painted his face, and we glued on red doll hair. I cut out wood body parts and shoes, and we connected them with leather joints. Viva carved realistic-looking hands of wood. Strings were fastened to Red with screw-eyes, then up to the control bars. Mom sewed the small slacks and shirt, and Red was born. Red stood about eighteen inches tall and could walk realistically, and skate to the Skater’s Waltz.
We made a clown, and Viva made a Bugs Bunny for me. Alan, my neighbor friend who was in high school, liked the idea and made an Elmer Fudd to go with Bugs, and a fabulous tramp, and a character who was Master of Ceremonies. Viva had made furniture to scale for her professional show, so we had a sofa, chair, and a grand piano.
We created a simple, ingenious stage. Two big dowels in Christmas tree stands held the front curtains. Two card tables on their sides with a cloth draped over were the back of the stage. Two floodlights up front and a bulb with a color wheel gave us theater lighting, and we were in show business!
Alan and I created variety shows with skits, jokes, singing, and Red doing the Skater’s Waltz wearing aluminum foil skates. Mom played the music on the piano at home which we recorded and played during the show. My sister Jan sang with a young lady marionette from Viva’s cast. Red was the star of the show.
We did shows at elementary schools, a few churches, and the local farmer’s Grange Hall. I think we sometimes charged ten dollars, but one church took up a collection of fifty dollars from the audience. We were delighted! The show business ended when Alan graduated and left for college.
Viva took me to a national puppeteer’s convention in Chicago. I was amazed at the variety of puppets by the professionals. There were many Punch and Judy style hand puppets, and puppets on rods, and shadow puppets, but very few marionettes. Viva arranged for me to do a little pantomime skit from our show with the clown and a jack-in-the-box. The clown tried to walk up a plank to the top of the box, but the top kept rising up a little and tipping him off. Finally, the top pops up with the jack-in-the-box clown head, and our clown marionette fell down in surprise! It was cute, and always got a laugh.
PUPPET ON A STRING
When he was done, it could be said,
“There’s no one who is quite like Red.”
His name was from his flame-red hair.
He faced the world without a care.
It didn’t matter where we’d go.
When Red went on he stole the show.
He could play piano, dance and sing.
He could tell a joke, and act, and swing.
But, he was a puppet on a string.
Red could do a lot of things,
At the whim of him who pulled the strings.
His painted smile was fixed in place.
No emotion ever stirred his face.
His wooden mouth didn’t have a voice.
His empty head could make no choice.
Live your life! Do your thing!
Use the talents you can bring!
Don’t be a puppet on a string.