DoLores Hadley and La Famille Marionettes

Above: Three Blind Mice

This is the fifth post of a week at the Artlog that was intended to be dedicated to contemporary puppeteers. But while researching imagery I came upon some photographs of marionettes by DoLores Hadley who died fourteen years ago, and I knew that I had to include her here.

Cast an eye for a moment over the knife-wielding marionette above. The face is astonishing, as is the sense of the tired body beneath the apron, cardigan and dress, all masterfully done. These are not just any clothes, but this woman’s clothes, with all of the heft, sag and wear that comes from intimate contact and daily drudge. I love the man’s boots, the cheap, unyielding leather deeply creased with use. (I’ve got some like that in my boot-room, hard as iron and comfortless, but seriously weather-proof. The leather in them never gets soft, despite the years, and they always leave blisters.) Her face is sour as green crabapples, the greasy hair scraped and knotted high. But there’s just that one concession to femininity, the tiny, white Peter-Pan collar, a vestige of a long-departed grace and femininity.

Above: DoLores Hadley marionettes

I’ve been able to find very little about DoLores Hadley beyond a few spare facts. She was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1926, and died in Independence, Missouri in 1999, survived by four children, six grandchildren and a single great-grandchild. A ‘tribute’ by friend and ex-employeee Shawn Sorrel explains that when DoLores was a young, single mother with no money to spare, one lean Christmas by way of gifts for her children she made a marionette for each of  them. Later she supported her family by becoming a professional puppeteer. To begin with she worked for the local parks department, presenting shows in various locations in what was called  the ‘Puppet Wagon’. After that she did puppet shows at the Kansas City Zoo until she founded a marionette troupe, La Famille… so called because the puppeteers were her children… which from 1973 ran out of  the Worlds of Fun amusement park in Kansas City. The arrangement lasted for over twenty years.

The puppet shows at Worlds of Fun played in another portable theatre, this one called the ‘Gypsy Wagon’.  (See above.) Despite the fact that she seems to have stayed in Kansas City most of her life, Hadley clearly had the soul of a travelling showman.

Above: Jack Frost on his ice skates

That’s it. I haven’t been able to find out anything else. One thing is certain, and that is Hadley had an uncanny skill for creating characters. As soon as I saw these photographs I knew the puppets in them were the works of a master. She left quite a legacy for subsequent generations. I’m pretty sure that the great Ronnie Burkett must at some formative time have seen and admired Hadley’s puppets, because there is something of hers in his.

So, here we haves a woman who by dint of pluck, pride and a focus that served her well in her endeavours, supported her family by exploiting her natural creative talents. In the process she clearly brought pleasure to thousands.

Above: The Paprika Brothers

UPDATE 17/09/13: When I originally captioned this tiny image, I believed that it was DoLores Hadley performing with one of the two Paprika Brothers portrayed in the image above it. I love the stance, so straight and so utterly concentrated. The shirt and slacks and the pulled-back hair are no-nonsense and workmanlike, but that hieratic pose is straight out of Martha Graham. Today, a message from DoLores Hadley’s granddaughter explained that I was mistaken, and that the woman with the dancer’s deportment is Dana, DoLores’ daughter, though my misidentification is apparently not unusual as the family considered Dana’s resemblance to DoLores to be ‘uncanny’. Moreover, it turns out that Dana trained as a dancer at the Paris Opera, and so I wasn’t far off the mark when I spotted the dancer’s deportment in her.

41 thoughts on “DoLores Hadley and La Famille Marionettes

  1. Hello! This is a wonderful write-up about Dolores, who was my great-grandmother. I only had the chance to meet her before I even had the ability to remember it, but she left a significant impact on my life and my family’s. I actually did a brief, crude documentary on her life with my grandpa (her son) a handful of years back for a school project. If you or anyone else here is interested, I’ll include it below

    • Benjamin, you speak so eloquently, compellingly and insightfully about your great grandmother, and I greatly enjoyed listening to you. When I originally wrote this piece there wasn’t much out there to draw upon. Little information and few photographs. Little by little over the years the information has trickled in, and I should at some point write another post that brings things up to date.

      Thank you so much for writing to me. This has been a real treat.

    • Hello Louise. What a connection you have to the family! You must have so many memories of them, as well as recollections about the puppets and the performances. I’d love to hear more, if you have the time. Just say the word and I’ll give you a link to my contact address.

      • Saying the word. My father worked at her Worlds of Fun show for years. I took ballet from her daughter Dana and her other daughter Annie was my babysitter. Her son Daniel was also a friend of the family. My father modeled his own marionettes after hers. I remember visiting Dolores’ house clearly in Independence as a kid.

  2. When I was younger, Dolores taught a puppet making class at Marlborough Community Center 85th and Paseo. Using clay, paper mache, and fabric, I made Little Red Riding Hood and Dolores taught us with skill and humour and I will always be thankful for the moments with her. A young girl who had very little confidence in herself made a fabulous Little Red Riding Hood Puppet. (My sister who is artistic made The Big Bad Wolf). Every time we were at World’s of Fun, we stopped to see Dolores after the show and we were always thrilled she remembered us!

