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CEDAR FALLS – Concealed behind curtains and a stage set constructed from a cardboard box with hand-painted scenery, puppet master Hovey Brom manipulated the nine strings of a marionette, propelling it onto the small stage. “Jingles,” dressed in a colorful costume and wearing a fake Santa’s beard, danced, shimmied and kicked up his feet before exiting the set.
Jingles looked nearly as fresh and vibrant as he did the day Brom constructed him – 88 years ago.
“When I was in second grade, I was sick and out of school for a semester. A neighbor came over with a book that showed how to make marionettes. So that fall, together we made my first marionette,” recalled the 96-year-old retired architect, sculptor and painter.
It wasn’t his last.
Brom got tied up in the hobby. “It really gets in your blood. I had fun learning how to make them and then learning to make them move, so I wanted to make another one, and another,” he said, laughing.
His collection numbers nearly 20. Making marionettes satisfied his artistic side, and throughout his youth, he constructed the puppets from stuffing, balsa wood and doll heads. His mother and aunts often made clothing for the characters he created. Several were originally toys which he transformed into marionettes, some were constructed by his children when they were young, and a few were given to him as gifts. Jingles remains his favorite.
“I made them and enjoyed it, and my kids wanted to make them. It became a family thing,” he said. He and his late wife Marge reared three children, sons Dirk and Timm and daughter Kristi.
Marionettes are full-length puppets controlled from above by a series of strings. Brom’s puppets require nine strings to operate. The strings run from individual limbs, shoulders, head and spine and connect to a control made from short, crisscrossed lengths of wood, which he uses to manipulate the puppets’ movements.
It had been nearly 13 years since Brom had examined the marionettes. Recently, he took the collection out of their suitcase storage to make repairs and give them some TLC, as well as figure out what he eventually wants to do with them.
Earlier this week, Brom presented three Christmas-themed marionette shows for residents at Prairie Wind, the Western Home facility where he lives. In the tale he wrote, Santa is kidnapped by the sword-wielding Black Knight, who wants Santa’s toys for himself. A host of other marionettes – Jingles, Johnny, Shorty, Grandma and Two Gun – attempt to rescue the Big Red One. Eventually Santa is freed to deliver his toys.
Also appearing on stage were a policeman, a town crier, a dragon with chomping teeth, a Chinese dragon, a pony and even famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, “who was hired by Santa to design and build a 10-story building to store Santa’s toys,” Brom said, laughing. A Charlie Brown marionette created by his children also was part of the show.
“It was a simple story, but the marionettes are fun to look at and watch. Marionettes are complicated, and it takes skill to get them to move right. You have to be careful because the strings can easily get tangled up and that’s a pain, to say the least. I’m not as dexterous as I used to be. It really takes more than one person to put on a show,” Brom explained.
The retiree was assisted by his neighbors, John Kragt, Phyllis Steele and Mike and Jane Ingraham. Brom, a watercolorist, painted the backdrop himself.
Brom, who was recognized as a Courier 8 over 80 award winner in 2011, retired as a partner in InVision in his early 80s, but continued working until recently. During his career, he designed buildings throughout the Cedar Valley, Iowa and beyond, including structures at Wartburg College in Waverly, the University of Northern Iowa and the original layout at the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum. He provided designs for more than 250 Iowa church and synagogue projects, such as Nazareth Lutheran, Westminster Presbyterian and Sons of Jacob Synagogue.
He began his architectural career at Thorson and Thorson following his 1952 graduation from Iowa State University in Ames.
His recent shows recalled many childhood experiences, Brom said. “For many years, the family – aunts and uncles and cousins – would gather on the family farm for Christmas, and I’d put on a marionette show. My mother would help me. It became a family tradition until I was in college.
“It’s been fun to meet them all again, to say ‘Hello.’ They’ve each got their own character and it feels like I’m seeing old friends again,” Brom added.
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