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Margo and Rufus Rose History

By way of introduction, my name is Fred Thompson, I reside in New Haven, Connecticut, and have been involved in puppetry since early childhood. Rufus and Margo Rose performed at my elementary school In Groton, Connecticut, as The Rufus Rose Marionettes. I'm sure many can recall when the puppetry bug bit them and for me it was in the mid 40's, and the Roses were to "blame"! I can't quite explain it but I've I never lost my love for puppetry and have made an effort to keep abreast. I am very fortunate in this respect for this area of the country boasts puppet activity on a grand scale, on many levels and in many forms. More on this another time, perhaps.

Until recently my work in technical theater has kept me from pursuing puppetry full time but I have never wandered too far, and have been able to put my experiences in puppetry to good use. As a teenager I become a Rufus Rose "groupie" and would go to as many performances as I could and would appear backstage after a show to visit and help them load out. I would from time to time call with questions about puppetry or invent any excuse to go to their home just to look around. Always welcoming, always gracious, Rufus and Margo answered my questions and shared what they could.

My first Puppeteers of America Festival was at the University of Minnesota in 1953. I met Ellen and Romain Proctor, Lem Williams, John Shirley, Rod Young, Kathy Piper, Basil Milovsoroff, and Joe and Mary Owens. Not bad for a first fest!

Serendipity has played a large role in my life. An opportunity came in the mid 60's when Rufus and Margo were rebuilding several shows which had been damaged in a disastrous fire in their Waterford Studio in 1962. I was able to offer some assistance in the making of new show tapes and have been a friend ever since. In the 1960's I worked with Rufus and Margo on films, tv and some performance. (inc. EXPO '67) Later I worked or toured with several marionette companies (Meredith Bixby, David Syrotiak, Bob and Judy Brown), and have performed with my own productions. I built and performed with hand puppets and rod puppets but prefer building and working with marionettes. I studied with Albrecht Roser during a semester of master classes at the University of Connecticut and have stayed in touch.

I am currently investigating and documenting the surviving work of Rufus and Margo Rose; many of their marionettes were destroyed in a fire in their home/studio in 1961. The Roses were once billed as "America's Foremost Artists of the Marionette Theater" and were active from the1930's until the mid 70's. I have been compiling oral histories with Margo, now 92, and transcribing other histories taken in 1976 and 1984. Margo is assisting in the identification of photos, puppets and related items, and putting her personal spin to the history of the Rufus Rose Marionettes. I will photograph and catalog all of the marionettes and document related materials which, wonderfully, include Margo's scrapbook of items relating to her travels with Tony Sarg's company from1927, (where she met Bil Baird and which Rufus joined in 1928), many watercolor designs of the sets and marionettes, tour diaries, and letters from Martin Stevens discussing the script of a Rose production. There is an incredible collection of photographs which include production shots from the first commercial film using marionettes; "Jerry Pulls The Strings," for the American Can Company. (1938) (The film was used to tell the story of coffee and only at the end of the film was there any mention that "tin cans" and "the vacuum process" would keep coffee fresher.) Margo researched and designed all of the characters and costumes and many of these renderings are in her possession. Martin and Olga Stevens, Evelyn and Bil Baird, Frank and Fania Sullivan and Sylvia Meredith worked on this production.

Recently, a box of negatives was found in Margo's attic which contained heretofore unseen shots of Rufus and Margo preparing several early productions and pictures of figures for which there was no known record. Many other photographs record the Roses work at the "A&P Carnival" at the1933 World's Fair in Chicago, the "Howdy Doody Show" (1950's) and the "Blue Fairy" series from Chicago,(1958) which won the Peabody Award for Children's programming. Unfortunately there is little photographic record of the Rose production of "Scrooge" which made television history on Christmas Eve, 1949 as the first live broadcast of a full length marionette production. (ABC) I'm hoping that a kinescope copy of that broadcast exists either at ABC or the Museum of Television and Radio. One other happy discovery was the paperwork and a group photograph of the 1946 Puppetry Festival, the first festival held after WWII, which the Roses sponsored in Waterford. Given the restrictions of rationing, which were still a factor one year after the end of the war, gasoline and food were hard to come by. Still, the festival attracted a goodly number of participants who "toughed it out", many camping out on a beach property offered by friends of the Roses. (I'm hoping for more surprises.)

