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Examiner
  • Frank Haight: Puppeteering with grownups in mind

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  • Diane Houk, executive director of the Puppetry Arts Institute of Independence, is on a mission to bring adults to the PAI Museum for a unique program featuring inspirational women in puppetry.
    “We want to expand people’s ideas about puppetry, so we thought this would be a way to get a more adult audience here and tell the story of why we are here and what we do,” Diane says, explaining the program is centered around the 2013-14 museum exhibit – “Amazing Women in Puppetry: 1920s-1950s.”
    What PAI is striving to do, she says, is to draw such community organizations as civic, service, business, church and others to attend these elegant programs, complete with tablecloths, lighted candles and a special Vivilore box lunch for $20.
    Noting few family meals are served today on tablecloths and place mats, Diane says she wants to set a bygone atmosphere and take guests back to a slower-pace type of living.
    “For a few minutes, I would like to take them back to a slow, fine, peaceful, unstressful time of life and let them think about that a little bit.”
    Following the catered meal, Diane will enlighten the audience with an interesting vignette on each of the 16 featured women puppeteers. One of Diane’s favorite stories is that of Mabel Beaton. After watching a marionette show with her young son, Mabel told her husband, Les, she wanted to make some puppets.
    Not taking his wife seriously, Les replied: “If you make six puppets, I’ll make you a theater.”
    Mabel made the puppets. So in December 1934, she and Les invited their friends to a black-tie, long-dress marionette show of “Peer Gynt Suite.”
    So successful was the show that some of the Beatons’ friends joined them in making puppets and putting on shows as a hobby.
    During the Korean War, the Beatons decided to do a nativity presentation entitled “The Spirit of Christmas.” At that time, AT&T was searching for a film to air with a special Christmas message. So when the company heard about “The Spirit of Christmas,” the giant corporation selected it to show on national television without telling the CEO about the upcoming show.
    Upon hearing about the show for the first time, an enraged CEO ordered the film be shown in the projection room the day after Thanksgiving with this ultimatum: “We will put a stop to this right now, because we are not going to have AT&T put on a puppet show at Christmastime.” After watching the program, the CEO was so captivated by the show’s beauty and message that he issued this surprising mandate: “I want that shown on every network in the United States, and where you can buy time twice, buy it twice.”
    Page 2 of 3 - Says Diane: “This is the most unbelievable story I have ever heard. ... These are the kind of stories I will tell.”
    Then there’s the story Diane tells of the Gordon sisters – Marie and Mildred – who performed puppet shows in Chicago, where Mildred was president of the Chicagoland Puppet Guild.
    In a letter written by Marie in the 1930s, she tells of going to a Chicago hospital with her sister to put on a puppet show for wounded soldiers. However, when they arrived, missing was the much-needed platform the hospital had promised them.
    Needing something to stand upon, the sisters tried to balance themselves and the marionettes on two reed chairs, with the assistance of a recuperating soldier who was holding up the curtain. But when the GI jerked down on the curtain too hard, it fell over, resulting in the puppeteers doing an unrehearsed balancing act on the unstable chairs.
    According to the letter, the antics tickled the audience, evoking much laughter at the expense of the Gordon sisters and their volunteer assistant.
    Following the show, Diane says a soldier asked one of the sisters to come back, saying, “You were funnier than Eddie Cantor.”
    In conjunction with the opening of the “Amazing Women in Puppetry” exhibit, acclaimed puppeteer Peggy Melchior of the Melchior Marionette Theatre will be at the PAI Museum on Saturday, Sept. 21, for a special performance of “Comedy Cabaret on Strings.” Shows are at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 per person. For reservations, call PAI at 816-833-9777.
    Thanks to a grant from the Missouri Arts Council, Peggy and her husband are coming from Greenwood, Ind., for the one-day show featuring hand-crafted trick marionettes performing a wide range of music.
    The exhibit features some of the marionettes on loan from these amazing women puppeteers. The exhibit runs through July of 2014.
    Noting she wanted to select puppeteers from different parts of the country for the PAI exhibit, Diane says, “We tried to pick some ladies who had done unusual things that would be of interest, and also some ladies who still had puppets out there that we could get.”
    Diane says it was fitting that women puppeteers be recognized today, since puppeteer George Latshaw saluated the role of women in puppetry in 1978 by writing:
    “Women have played such a major role in the renaissance of puppetry in the United States that it seems redundant to mention that they have been the equal of men from the pioneering days of the 1920’s. Women have been contributors to all aspects of the field: as researchers, bibliographers, book authors, experimenters, playwrights, performers, producers, designers, directors, manufacturers, and educators. Puppetry in the United States was ‘liberated” forty years before the women’s lib surfaced as a national movement.” For more information, call the Puppetry Arts Institute, 11025 E. Winner Road, at 816-833-9777.
    Page 3 of 3 - Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.
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