(The following history of The Herrick Marionettes has been taken from an audio tape recorded by Ron Herrick in 1983 and given to the Macdonald DeWitt Library Local History Collection. This is page 1 of the Memories of Ron Herrick.)
It is 1983 and I’m taping this in Waynesville, NC, at 106 Morning Drive where I’m living with my second wife, Nell Herrick. I’ve decided to make a tape about the Herrick marionettes which were in existence for 42 years starting in 1936. There are no visual [video] records of the Herrick marionettes but Lois Fitch has a complete set of cassettes made from the original tapes of all the shows we ever produced-not the variety shows, just the story shows.
In 1935 mother and dad Herrick complained that we went on vacations and did not stay with them up in Norwich [New York]. We had stayed there part of our honeymoon in 1929 but hadn’t been there for a long stay since. So we decided that we would spend a week up there.
“After being there for a few days I had seen all the old friends and neighbors, I had read all the Saturday Evening Posts and a couple of books that were there that I had not read before and I said to Jane, “We’re going home.”
“Oh, no you’re not!” she said, “You told your mother you were going to stay here for a week. You’re going to stay for a week. You don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve got to have something to do.”
“She said “A while ago I saw something about marionettes. Let’s go up to the library and see if we can find out anything about marionettes.”
“And I said, “Marionettes? They’re some kind of dolls or something, aren’t they? I’m not interested in playing with dolls at my age.” Little did I realize that marionettes would eventually become my profesion. Anyhow, we went to the library and we found one book on marionettes and that was how to make them out of cloth and stuff them with cotton and we brought the book home and started in. I was not at all interested because sewing is not my forte. When I broke up housekeeping on Shady Lane in 1979 I threw away the partially completed first marionette. I kept thinking, “If this were made of wood it would be much better than something stuffed out of cloth and cotton.”
Anyhow, we stayed the full week. When we got back to New York, we went to the public library and told them we’d like all the books they had on marionettes. They came up with four, two of which were in German and the other two didn’t tell us very much about how to make them. Then it became a challenge and, I think, without a challenge we’d have dropped it right there. But Jane, in the office, started calling different colleges and universities in New York City to see if, by any chance, there was a place where we could go and take courses in making marionettes. None of them knew anything about such a course.
“By mistake she called one place twice and that party said, “There is such a place we found out after your first inquiry. There is a WPA marionette workshop at 14th Street and 6th Avenue.”
And the way that started is quite a story. Nelson Rockefeller owned an old house which was not used and he hired some WPA employees to clean it out getting it ready for fixing up and occupancy and in the basement they found a trunk with a tangle of marionettes in it. On their noon hour they took some of the marionettes out and untangled their strings and made them move.
When Mr. Rockefeller showed up again, they showed him the marionettes and he said, "This is an art form that doesn’t exist in this country. I’ve seen many marionettes in Europe, and we should have marionettes in this country.”
As a result, the WPA started a workshop, but nobody knew that they were doing — it was all experimental. Anyhow, we went down and registered for this course. It was a couple nights a week and there we learned to build our first marionettes.
The man who taught me to make trunk fiber joints was John Morganstern. He had been a cabinetmaker and woodworker and a very nice guy. While I was doing that, Jane talked to the workers finding out how they did their costuming, how they did their stringing and so forth. And, as a result, we made marionettes.
“When we first went down there, Jane said, “What kind of marionettes are we going to make? Maybe we should make a story.”
I had been reading fairy stories to the Fitch kids, Natalie and Dan, and I said, “Seems to me I read them a story Rumple Stiltskin and it would make a good marionette story. So I told her the story as I remembered it.
“It turned out that the story actually was about a miller, but I remembered it as a cobbler and, in all the years that we played the show, nobody ever came up and said, “How come it was a cobbler and not a miller in your Rumple Stiltskin?”
