I'm not sure why we got into puppetry. It could be that we always had puppets around the house (like Zorro, Minnie Mouse, and finger puppets we got for Christmas) or it could be because puppets were on TV (Captain Kangaroo, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, Lamb Chop, and the list goes on...). Who would not be inspired by watching the puppet show in the Sound of Music? We started by making sock puppets and quickly moved into making marionettes once we started receiving marionettes as Christmas and birthday presents. We built two theaters with our father. We sewed our own curtains, wired our own lighting, built our own scenery and wrote our own scripts. Christmas plays became an annual tradition and resulted in much sibling drama behind the scenes as well as on stage. The tradition actually passed to the next generation before fading away. My enthusiasm about dabbling in puppetry set me apart from the other candidates when I interviewed for a college scholarship and was a significant factor in earning a full ride for my undergraduate degree.
I think that the very first puppet I owned was a finger puppet of an old man. He had arm armless conical body of light blue and white checked fabric. His head was a wooden sphere and he had a small dowel nose. He arrived on Christmas morning. Several of my siblings received finger puppets at the same time. I seem to remember someone getting a Scottish man and someone else a bandana wearing girl. The first puppet I ever purchased was a vinyl hippopotamus head with a moveable mouth and a purple cloth tube for a body. I think I called him Harry (because he had a little tuft of hair glued to his scalp). I bought him from a variety store on a rainy day while on vacation. I used it to drive one of my older sisters crazy. His mouth took some force to close and I remember my hand sweating inside the vinyl head. My next hand puppet was a Yogi Bear complete with felt necktie. The Muppet Show became a craze during my teenage years. I received a dog puppet that looked something like Rolf and purchased a felt puppet of Kermit. I pretended I was a muppeteer by attaching long dowels to their hands and operating their hands by using my hand that wasn't operating the mouth. I tried to entertain my family with improv ventriloquy.
With weekly allowances of a quarter or fifty cents, it was not practical for us kids to try to build our company of marionettes from $20 Pelham imports. We decided that we would have to create our own marionettes from scrap fabric and wood from my father's scrap wood barrel. The wood barrel lived behind the furnace and it always took some courage (along with a flashlight) to venture into the hot, dark, dusty, spidery place to look for materials. We found the basic pattern for a cloth marionette in "Creative Work for Your Child's Hands". My mother kept this book, and others, along with a cabinet full of odds and ends available to us throughout our childhood. At the end of the book is a pattern for a Dutch boy marionette. We decided to change the marionette into a little girl so that Nathan would have a leading lady to star opposite him in our plays. The result was the smartly dressed (in pink and blue) marionette known as "Betsy Bobbin". Contrary to the illustrations in the book, she did not move with elegance and grace no matter how hard we tried. We hand sewed many marionettes and my older sister eventually taught us how to use my mother's sewing machine. We used the cloth body plan for elves, Santa Claus, and several other characters. Eventually, we reverse engineered the Pelham design, used in Nathan, to create marionettes from dowels, screw-eyes, and hand carved pieces.
This book served as the spring board for many of the projects we made as children. Just looking at the cover I can see Tuffy the tug boat, the rag doll, the one-eared rabbit, envelope animals, a loom, and the marionette. I'm pretty sure that I cut the marionette pattern out of the original book. I now have a used copy of the book for myself. Just paging through the book brings back all sorts of wonderful memories.
Trying to get this design to work properly was like the holy grail of puppetry. We used marbles to weight the hands and feet. It wasn't unusual for them to burst our poorly stitched seams. The necks always stretched on these marionettes and their bodies drooped like limp potato sacks. Perhaps if I make another one it will all work out...