Wayne Post
  • It’s all in the hands

  • Rosalie Gabbert has been playing with puppets since she was a child.

    In 1936, Rosalie received the story “Bertram and the Dancing Bear” with her subscription to Child Life magazine. The three puppets came complete with a heavy cardboard theater, backdrop and script.

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  • Rosalie Gabbert has been playing with puppets since she was a child.
    In 1936, Rosalie received the story “Bertram and the Dancing Bear” with her subscription to Child Life magazine. The three puppets came complete with a heavy cardboard theater, backdrop and script.
    Rosalie knew every line of that script by heart.
    “I would tell that puppet show to everyone,” she recalled, smiling as she carefully held up one of the simply-made hand puppets from her childhood. “I think everyone who came in was exposed to it — some of them two or three times!”
    Back then she never would have dreamed how much of a role puppets would play in her life.
    Around 1950, Rosalie made her very first hand puppet, JoJo. Hand puppets allow the puppeteer to move the puppet’s hands as well. JoJo was crafted from cloth material for his clothing and paper mache for his head with painted facial features. He was made while Rosalie was a teacher, wrapping layer after layer of paper mache around a lemon to construct JoJo’s head.
    For 10 years she taught young people, and for a time she worked with college students who were seeking their education degrees. Puppets had become a teaching tool Rosalie passed on to her college students.
    “Puppets are a good teaching technique,” she explained, donning JoJo on her left hand. “Children will talk to a puppet when they won’t talk to a person.”
    Unabashed, JoJo introduced himself, offering a small hand to shake in greeting. Rosalie smiled, noting that children are engrossed by the puppets, so they don’t notice her lips moving even when the puppet is right beside her, and she isn’t hidden behind a backdrop. The puppets take on a life of their own for children.
    But Rosalie wasn’t only teaching with her puppets, she was also entertaining. Toby the horse came next, traveling with Rosalie to the Macedon Public Library, where he told stories and delighted youth with his antics. At the time, Rosalie was an assistant at the library working with kids. Rosalie said she was fortunate to have married a man who was receptive to her growing puppet collection. Her late husband, Benson, who was a beekeeper at their home in Macedon, had an artistic flare similar to Rosalie’s, and one day he gave Toby a harness and a horseshoe.
    With her puppet shows growing in popularity, Rosalie created a whole family of puppets whose members were cast in various skits as needed. Then in 1967, Benson made four theaters with lights and a different scene in each. That’s when Rosalie went on the road, so to speak, performing puppet shows at hundreds of venues throughout Wayne, Ontario and Monroe counties.
    She wasn’t alone. Her daughter Rebecca helped with the performances, and her son, Nathan, did the “leg work” and some narrating. Between 1968 and 1976, the trio performed in churches in Palmyra and Macedon; at Newark Hospital; in libraries from Gates to Scottsville to Newark; in schools throughout the Palmyra-Macedon School District; at Lions Clubs; and during Canaltown Days in Palmyra.
    Page 2 of 2 - Rosalie and her puppets were a popular attraction for children and parents alike — enjoying Rosalie’s scripts of well-known fairy tales and other stories like “Little Red Robin Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Three Wishes” and the “Easter Bunny that Overslept.”
    Even now, Rosalie said folks who enjoyed her shows as kids tell her how entertaining they still are even in adulthood. Her scripts, although entertaining, always taught a lesson of some sort for children to carry home with them.
    New puppets were always being created, and Rosalie was always finding new techniques to make them, replacing the lemon with a balloon that could be easily popped and removed when the paper mache dried. Mrs. Wishes was made out of sawdust; the Wolf was made from a cardboard toilet paper roll; Hanz was made out of wood; and a farmer was made from an old sock.
    Among Rosalie’s most famous puppets was Betty Blue and Peter Pocket, each with a complete wardrobe of handmade clothes. Betty Blue was born in 1971 from a pattern Rosalie had ordered two years prior, and she was also Rosalie’s first muppet — a puppet whose mouth can move. Peter’s overalls have lots of pockets for him to carry just about everything he needs. He was also Betty’s antagonist and, as far as Rosalie is concerned, he deserved every verbal jab Betty delivered upon him.
    Rosalie’s husband continued his support, creating props and accessories like beds, furniture and even a tiny spinning wheel.
    In the late 1970s, Rosalie abandoned her theaters and Benson created a box with a hidden hole where Rosalie’s arm could fit through to manipulate the puppet. Close the box and the puppet was sleeping, she’d tell children. The boxes helped separate Rosalie from the puppet and she soon thought of herself as the “armed puppeteer.”
    In 1987, Rosalie retired from the library and her puppets with retired with her. Today, at age 87, she still has every puppet and prop, storing them in a separate room at her home in Fairport. With them, she stores the memories of laughter and learning she shared with hundreds of children as the beekeeper’s wife, the puppeteer.

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