    • Diane, what a wonderful recollection of DoLores. Thank you for sharing it here. From all I’ve heard about and read of her, both from her family and friends, it’s apparent that she wasn’t just a self-taught master puppet-builder and puppeteer, but a woman with a very big heart. I’m so pleased you met DoLores at a time when your contact with her had such a beneficial impact on your life. Interesting, too, that thereafter she alway remembered you and made you welcome.

      I’m so pleased that you found your way here and were able to share the memory.


  3. Dear Clive,
    I stumbled across your Artlog and am blown away by the photos of DoLores Hadley and La Famille Marionettes. I am writing a little book on Marionettes and would like to include a photo of this work. Who can I contact to see if this is possible?
    Many thanks, John

    • Τhank you very much for information. I know little things about that special art woman. I would like to know more about her life and her marionetes because I m puppeteer and I colect all the past important people of puppet world
      Thank you again and hopefully I will have more in the future
      Litsa Bitiou

  4. i grew up with some of dolores’ creations and performance. more lovely and creepy puppets she made with my auntie still survive. marionette exhibit/ performance retrospective?? maker culture might dig it.

  5. Hello,
    I had the pleasure to meet and spend an evening with Dolores, back in 1999 I believe or it may have been 1998. It was a summer evening. I own one of her character dolls, named Hannah. I love it and she inspired me like no one I have ever met before. A person whose personality was huge compared to her size. She was ill at the time I met her and passed not long after. Her whole persona was mystic and secretive. She wouldn’t allow anyone in her studio. Her work whether it was oil, paintings, water color or the sculptured pieces she did….. were amazing. Her yard, and her home reflected her sense of whimsy with a bit of Edgar Allen Poe thrown in. I cherish Hannah she makes me smile and when I look at her I see the women with the ability to make me see the odd little twists that life gives us as an opportunity to open a different door (possibly a more interesting one) and make of it what I want. She created beauty and smiles !!!!

    • Hello Kris. Thank you for leaving such a wonderful comment. It gives a real sense of who DoLores was. I would love to see a picture of Hannah, as would other visitors to this post. If you feel able to share one, send a message via this CONTACT address, and I’ll forward you my private e-mail address so that we can discuss further. Best, Clive

  6. The Ballerina and Bears out for a Picnic were two of my faves growing up. I would sit and watch he show as many times as my mother would allow me. This woman was a true artist and excellent at her craft. I watched a video on YouTube of her grandson interviewing her son for a school project. A lot of cool information learned about her and the marionettes.

    • Thank you so much for your memory, recounted above. You’re correct, DoLores was an artist, and indeed a puppet genius. But there’s simply not enough information about her that’s available online. One day I hope to make a much more expanded piece about her here at the Artlog, though the process of compiling information and images is a slow one.

  7. I love seeing photos of Dolores’ art. I have many fond memories of the La Famille and the Wagon. He son Daniel was my older brothers best friend in school. I loved the few times I got to go to their house and see all the amazing characters that she had made. I think everyone in their family was very artistic. I remember some of her watercolors and Daniel was an amazing artist as well. He even did the giant mural on the outside of the gym of a Bear for the a William Chrisman High School.
    Thanks for sharing the photographs.

  8. I came upon your blog as I was looking for information about DoLores. She was a friend of my parents, and I have a watercolor which she did for them. I believe her husband Lyle may have worked with my dad at the arsenal in the Kansas City area, but I don’t know that for certain.

    The story I always heard about the painting is that my dad would constantly ask DoLores when she was going to paint a picture for him. She finally told him to give her his three favorite recipes. She used these to create a painting which hung in our dining room for as long as I can remember. When my parents asked me which of their belongings I wished to inherit, the painting was one of my requests. It how hangs in my home. When we got it, the frame which my father had made for the painting was a bit loose, so my husband took it apart to reglue it. That’s when we saw the note written on the back of the painting, “For your 1st Christmas together, 1954, DoLores.” This is an heirloom I treasure; if I could post a photo of it for you, I would, but this message box doesn’t seem to allow that.

    I never had the pleasure of meeting DoLores, but my parents spoke of her fondly, and they always praised her talent. My mom told me about her work at Worlds of Fun, so it is delightful to see her work. Thank you for the wonderful photos of her marionettes.

  9. I grew up in Kansas City in the 1970s, and DoLores Hadley’s marionettes enthralled me. I went to World’s of Fun every year as a youth, and seeing the La Famille show, first at the Gypsy Wagon in the Scandanavian section, and in later years in the Americana section in a small covered outdoor arena, was always a highlight for me. Sometimes I separated from my family or friends to watch the show a second time in a single visit.

    The puppets had the effect of being from another time and place; DoLores herself, thin and poised, seemed to invite the audience into a secret storeroom of forgotten relics which, when animated by her hand, described their history with an arcane mix of humor and melancholy.

