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Rufus and Margo Rose

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United States

American puppeteers. After seeing the Tony Sarg Company, Margo Skewis (a college student) and her sister Dorothy went home and made marionettes out of teddy bears. In 1927, Margo Skewis was working for Tony Sarg. The following year Rufus Rose joined the Sarg Company and, in 1930, Rufus and Margo married. They formed their own company, the Rufus Rose Marionettes, in 1931, and soon began touring across the country. Shows included Hansel and Gretel (1932), Ali Baba (1934), and Snow White (1937). The Roses also performed variety marionettes (string puppets) as a part of each show. Images of their signature puppet Togo the clown and the puppets of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are well known.

Margo Rose was the gifted sculptor who designed and built the heads. Rufus Rose built the bodies and controls. Puppeteer Fred Thompson says of their work, “Margo was widely known as a superb manipulator whose delicate handling of a marionette was reminiscent of plucking a harp. Rufus was innovative in control design and stringing. He could effectively manipulate two dancing figures 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.” Following the model established by Tony Sarg, the Rufus Rose Marionettes used a full bridge, painted sets, and paid careful attention to every aspect of the puppet design, the scripts (often written by Martin Stevens), the characters and the manipulation. They toured with top quality classic marionette theatre.

In 1933, the Roses performed at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. In 1937, Rufus and Margo worked on the film, Jerry Pulls the Strings, the first full-length commercial film using marionettes. Also in 1937, Rufus and Margo were charter members of Puppeteers of America. Over the years, their steady support sustained and nurtured the American puppetry organization and its members.

The demands of wartime rationing and a family lead Rufus and Margo to settle at their home in Waterford, Connecticut, and build a studio and theatre. In 1946, that theatre hosted the first post-war festival of the Puppeteers of America (PofA). The Roses resumed touring, sometimes with the help of their three sons. In 1948, A Christmas Carol was broadcast on ABC television, and the same year The Toymaker (script by Martin Stevens) and The Ant and the Grasshopper were filmed. Between 1937 and 1966, they presented twelve shows at national Puppeteers of America festivals.

Between 1952 and 1960, Rufus Rose was hired as lead puppeteer for The Howdy Doody Show (which began in 1947). The Roses rebuilt many of the original characters and added around fifteen new characters to the show. Although Howdy Doody became an American icon, the Roses did not consider the show their best work. In 1958, Rufus and Margo created the puppets and performed for a television show based on Pinocchio called The Blue Fairy, which won the prestigious Peabody Award. In 1961, a fire at the Rose home and studio in Waterford destroyed 250 marionettes. Recovering from the fire in 1964, films were made of Aladdin (1934), Treasure Island (1938), and Rip Van Winkle (1939).

Rufus Rose also had a political career. In 1962, he was serving several terms in the Connecticut legislature. In 1965, Rufus and Margo were among the founders of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center and the National Theatre Institute in Waterford (see National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center). Rufus and Margo taught puppetry classes for the National Theatre of the Deaf. Rufus and Margo Rose were named UNIMA Members of Honour. After the death of Rufus in 1975, Margo Rose continued to teach and inspire countless puppeteers for another twenty-two years.  

By generously sharing technical information and offering gentle critiques and advice, the Roses were role models for the improvement of the art of puppetry in the United States. The many performers and builders who worked with the Roses included Sylvia Meredith, Martin and Olga Stevens, Carl Harms, Dick Myers, Tony Urbano, Pady Blackwood, and Fred Thompson.

(See United States of America.)