However, we built Rumple Stiltskin himself, the cobbler, his daughter, the king, and so forth and finally turned out a show. Jane costumed them. I painted them, we strung them with silk fish line and they worked beautifully. After we got them all done, we said, “Hey, what a good are a cast of marionettes for a show if we don’t have a stage to play them on?” Well, the stage they had down in the workshop was made out of two by fours and big heavy planks and took several people a couple of hours to set up. They were playing them in schools and parks and so forth. We couldn’t have anything that big and heavy so I designed a stage make out of three-quarter inch plywood. And I had the plywood delivered at the workshop and fabricated it down there. It went together with pull pin hinges. It had a proscenium that was three by six. The stage that the marionettes played on was eighteen inched off the floor. And the bridges on which we worked were eighteen inches above that. We got the stage frame all done and then we didn’t know what to do about curtains, lights and a whole lot of other things.
“My brother-in-law, Dan Fitch, from up in Ossining where we had moved from said, “Say, Ron, there’s a man in Ossining, a Ted France. He and his brother have a scenic studio down in Hell’s Kitchen I think it was on 29th street, it might have been 30th, but the building they were in had been built just for that purpose He said, 'Well, bring a couple of your marionettes down here and we’ll look them over.'"
“When I took them down, he said, “These would do credit to Tony Sarg.” and I said “Tony Sarg? Do you know him?” and he said, “Yes, all of his scenery is painted in our scenic studio and Bill Baird is the one who paints all his scenery for him.” He was working at that time for Tony. “I’m going to call Tony up and make an appointment for you to see him.” Which he did. Well, I had the rare privilege of spending a couple of hours in Tony Sarg’s studio on 9th street talking to the father of American puppetry.
He was very encouraging. Told us to go ahead with it. He wasn’t too helpful but it was nice to be encouraged by so distinguished a puppeteer. Ted France helped us with our curtains. He taught me how to paint scenery and the scenery was painted with fish glue dissolved and heated and dry color. The first back drop that I painted was same size as all of our subsequent back drops; nine feet in width four and a half feet in height and we put it on a stretcher and I stood there in Mr. France’s studio looking at the biggest canvas I had ever seen. I had never painted anything bigger than maybe sixteen by twenty.
“Just then the old Swede who was his head scene painter came by and he says “What’s the matter Mr. Herrick?” and I said “I never saw so much blank space in my life.” He says “That little thing?” because of course he painted full size scenery.
“The France brothers could set up three Broadway productions, that is the scenery for them, on the floor space at one time. It was quite an operation. Anyhow, I painted the scenery and he showed us how to string our curtains, gave us some curtain material and so forth and we got the whole thing together and I was packing it all to go home with it. We lived on 103rd street between 5th and Madison at the time. Ted France said, "There is one catch to this, Ron." He said "Tony Sarg in now playing at a lot of cities throughout the United States. He’s on his way home from the west coast and the last booking he has is in Cleveland and if his agent can get him a booking between Cleveland and New York, he won’t have to come in dead head. But we are going to have a fair at our church, and that was the church that we had gone to when we lived in Ossining, and Tony said that he’ll be nice enough to put on a show for us at our church fair. But if his agent gets him a booking he won’t be able to do so and I will expect you to put on a show for us." Well, I couldn’t say no; he’d been so nice to us.
“When I came home and told Jane, she said, “Oh, no, Ron, you didn’t!” and I said “Don’t worry, don’t worry, Tony will make it back here in time enough to play the church fair.” But he didn’t so we had to. We prayed that we would break a leg and not have to play it. Because it was in front of all of our friends in Ossining, all people who knew us and we knew them. Well, the France brothers had painted scenery to make an outdoor square like in Spain and they filled the Sunday school room completely. They made some of it out into the church they pushed aside the big sliding doors and made a platform up over the pews. There were craft booths of all kinds where they were selling things. And right in the middle was a little stage for us to put our stage up on. We trimmed our Rumple Stiltskin down to a twenty-minute segment for a standing audience and set up there by the time we were up on that stage and we stood up on our bridge, our heads almost hit the ceiling. On one side of us we had a booth selling gardenias and the aroma was overpowering. On the other side was a booth selling hotdogs so we had a strange mixture of aromas, I can assure you. Because of another aroma our career in puppetry almost ended right here. When we rehearsed our show we had done so in the vacant apartment next to us and we had not turned on our lights for fear that we would burn them out (they lasted for years, by the way).
