An American Marionette Story

by Rolande Duprey

Paul McPharlin , sometimes called "the Father of American Puppetry" built a marionette covered wagon with a team of two horses and a driver for an exhibit at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, "A Century of Progress".

Many years later, the horses, driver and two other companion characters were discovered at an elementary school in Michigan by Fern Zwickey, who recognized them as having been at the "Travel and Tranportation" exhibit at the fair*. A description of some of the exhibits in a contemporary pamphlet says:

Beneath this sky-hung dome from which dangles the latest in modern transport planes,

is a rare exhibit of vehicles, past and present. Prairie schooners compete for favor with models of palatial ocean liners; the first locomotive to run out of Chicago and the first automobile to operate in America yield not an inch to the crack expresses of two continents.

(Quote from “Chicago and the World’s Fair” 1933. Copyright by University of Illinois Urbana 60061C43IH C002).


In 2000, the Detroit Institute of Arts ran an exhibit called "Punch's Progress."  The program for that exhibit speaks about McPharlin's exhibit at the fair:

Paul McPharlin (1903-1948) was himself a noted puppeteer and was considered by most experts to be the greatest authority on the subject of marionettes during the first half of the twentieth century. A writer and illustrator of two dozen books on marionettes, he came to national attention for his marionette exhibition at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. McPharlin assembled his puppet collection over a twenty-year period; his collection came to the DIA in 1951 as a gift from Mr. and Mrs. W. H. McPharlin and Mrs. Marjorie Batchelder McPharlin.

Investigating these figures has been an enriching and informative process. As with every piece of material from the past, mysteries remain. The following pages chronicle my work on the marionettes.


The three human characters that were part of the exhibit at the fair are shown above. The African American character is the only one that had been strung. All had been repainted at some time. For additional information on these figures, please go to:


Fern Zwickey gave all the marionettes to John Miller, who kept them in his collection. In the 1970's, one of the horses that was in fairly good shape (the buckskin), was photographed by Time/Life for a book on puppetry.

The other horse (a bay) was missing a foreleg and hoof. In the spring of 2008, John's widow, Marilyn O'Connor Miller asked me to repair the horse's leg. I brought it to the O'Neil Puppetry Conference, where Phillip Huber and Jim Rose* could help give advice on how to go about the repair.


The horse and controller and harness as I received them.


In addition, I received some information from other puppeteers, especially Alan Cook. There is a blue foam that forms the flexible horse neck -- Alan remembered a product developed in Germany that was later marketed as a material in a toy-making kit in the 1930's. The kits had red and blue foam pieces. The sponge-like foam is very hearty, and has lasted all these years without ripping.

When we took the front legs off in order to effect repairs, Phillip Huber and Jim Rose investigating the figure. They discovered that the horse's body had been made out of a screen mesh pushed into plastic wood, probably pressed into a mold (this makes sense as there were two horses, and the heads are molded plastic wood). The controller is the original, but obviously only part of a larger complex controller. The head bar has a peg hole, but there is no peg on the controller. There were no strings to the legs. I later discovered that the screw for the leg attachment could be tightened so that the figure could be posed easily. This was probably done when not in use, as would happen at a long-term exhibit.

I sculpted the new hoof out of poplar wood, and the foreleg and upper joint repair out of pine. The original wood may have been a type of pine. I used black trunk fiber for the joints, similar to the trunk fiber originally used. Plastic wood was used to fill in gaps, and a "pin" stop was discovered at the top joint of the good leg, which I was able to match.


The broken leg.




The horse head and neck showing the mysterious blue foam.


Inside of the horse's body.


Working on the replacement horse hoof.


The replaced joint, with pin stop also replaced.




Standing once again!



*As of this writing, Fern Zwickey's testimony is the only evidence that the horses were at the fair. In Ryan Howard's book on McPharlin, he describes a 1929 marionette piece in which Abe Lincoln rode a horse. The photo of  those characters do not resemble these at all. McPharlin's puppets at the Detroit Institute of the Arts may clarify if these puppets were an earlier creation of his, or someone else's that were borrowed for the exhibit. I have yet to find any listing of an exhibit that Fern described. Fern Zwickey (1898-1988) taught puppetry through the Education Department at Wayne State University, and was a long time member of the Puppeteers of America. She knew Paul McPharlin and was familiar with his work. Since this information is now twice removed from the source, corroborating it is difficult.

**Jim Rose was born during the 1933 World's Fair. His parents, Margo and Rufus Rose, had been hired to perform there, and Margo went into labor during the run of their show.

The Second Horse: Another Page


For information about the care of old puppets, go to: