Considered a grande dame of the American puppet theater, Margo Rose was a puppet artist, teacher, and performer who worked with marionettes for over 60 years. Together with her husband, Rufus, she brought 1950s TV icon Howdy Doody to life. The Roses were also instrumental in establishing the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater and the National Theater of the Deaf as well as the Connecticut Chapter of Puppeteers of America. Until just two weeks before her death at age 94, Margo Rose shared her love for puppetry with students from Connecticut College, the University of Connecticut, the O’Neill Theater, and other venues where her talents could inspire new generations of puppet artists.
She was born Margaret Skewis in Inway, Iowa to Charles and Myrtle Skewis. Interested in puppets from a very young age, she often put on shows in her family’s backyard. She attended Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, where she majored in Fine Arts. After graduation, she joined the famous Tony Sarg Marionette Company in 1927 and met her future husband, Rufus Rose, another puppeteer in the company. Before marrying Rose in 1930, Margaret spent a year studying sculpture at the British Academy in Rome.
In 1931, in the throes of the Great Depression, the Roses split off from Tony Sarg and formed their own traveling company, the Rufus Rose Marionettes. The Roses traveled the country with their original shows, appearing in all 50 states and earning 50% of the take in most venues. Margo specialized in design and Rufus in construction. They maintained their relationship with Sarg and in 1933 reunited with Sarg to put on a short variety act to accompany Sarg’s mainstage show at the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1937 they created the first full-length all-puppet movie, Jerry Pulls the Strings, which really brought puppet theater into the public eye.
Gas rationing and other difficulties brought on by World War II caused the Roses to put their puppet work on hold in the early 1940s. Rufus took a job with Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., and Margo volunteered with the American Red Cross. The Roses then settled in Waterford, where they built their famous home/studio and raised their three sons. When the war ended, the Roses resumed touring and, in 1946, hosted the first festival for the newly formed Connecticut Chapter of the Puppeteers of America. On Christmas Eve 1948, they made history again by performing Scrooge!, Margo’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the first full-length marionette production performed live on national television.
In 1952, producers of the Howdy Doody Show tapped the Roses to bring the show’s characters to life. While they did not design the Howdy puppet, they were instrumental in creating the show’s other characters and making the show a success for nearly ten years. Later in the 1950s, the Roses created The Blue Fairy series, an original marionette series based on the tale of Pinocchio. They won a Peabody Award for Children’s Programming for their work on The Blue Fairy. In the 1960s, despite a loss of several hundred of their puppets in a fire, the Roses continued to tour and to design and build puppets for television films including Treasure Island, Rip van Winkle and Aladdin. Together, Margo and Rufus Rose produced more than a dozen marionette productions as well as numerous films, commercials, and television projects.
In 1965, they were instrumental in founding the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., and the National Theater of the Deaf in West Hartford. They essentially retired from puppetry in the early 1970s and Rufus died in 1976. Margo continued to teach and to receive high praise for the artistry of her designs and the delicacy with which she manipulated her marionettes. Her puppets and artwork have been exhibited in Connecticut, Iowa, Virginia, and at the New York Public Library Gallery for the Performing Arts. Among her many honors are the President’s Award for Artistic Achievement form the Puppeteers of America and the 1982 medallion from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. In 1990, Margo Rose and others closely associated with the O’Neill Theater established a puppetry conference to be held there each summer. The Margo Rose Scholarship is offered by the Connecticut Puppetry Guild.
Margo Rose died in New London, Conn., in September 1997.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.