“We played three shows a night and, after our second show, as soon as we’d closed the curtain and turned out our lights, Jane said, “Ron, I’m not going to do puppets with you." She said, "You smell too bad. I’m sorry to say so but you do.” Of course we were nervous. We were high up in the top of the room and it was hot and we perspired very profusely. I was going out for a cigarette. When I came back, Jane said “I must apologize, Ron.” she said, “It wasn’t you at all. It was the scenery.” Our lights had warmed up the scenery enough so that she had smelled the fish glue. So it wasn’t me after all.
The audiences were very kind to us and it encouraged us to go on. We playedRumple Stiltskin in New York to a number of churches. To Pace Institute, to San Moritz hotel on Central Park South, the old Astor Hotel on Broadway and the biggest audience I think we ever played to was for the Greater New York Council of the Girl Scouts of America in the Senate house of the Cathedral of St. John the Devine. There were little girl scouts there as far as the eye could see.
But now, to go back, we had Rumple Stiltskin about half done and we heard that puppeteers [Olga and Martin Stevens] were to play at the YWHA on 95th street/we got tickets and went to see the show. They did Joan of Arc and it was a beautiful production. And at the end when Joan was burned at the stake, they closed the curtain with smoke curling up around her and colored silk flames licking up at her feet and as they closed the curtain she just raised her head and said, “St. Margaret, St. Catherine.” and curtain closed and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. We went back stage afterward and talked with them and they were wonderful to us and took their puppets apart and showed us how they were strung; how they were built (and) how their stage was made. They were very wonderful to us and about this time we found that there were more books about puppetry in the 96th Street library which specialized in the arts and from those books we improved our construction and our stringing. Got along fine.
“Then we went on to Rip Van Winkle. We bought a book with illustrations by N.C. Wyth of Rip Van Winkle and we patterned out characters pretty much after his illustrations. It was not an easy show to do but it opened up with Rip’s wife scolding him and, oh, how she scolded. And Rip and his dog just took it and finally went off up into the mountains where they met the little Dutchman and Rip took his drink and went to sleep for twenty years. That was a very good successful show and we had gone for the first year to the Pocono’s. Jane said we had invested quite a little money that we didn’t have on our stage and equipment and so forth and of course I was teaching school and had my summers open so she said, “Let’s see if we can’t play some summer hotels.” And I kind of laughed at her but she wrote to chambers of commerce of a number of states and got a list of summer hotels and wrote letters to them saying, “We will be in your vicinity the week of such and such would you like a marionette show for your guests?” The social directors wrote back and said yes but the only way we have entertainers is to give them lodging over night, dinner that night and breakfast the next morning. We played the Pocono’s all the way through, practically every house in the Pocono’s and Lois Fitch has a journal that Jane kept showing how much the bellhops collected for us. They passed the hat and I think she has postcards of every place we played. We went from the Pocono’s on up into New York state across into New England, played in New Hampshire, Vermont and southern Maine and then by request went back to the Pocono’s again and played that circuit all over again because, by that time, they had had a change of guests. The first year we came home with about $200. We had faired very well at the table but we hadn’t faired so well so far as money was concerned. But we did get a great deal of good experience and we felt like old timers, seasoned performers when we ended the summer season.
