Margo Rose

Margo Rose
"A puppeteer has an amazing life because she does everything that needs to be done in the theater—plus building the actors."
- Margo Rose

Induction Category:
Arts & Humanities

Born: 1903

Died: 1997

Inducted: 1997

Town: Waterford

Considered a grande dame of the American puppet theater, Margo Rose was a puppet artist, teacher, and performer who worked with marionettes for over 60 years. Together with her husband, Rufus, she brought 1950s TV icon Howdy Doody to life. The Roses were also instrumental in establishing the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater and the National Theater of the Deaf as well as the Connecticut Chapter of Puppeteers of America. Until just two weeks before her death at age 94, Margo Rose shared her love for puppetry with students from Connecticut College, the University of Connecticut, the O’Neill Theater, and other venues where her talents could inspire new generations of puppet artists.

She was born Margaret Skewis in Inway, Iowa to Charles and Myrtle Skewis. Interested in puppets from a very young age, she often put on shows in her family’s backyard. She attended Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, where she majored in Fine Arts. After graduation, she joined the famous Tony Sarg Marionette Company in 1927 and met her future husband, Rufus Rose, another puppeteer in the company. Before marrying Rose in 1930, Margaret spent a year studying sculpture at the British Academy in Rome.

In 1931, in the throes of the Great Depression, the Roses split off from Tony Sarg and formed their own traveling company, the Rufus Rose Marionettes. The Roses traveled the country with their original shows, appearing in all 50 states and earning 50% of the take in most venues. Margo specialized in design and Rufus in construction. They maintained their relationship with Sarg and in 1933 reunited with Sarg to put on a short variety act to accompany Sarg’s mainstage show at the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1937 they created the first full-length all-puppet movie, Jerry Pulls the Strings, which really brought puppet theater into the public eye.

Gas rationing and other difficulties brought on by World War II caused the Roses to put their puppet work on hold in the early 1940s. Rufus took a job with Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., and Margo volunteered with the American Red Cross. The Roses then settled in Waterford, where they built their famous home/studio and raised their three sons. When the war ended, the Roses resumed touring and, in 1946, hosted the first festival for the newly formed Connecticut Chapter of the Puppeteers of America. On Christmas Eve 1948, they made history again by performing Scrooge!, Margo’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the first full-length marionette production performed live on national television.

In 1952, producers of the Howdy Doody Show tapped the Roses to bring the show’s characters to life. While they did not design the Howdy puppet, they were instrumental in creating the show’s other characters and making the show a success for nearly ten years. Later in the 1950s, the Roses created The Blue Fairy series, an original marionette series based on the tale of Pinocchio. They won a Peabody Award for Children’s Programming for their work on The Blue Fairy. In the 1960s, despite a loss of several hundred of their puppets in a fire, the Roses continued to tour and to design and build puppets for television films including Treasure Island, Rip van Winkle and Aladdin. Together, Margo and Rufus Rose produced more than a dozen marionette productions as well as numerous films, commercials, and television projects.

In 1965, they were instrumental in founding the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., and the National Theater of the Deaf in West Hartford. They essentially retired from puppetry in the early 1970s and Rufus died in 1976. Margo continued to teach and to receive high praise for the artistry of her designs and the delicacy with which she manipulated her marionettes. Her puppets and artwork have been exhibited in Connecticut, Iowa, Virginia, and at the New York Public Library Gallery for the Performing Arts. Among her many honors are the President’s Award for Artistic Achievement form the Puppeteers of America and the 1982 medallion from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. In 1990, Margo Rose and others closely associated with the O’Neill Theater established a puppetry conference to be held there each summer. The Margo Rose Scholarship is offered by the Connecticut Puppetry Guild.

Margo Rose died in New London, Conn., in September 1997.

During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times