    Circus, Mother Goose, and Fairy Tales were the themes I recall of several of the LaFamille seasons. The performances were very simple, like little vaudeville acts. A pageant of characters would come out, just one or two at a time, to execute a short pantomime to recorded music, and exhibit Hadley’s absolute craftsmanship and skill. Each act would be just one or two minutes in length, and the whole show would consist of perhaps ten of these strung together.

    I also recall each season, one marionette would “host”, and have a life-sized counterpart who appeared during and at the show’s end to wish the audience well and to wave us off. You can glimpse one of the life-sized characters sitting on the roof in your photo of the gypsy wagon.

    My understanding is that a fire at her studio late in her career destroyed many of her creations, and while tragic in so many ways, I think it also enhances the mystery and enigma with which DeLores infused her characters. I feel honored to be among those who got to witness her genius.

    Thank you for offering your wonderful tribute. I cherish the memories the images you’ve found recall.

    • Dear Stephen

      What a treat to read your eloquent recollection of the Puppet Wagon. I love your description of the episodic/vaudeville nature of the performances, and it strikes me yet again what a consummate showman DoLores was, because she clearly understood that puppets work best when presented in short sequences.

      I didn’t know about the fire. That might account for the relatively few images of puppets I’ve been able to track down.

      I wrote the post in 2013, but it greatly encourages me that it’s still being tracked down and read by those interested in finding out more about DoLores. I plan to write a more comprehensive piece, as I’m in touch with a member of her family, who has promised to help me fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge.

      My very best,

  10. Pingback: Puppet Catch-up: Clive’s Posts | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

    • I’m delighted to hear from you. Thank you for dropping by and leaving a message here. It’s been a wonderful experience for me, discovering your grandmother’s work. Initially there wasn’t much to go on apart from a few photographs discovered on the web that nailed me to the spot. I’ve stitched this ‘post’ together from snippets of information slowly compiled, and I’m aware of its deficiencies. But I’m so pleased that you found it, and that you approve.

      Very, very best
      Clive H-J

  11. I just want to say ‘wow’. I am so enjoying this week. What wonderful puppets/marionettes. I’m sure you’ve covered this before but when is a puppet, a puppet and when is it a marionette? Is it all about the strings or more complicated than that?

    • ‘Puppet’, Lesley, is the generic term for any figure that is operated/moved in order to simulate life. It embraces all types: rod, glove, table-top, stop-motion, shadow, finger, jig … you name it. Pick up a plain doll and operate it, and it immediately transforms, by some strange alchemy, into a puppet.

      ‘Marionette’ is only ever used to describe a puppet operated from above by strings and/or strings/wire. These can be complex or simple, and will be attached to a vertical or horizontal control, according to type. A lot of European puppets have a thick wire from the head to the control, with just two strings to operate the arms. These puppets are both large and heavy, and the weight allows an approximation of a walking gait by skilfully swinging a figure as it advances. It’s surprising how successful this can be in expert hands. The puppets at the Toone Theatre in Brussels that I wrote about recently (see HERE, HERE and HERE) are operated in this manner.

      So there we have it: puppet = all sorts, and marionette = strings.

  12. I love these!
    The puppets expressive faces and the skill in their construction is fantastic!
    I am especially drawn to the mice – so cute.

    It must have been quite a show!

    • I’m blown away by them. Since I made the post I’ve seen some of her later work, and it’s interesting how changes in fashion had an impact on the kinds of characters she was producing in the 1970s and 80s. I prefer the earlier work, but of course the black and white photographs add a sense of antiquity, and a quick comparison between the Paprika Brothers in the portrait of them, and the single marionette in the small photograph, illustrates how misleading an absence of colour can be!

      But I’m WILD for that Farmer’s Wife with her lethal blade and fist-full of mouse-tails, who looks like something from the dust-bowls of America, and I can imagine a jerky, black and white, Caligari-esque film of the rhyme, with bleached out flashes and hairs in the shutter and missing frames, accompanied by a faint, ghostly harmonium on the soundtrack, and I want to be the one to make it!

      And just so that you get the full picture, today I’m sitting on the doorstep whittling legs for the ‘apparition’ puppet in The Mare’s Tale, so I look the part of the artisan marionette maker!!! (That or a speeded-up version of fucking Geppetto!)

      • (chuckle)

        Thats a great image! – a hell bent slightly crazed puppet maker, with wood chips flying everwhere 🙂

        Well if anyone can make that film it’s you Clive! I would love to see it too.

        Thank you for your comments, they are wonderfully insightful as always.

  13. I agree, I am loving this fascinating artlog. The gypsy wagon immediately transported me back to my childhood, a sensation that’s so deeply buried these days, thanks Clive.

  14. This is the most fascinating stuff Clive, marvellous that you are introducing us to such exciting and to me unknown treasures. Thank you! Xxxx

    • Hello sweetheart, Lovely to find you here. Was reminiscing with Bern about you only the other day. She’d sent cologne for my birthday. Want to guess which one? Ha ha. I opened the bottle to smell it and I swear the years peeled back and you and I were meeting for the first time at The Spinney.

      Glad you’re enjoying Puppet Season at the Artlog. Aren’t these wonderful?

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