“The second year we went with Rip Van Winkle and some of the places, some of the first places we played, said, “Oh, we saw puppeteers here last year.” And they described our own show to us. And Jane said, “Hmmm, we’ve got to do something about this. They’re not associating us with our puppets, so you must go out before the show and talk to the audience.” And I said, “For goodness sake, what would l say?” and she said, “It doesn’t make any difference what you say so long as they see you and associate you with your puppets, that’s the important thing.” So I would go out as though I had a mouth full of mashed potatoes, and tell them a little bit about puppetry in general and this show in particular and then we would go on with out show. I had laryngitis one day and couldn’t do that and I pushed her out front, much against her wishes and she to do it. Later, we always had the audience come back stage afterwards to see the puppets and so forth and we go on to the idea of my introducing the show and telling them that after the show that Jane and would come out and show them the puppets we had used and how they were strung and manipulated and so forth and we stuck with that all through our career so that we were definitely associated with our puppets.
Encouraged by the success of our first two shows we found the story ofFeathertop by Nathaniel Howthorne, but we had to change it a great deal because Feathertop was a scarecrow and in order to appear as a fine gentleman, he had to constantly puff a pipe which of course was out of the question for a marionette. Well, it turned out that Feathertop was more Herrick than Hawthorne. He was a scarecrow to be sure and a little old witch brought him to life so she would have some company. But he took off to find the end of the rainbow and he met various people as he went along. Finally, at the end he found his rainbow and, looking for the pot of gold, at the end of it, he found that it ended fight in his backyard. That turned out also to be a very successful show and it was the last one that we did in New York City.
The depression was still rampant and I had taken some courses in NYU in order to teach. The first job I got was in Frederick Douglas Jr. High School on 137th Street between Lexington and 7th Avenue. All Black. My homeroom kids put on a marionette show—I can’t remember what the show was but I do remember that one of the kids, by the name of Jenkins, started coming in late. He was always a good kid and always on time and he had made a puppet for himself before he made one for the show. It turned out that he was going down 7th Avenue in the evening feeding nickels into the jukebox and tap dancing him marionette in the bars. They would throw money at him and he would come home with seven, eight or ten dollars for an evening’s work. The principal finally got him working papers and Bo Jangles Robinson had seen him in a bar and got him weeks booking in a nightclub in Harlem. He was so successful, they engaged him for another three weeks and he had Jane and I with the Ackermans up one night to see his act. He was very good but, when I left that school, I lost him. From that school I went to Angelo Patria School up on Fordham, PS 45, and in that school we did two marionette shows. One was Puss in Boots, the other Beauty and the Beast, and recently I found the scripts for those two shows and I gave then to Lois Fitch. Both of them were very successful and Angelo Patria was delighted. He was all for the arts and this was an art he was very fond of because he had written the first translation of the story of Pinocchio, a marionette, into English from Italian. While I was there, my draft board caught up with me and, to make a long story short, from 1942 until 1944 I was in the Army in the antiaircraft down in Georgia just south of Savannah but two puppets went with me. One was Sad Sack and the other was Giggles the Clown. On Sundays in Savannah we used to entertain the troops and those two had a good part in that.
I believe our Christmas show, Cubby’s Christmas Party, was partly done in New York finished up in Kingston [New York] after we moved to Kingston after I came back from the Army. It was the story of two snowmen, one and old-timer and one a little tiny one, who came to life on Christmas Eve for just one hour. The little one had a wish and he wished that he could see the toys the children play with indoors because all he had seen were skates and sleds and skis and so forth. So the toys one at a time came out. Actually, it was a little variety show. At the very end of it after a lot of horsing around with a clown getting kicked over the floodlights by a mule and all sorts of crazy things we suddenly changed the mood of the thing and at the very end the two snowmen turned their backs to the audience. The lights dimmed and up in the sky was shown the shadow puppets of three wise men walking across an outline of the little town of Bethlehem and the Christmas star. That was always, with appropriate music, Adeste Fidalis; it was a very good change and always went over very big.
