Marionette Project

This month, my daughters and I tackled making a marionette. This is something I’ve thought about doing for a long time. Of course, there’s a bit of back-story.

Early in December, I took our girls to the San Jose Dance Theatre’s production of The Nutcracker at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts (CPA). Both girls had seen a few highlights at school, and despite not really being dance enthusiasts, decided they really wanted to see the whole thing. It happened that the Girl Scouts had arranged a special backstage tour and workshop, so they donned their Scout vests and we had a field trip.

The girls loved the backstage tour, and then we went down to the CPA’s basement for the Girl Scout workshop. We didn’t really know what to expect. What they had were a bunch of activities related to theater and The Nutcracker. There were costumes to look at and try on, a finger puppet building activity, and a display table full of marionettes.

Now, I grew up with a couple of marionettes in the house. Dad had a Talent Products marionette named (I am not making this up) Jambo the Jiver. Dad was pretty good at making him walk, dance, and generally be entertaining. He says my grandpa had an even bigger marionette, and was very good with it. (I had a smaller clown marionette, long since gone.) I thought they were great toys.

Jambo the Jiver

At the marionette table, one of the older Girl Scouts talked about the history of puppets in general, how they had been used, and the wide variety of cultures that used them. They had several on display, including a beautiful horse marionette from Burma, and some smaller human-shaped marionettes from Czechoslovakia.

The girl showed the marionettes, but clearly didn’t have any idea how they worked—she just held one up by the controller and showed everybody. Then she offered, “Does anybody want to try it out?”

This was greeted by a lot of “And do what?” looks.

I said, “Have you guys ever seen one of these in action?” and took the marionette and started walking it around the table. One of the adult leaders said, “Look! He can WALK!” Good thing I was there!

After some more demonstrations, I passed the walker off for people to play with, and the adult leader mentioned that the horse marionette didn’t seem to work, so I took an inexpert look at it. There were a few tangles, easily dealt with, and then we had it walking around the floor. It was set up with a double crossbar controller, with the front legs strung straight down, and the rear legs strung opposite so when you rocked the controller side-to-side the legs moved correctly. Cool! Our girls played with the horse for a long time.

For the next several days, I was bombarded with “Dad, can we make a marionette?” Since I had rudimentary knowledge of how they were put together, I figured it was possible. So we went out to the garage and hunted down some scrap wood. We did have to go to the hobby shop to pick up a wooden ball for the head, and had to get about 6,000 screw eyes for the joints, but we soon had a nice little kit.

After a lot of sawing, sanding, and screwing in screw eyes, here’s what we came up with:

The marionette's body
The marionette's body

He’s about 16″ tall. The hips are screwed into the pelvis, and the knee joints are denim because I didn’t feel like doing anything fancy. Everything else is screw eyes. We set him up to be supported by the head and shoulders, and he has a lower back string so he can take a bow. We also put a restraint on the back of his pelvis so the legs don’t swing too far back.

Side view
Side view

Back view
Back view

Next, he needed some clothes, so it was off to the sewing machine. Fortunately, the ol’ Juki is ideal for making this kind of thing.

Pants to start with

It took some digging around through the scrap bin to find something we liked for the shirt, but we finally came up with a winner. I like Hawaiian shirts, so this was ideal:

Adding a shirt
Adding a shirt

Okay, the sleeve fit isn’t perfect. Bummer! And I decided specifically on long sleeves to hide the elbow joints. We took it down to show my wife, who immediately (and correctly) decided he needed a driving cap. Back to the sewing machine!

Now, it was time to put the controller together. I based the controller loosely on Jambo’s (at least, what I remembered of it) and some pictures from George Latshaw’s The Complete Book of Puppetry.

The controller
The controller

Finally, I laid everything out on an ironing board and started stringing. Inside an hour, we had life!

Finished marionette
Finished marionette

I’ve learned a few lessons, should I ever decide to make another one:

  • The arm and leg strings interfere with one another. This may just be my complete lack of skill in manipulating it, but in going back to look at Jambo, I see he was strung to hold the hands out away from the legs, and this seems to work better for rank amateurs.
  • The head doesn’t tilt side to side very well, and that’s because the axis of rotation is at the bottom of the sphere. Next time, I will drill into the head and hinge it more toward the center.
  • I really need to find a better supply of marionette string! The stuff I used was basically heavy duty waxed thread, and it’s not enough.

I want to thank the San Jose Dance Theatre and the Girls Scouts for inspiring us! This was a really fun activity, and we all got a lot out of it.

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