Time Machine

Time Machine: Bruce Bucknell, the puppet master from Cedar Rapids

In this early 1960s photo, Nola and Bruce Bucknell manipulate their marionettes Gary, a tap dancer, and Delores, a singe
In this early 1960s photo, Nola and Bruce Bucknell manipulate their marionettes Gary, a tap dancer, and Delores, a singer. (Gazette archives)
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The Bucknell family moved from Spencer to Cedar Rapids in 1927 when the father, Richard E. Bucknell, became manager of the Cedar Rapids Fair and Exposition at Frontier Park, the forerunner of Hawkeye Downs.

By the time the Bucknells’ son, Bruce, was 14, he had achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. And he had been creating marionettes since he was 10.

The puppets made their first public appearance at the annual Quaker Oats Christmas party in 1935, when Bucknell was 18 and working at the plant as a millwright.

In 1939, he changed from making 18- to 21-inch stage puppets to the larger 34- to 37-inch dolls, referred to as nightclub dolls, that performed directly in front of an audience instead of on a miniature stage.

After staging shows in the Cedar Rapids area for nine years, Bucknell loaned several of his best puppets to the American Puppet Pageant in Philadelphia in 1941. The puppets then toured Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio.

World War Ii

Bucknell left his job at Quaker in May 1941 to enlist in the Army, training at Camp Bowie in Brownwood, Texas. He became a combat engineer and six months after the U.S. entered World War II was serving at Attu Island, off the coast of the Alaska Territory.

He was in the Army for five years, presenting more than 400 marionette shows at Army camps in the North Pacific and in the states.

On one of those stateside stops, Bucknell married Nola Elaine Berger of Cedar Rapids on March 3, 1945, at First Lutheran Church. They bought a lot on 30th Street SE, where they built a two-bedroom cottage.

Making puppets

By 1948, the Bucknells had a 2-year-old daughter, Elaine Ann, a Dachshund named Jeep and a basement workshop full of marionettes that Bucknell referred to as “little people.”

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He developed a joint for the puppets that allowed them to more naturally and also created carrying cases for transporting the dolls to shows.

By the early 1950s, Bucknell had made about 300 puppets, many for other puppeteers. Each new doll required up to 200 hours of work.

Bucknell modeled the puppet’s head in clay, made a plaster cast from that, and then lined the cast with a layer of plastic wood to form the head. The upper body and hips were made the same way. He hand-carved the legs, feet, arms and hands from white pine, adding upper arms of stuffed canvas and hip joints of leather.

He used black silk fish line for the nine control strings, adding extra strings for special mechanics such as playing a guitar.

Nola Bucknell made wigs and clothes for the dolls as well as their cloth storage bags.

Touring company

Bucknell began touring with the puppets nationwide in 1958 as the Bucknell Marionette Company, performing at school assemblies, giving one to four performances a day. Most of the shows were done by Bucknell, but his wife had her own show. In 1959, she performed about 100 times.

By then, the Bucknells had three children — Elaine, now 13, and her brothers, Delbert, 11, and Curt, 7 — who also occasionally put on puppet shows, too.

The Bucknell company was one of the very few in the country able to build its own marionettes.

“I think we’ve solved quite a few problems for some of our puppeteer friends,” Bucknell said.

Legacy

The Bucknells presented their shows in view of their audiences, who could see how the puppeteer controlled the marionette’s movements.

“Funny thing about it is you get so fascinated watching the doll, you come away knowing nothing more than you did before about how a marionette is operated,” a Gazette editor reported.

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The Bucknell Marionettes were featured for six years at the national Puppeteers of America festivals at about the same time that Muppet creator Jim Henson was there.

The best-known of the Bucknell puppets was Billy Boulder, who appeared in TV commercials with the voice of Dr. Max, a children’s program host. But another pair of puppets, the Pinhead Brothers, gained fame by introducing Hy-Vee’s “Helpful Smile in Every Aisle” song in the 1960s.

The Bucknells continued to create and perform into the 1970s, but most of the business halted after Nola Bucknell died in 1988. Bucknell gave her 14 puppets to the Charles H. MacNider Museum in Mason City. He died two years later.

• Comments: d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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