When we moved to Kingston, the first show we did there was The Three Wishes. But it was too short a show. After all they made their three wishes and had to use them up and that was it. So we put a middle scene which was strictly Herrick. This scene consisted of a wishing well, a wishing fairy, who determined what wished were to be granted and what ones were not and she had an assistant, a little elf, who stayed by the wishing well and there was a frog, Timothy, that lived in the well. We had a lot of fun with that. You could hear the wishes come in and the little elf eventually got up on the edge of the wishing well and fell in with a great splash, which was of course on tape. He and the frog were always arguing and at odds with one another. That made the length of the story about 47 minutes, which was sufficient. Other than that, the story was just the two people wishing at the very beginning of the first scene and at the end he got the sausages at the end of his nose and they had to use the last wish in order to get them off. It was a short show but it was received very well.
When we were casting around for another show to do we had always wanted an underwater scene. We had always wanted to have a character who would take a sword out of his scabbard and do something with it and then put it back so we dreamed up the story of the prince and the mermaid. It sounded like Grimm but it was strictly Herrick. The story was that a princess had been changed into a mermaid by an evil witch. She was sitting on a rock one day when a prince came along and she said that she could not be changed back into princes again until a dragon was slain. So the prince set off to slay the dragon. In the meantime, the second scene was an underwater scene, and we had a scrim in front of the proscenium and proper lighting and we had fish swimming by the seahorses and so forth. In the center was a locker and Davy Jones came in to the locker and took all kinds of baubles that would catch the light nicely out of it. The mermaid got him to find a magic ring in there, which she took up to the prince. Now, when he wore this ring, he could not be defeated by a dragon and eventually he found the dragon, took his sword out and slew him. The dragon was a long arm puppet - came in and slithered all around the stage and was finally slain by the prince and then she turned back into a princess again. That was one of our most spectacular shows also one of the best-received shows and the most fun to play. It ran about 45 minutes. One of the highlights of it was when the witch heard about the dragon being slain she suddenly, in view of the audience, flipped and turned into a beautiful lady and that always brought the house down. That was one of the big points of that particular show.
It was about this time that I saw the need for the lighter, easier stage. Jane was working with Em Ackerman and later with Marie Newkirk and I didn’t want them to have so much weight to carry so I designed -- it took me weeks to do it -- an aluminum framework for everything backstage. The only wood was the floor of the bridge and the floor of the stage. We bought the aluminum out in Cleveland, Ohio, and brought it home and started fabricating it, taking it down every Saturday morning to be welded because it takes special equipment to weld aluminum. When we got it all done it was the most beautiful stage in American puppetry I think and it was about 50% lighter than the other stage and went together very quickly. We could set it up in 35 minutes. I had plans of it made and sold them to several other puppeteers at puppet festivals.
When we took our trip to Britain, an Irish puppeteer and we got talking together and I sent him the plans for that stage and he had it welded in Dublin and had a duplicate made of our stage. For all I know, it is still going around Ireland.
In 1965, when we came back from our trip to the British Isles, we decided that it would be nice to make a marionette story that was Irish. So we read all of the beautiful Irish folktales by Patric Colum but none of them was suitable so we finally made up our own which was The Magic Shoes. The story was of a little girl and her big sister who wanted to go to the fair but they were too poor, their grandfather couldn’t buy them shoes. The little girl and her goose, her pet goose, went to the cobbler shop and finding no one there had a little leprechaun help them. He danced all the shoes down off the shelves and they went to various people in the village who were too poor to buy shoes and of course shoes for she and her sister and her grandfather. As part of this they went to the fair and the puppet characters turned their backs to the audience and were hung because they were looking at a hand puppet show of Punch and Judy at the fair. That novelty was always well received and The Magic Shoes turned out to be one more show for us that was a good show. We got a great kick out of building it. We had to rebuild certain parts of it and rewrite certain parts of it because it got a little clumsy but that was among the shows that we eventually sold to Chet and Amy.