These are but highlights in a career which took Rufus and Margo from coast to coast for many years, touring their wonderful productions to the delight of many. To list a few: "Snow White", "Pinocchio", "Rip Van Winkle", "Treasure Island" and "The Mouse in Noah's Ark", and the always amazing "Variety".

Although their work would suggest otherwise, Margo states that she and Rufus never considered themselves "artists". Margo designed and modeled each figure and each could give evidence of her ability as an artist. Some of the early character designs were derived from illustrations of famous artists such as Arthur Rackham, ("Scrooge" 1935) but the marionettes used in the Variety Shows and other productions were of her own invention.

Margo felt that the designs for the production of "The Ant and the Grasshopper" (1950) were her most satisfying effort. She studied insects found in her back yard and adapted them to the needs of the show. These marionettes are wonderful "portraits" of insects translated into human form.

The figures designed for "The Blue Fairy" series, based on the story of "Pinocchio" are fresh, exciting interpretations of these classic characters and pure Margo. The Pinocchio and Candlewick donkeys, (our boys suffering from "Donkey Fever"), are far removed from the original, rather literal designs of 1933. With "The Ant and the Grasshopper" and "Pinocchio" we see some of Margo's most beautiful and inspired creations.

Rufus built all of the marionettes and over the years developed many innovative approaches to control and mechanics. His creativity was evident early on when he endeared himself to Matt Searle, manager of Tony Sarg's company (and who was responsible for building each production.) Searle was using the classic method for casting sculpted body parts and heads i.e., the "shim" method, where each section of a piece is cast separately. Rufus devised the "string" method where a piece of fishline was embedded in the clay head or body part and used to cut the mold into two,three or four pieces after it was covered entirely in plaster, thus allowing a one-step casting process.

Rufus was also innovative in control design and stringing methods whereby he could effectively manipulate two dancing figures, say, with complex routines, one in each hand. Many of his controls allowed superb manipulation with minimum effort. Rufus was also adept at creating internal mechanisms which allowed for more realistic movement using fewer strings.

Whereas Margo was widely known as a superb manipulator whose delicate handling of a marionette was reminiscent of plucking a harp, Rufus, as Margo has suggested, brought a certain "enthusiasm" to his manipulation which gave for a lively performance; few were disappointed.

Rufus and Margo Rose were always teachers, happily sharing what they knew and encouraging and supporting many young puppeteers. Jim Henson and Burr Tillstrom were two who benefited from their generosity. Burr, Jim and so many other puppeteers have continued this sharing. It seems to be a trait (happily) of most puppeteers.

The work with Margo has led to an investigation of the proper methods for recording, preserving and storing the collection according to accepted museum techniques. I have been invited to present a workshop/seminar on Basic Preservation and Archival Techniques at the Puppeteers of America Festival at Bryn Mawr College in PA. this summer. I am also involved with the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut.

These bits of Rose history are but a small part of a wonderful life in puppetry. (Margo has suggested the she has no regrets; that she has loved every minute of her life) I hope to complete the work this year and make it available to anyone interested. I'm not sure what format this opus will take but at the very least: 35mm transparencies of the marionettes and renderings; notes, drawings and photos of significant mechanical, control and stringing features to accompany the text, which will be comprised of historical and anecdotal material.

I would be grateful for any comments or suggestions and would be happy to communicate with anyone interested in this material.

Fred Thompson

New Haven, CT. Angusson@aol.com

Copyright Fred Thompson 1996

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Last updated 1 March 1995