If you want to take in a puppet show or make your own puppet, the Puppetry Arts Institute in Independence is the place.
But it’s also where you can hear the story of Hazelle Rollins, a woman who became world famous for the puppets she manufactured in Kansas City from 1935 to 1975, when she sold the business.
The company’s name bore her name: Hazelle Inc.
One of the rooms at the institute, in a storefront in the Englewood neighborhood, is devoted to marionettes and hand puppets made at Rollins’ plant.
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Among the Hazelle marionettes from days gone by are some familiar faces, such as Batman and Robin, Daniel Boone, the Mad Hatter and … the devil. Her best-seller, however, was a fellow in a red cap and a red-and-white polka-dotted outfit: Teto the clown.
“It was pre- these horror movies that use clowns as villains,” says Ann Ragan, president of the Puppetry Arts Institute board of directors.
Hazelle also sold sets that included two or three marionette characters, a little stage and a script, so kids could put on their own productions. In the era of “Howdy Doody” on TV, the late 1940s through the ’50s, this was probably especially popular.
By the way: those vinyl heads that kids (or anyone else) can paint and turn into their very own hand puppet? They were made in the Hazelle factory, and plenty more are stored in nearby underground caves.
Right now, the Puppetry Arts Institute’s main room features a display of Punch and Judy puppets — characters that date back to at least Shakespeare’s time. One room contains puppets from around the world collected by the late Diane Houk, institute co-founder and longtime director.
The institute is a popular destination to take the grandkids — “Most of the puppets we sell, the grandparents are begged to buy them,” Ragan says — but also for “busloads of traveling adults who just want to see something different.”
The puppets here are out in the open, incidentally, not behind glass.
Puppetry Arts Institute
11025 E. Winner Road, Independence
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Cost: $3 adults, $1.50 for 16 and younger. Hand puppet-making workshops, which can take up to an hour, costs $6; for ages 5 and up
Info: 816-833-9777; hazelle.org
Note: Shows by different puppeteers are presented monthly. On May 23, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., that will be “The Magic Pot,” an Asian folktale (admission $5 per person).