Puppets on Stage

Puppetry is one of the oldest types of performance art in America. The earliest traditions were imitations of old world forms brought to this country by immigrants from Italy, France, and Great Britain. Itinerant 18th- and 19th-century American puppeteers constructed puppets and stages for portability as they moved from town to town, performing anywhere from formal theaters to the spontaneous atmospheres of taverns, city street corners, and fairs. By the early 20th century, audiences would travel to established vaudeville stages to see puppets of all kinds that prompted both laughter and tears.


Shadow puppetry is an ancient art form that originated in Asian cultures.  A flexible, two-dimentional cutout figure is controlled by rods, performing behind a backlit translucent screen.  By skillful manipulation, the unseen pupeteer magically brings to life the shadows cast on the screen by the puppet and light source.
Lion shadow puppet, about 1850(Rotation 1 & 2)

Lion shadow puppet, about 1850
(Rotation 1 & 2)

Early Chinese shadow puppets were made of paper.  Later, animal hide was used, for increased durability and detail.  The puppet master created the design by piercing the leather.  This mid-19th-century figure appears to be a hybrid of a lion and a qiln (a mythical unicorn beast).  Shadow puppetry continues today throughout the world, particularly in shows such as the 1997 smash Broadway hit The Lion King.

Usually made of cloth, a hand puppet is a flexible, glove-like structure. The puppeteer inserts a hand and manipulates the figure by moving fingers and wrist. This method can be traced to prehistoric times, when storytellers used their hands to make shadows to illustrate their tales. It evolved evolved into the use of highly sophisticated objects of wood, plastic, paint, and fabric.
Punch and Judy, about 1890(Rotation 1)

Punch and Judy, about 1890
(Rotation 1)

Two traditional hand puppets are the quarreling duo of Punch and Judy, rooted in the knockabout traditions of the 17th-century Italian commedia dell’arte and the 18th-century British theater. Intended largely for adult audiences, their shows were criticized for comic violence. This puppet set was crafted by the Reverend W. E. Hitchcock of Massachusetts, an itinerant minister/showman. He inverted the bawdy stories and used the figures to present plays preaching proper moral behavior. 

Woman and man, about 1863(Rotation 2)

Woman and man, about 1863
(Rotation 2)

Little is known of these puppets’ origins except that they were created and used during the Civil War era. They are from an extensive collection of nearly one hundred puppets amassed by Hazelle Hedges Rollins during her fifty-year career as a puppet maker, manufacturer, and historian.

Gift of Hazelle and J. Woodson Rollins

A rod puppet has external wooden sticks or wire rods attached, allowing the puppeteer to manipulate its movements. Some puppets, notably those created by Jim Henson, combine both hand and rod manipulation.
Slugger Ryan, about 1970(Rotation 1)

Slugger Ryan, about 1970
(Rotation 1)

Slugger Ryan, a honky-tonk musician, was inspired by pop music and jazz composer Hoagy Carmichael and created by Bil Baird. Slugger Ryan first appeared in the late 1930s in the stage shows at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Master puppeteer Baird sculpted hundreds of puppets for live theater, film, and television during his long career. He is perhaps best known for creating the marionettes for “The Lonely Goatherd” sequence in the 1965 film The Sound of Music.

Gift of Bil Baird

Animated simply by wiggling, a finger puppet is a sheath of cloth, paper, or rubber that fits over a single finger. It normally has no moving parts such as arms or legs. This form is generally used for toys.
Pinokio and Pinokiann, about 1938(Rotation 1)

Pinokio and Pinokiann, about 1938
(Rotation 1)

The finger puppets Pinokio and Pinokiann are constructed of wood and fabric to resemble a boy and girl in traditional Dutch costume. Puppeteer and entrepreneur Hazelle Hedges Rollins made them. She created the only puppet factory in the United States and one of the largest in the world.

Gift of Hazelle and J. Woodson Rollins

Intended as inexpensive children’s toys, paper puppets are either cutout figures mounted on sticks or decorated paper bags.
Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, about 1935(Rotation 1)

Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, about 1935
(Rotation 1)

These paper puppets of fairy tale characters Red Riding Hood and the Wolf are cutout color prints mounted on cardboard. They are manipulated by a cardboard stick extending through a slot at the bottom of the puppet. 

Cinderella and the Prince, about 1935(Rotation 2)

Cinderella and the Prince, about 1935
(Rotation 2)

These paper puppets of fairy-tale characters Cinderella and the Prince are cutout color prints mounted on cardboard. They are manipulated by a cardboard stick extending through a slot at the bottom of the puppet. 

Marionettes are manipulated from above the stage using wires or strings usually attached to a horizontal control bar, often called an airplane control because of its shape. A usually unseen puppeteer operates the bar. The French term dates from around 1600 and translates as “little Mary,” in recognition of the Virgin Mary, one of the first figures used as a stringed puppet in church morality plays.
Perez and Martina, 1942(Rotation 1)

Perez and Martina, 1942
(Rotation 1)

Philadelphia artists Frank and Elizabeth Haines took up puppetry in the early 1930s and created hundreds of marionettes. One play they developed was inspired by a Puerto Rican folktale about the romance of a mouse and a cockroach. The Haines also devised a supporting cast that includes the grim-faced Señora Duenna Beetle—Martina’s maidservant-guardian—and the elegantly attired M’sieu Frog. 

Teto the Clown, about 1950(Rotation 2)

Teto the Clown, about 1950
(Rotation 2)

Teto the Clown is among the most popular of the children’s toy puppets created by Hazelle Hedges Rollins for her Kansas City, Missouri, company. It features Rollins’s patented airplane control, which allows for easier operation of the puppet and keeps the strings from tangling.

Gift of Hazelle and J. Woodson Rollins

Patagonian pigs & Mr. Ringmaster, 1948(Rotation 2)

Patagonian pigs & Mr. Ringmaster, 1948
(Rotation 2)

Philadelphia artists Frank and Elizabeth Haines took up puppetry during the early 1930s and crafted hundreds of marionettes. Their play The Circus featured a number of marionettes designed as performing animals, including a pair of exotically attired Patagonian pig musicians named Pinkie and Patti. They hold mallets to play a prop marimba. The imposing Mr. Ringmaster presides masterfully over them.