The Sposeto family, Des Moines 1920. Clockwise from the left, Frank holding Mary 1, Caroline 8, Pat 7, Victoria, holding Dominic 2, John 5 and Rosa 4.
Paul Ashley was born Pasquale Sposeto on May 28, 1913 in Des Moines, Iowa. He was the second of ten children and first son of Italian immigrants, Frank Sposeto, a small family farmer and Victoria Iaquinta Sposeto, a homemaker. Pasqule (called Pat) had seven sisters and two brothers. Growing up in a large family during the depression could have been difficult but because they lived on a farm and food was plentiful, the children didn’t realize they were quite poor. They were a close and loving family and relied on each other for entertainment and their creativity to make their own toys.
As a child, Pat, worked the family farm and looked after his younger siblings, but his natural talent as an artist did not go unnoticed. Upon graduation from Lincoln High School in Des Moines, Pat was offered a full scholarship to Drake University to study Fine Arts.
Pat working on the bust of President Moorhouse from a photograph. Moorehouse never actually sat for Pat!
What is truly remarkable, is that Pat had never taken an art class prior to his admission to Drake, and during his third year he was asked to sculpt the busts of Drake President Daniel Walter Moorehouse and Holmes Cowper, Dean of the College of Fine Arts. Although his scholarship was his for exceptional talent as an artist and sculptor, he pursued double majors of Fine Arts and Drama. He was the lead in many plays throughout his college years and a member of the Alpha Beta chapter of Sinfonia Fraternity of America.
Pat graduated from Drake in 1937 and a few years later, he moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. As he started his new life in the city, Pat started introducing himself as Paul.
The War Years
In 1941, just as Paul's acting career was starting to gain momentum, he was drafted. At that time, every male from 18 to 65 was registered and divided by district. The number of the district was placed in a capsule in a fishbowl and stirred, then the capsules were selected. Paul’s capsule was the third one drawn from the fishbowl!
During World War II, Paul was a Captain in the Army Air Corp (now the Air Force) stationed in the South Pacific. Eventually, he rose to the rank of Major in the Reserves.
It is easy to know exactly where he served because in his free time, he made detailed wood carvings of the indigenous people on the various islands where he was stationed—Okinawa, Iwo-Jima, the Philippines, Guam, Morotai and New Guinea. Each of these beautiful sculptures have a location and date carved into their base.
After the war, Broadway beckoned so he returned to New York to resume his acting career. During this time, most people in the entertainment industry with ethnic surnames were encouraged to change them to something more anglicized. Paul decided to do the same and legally changed his professional name to Paul Ashley. However, he was always fiercely proud of his Italian heritage and remained Paul Sposeto in private life.
With all the service men coming home, apartments were hard to come by so Paul moved into a railroad flat on W 21st St. in Chelsea with his sister Mary, a talented fashion illustrator. She introduced him to the two attractive roommates who lived across the hall--Rita Walsh, from Pittsburgh and Harriet Lund, from Minneapolis who met while serving in the Marines. Paul became a frequent visitor and Harriet later joked that Paul would bring his own bottle of beer but then eat all of the candy provided by other suitors! Because of his shy Midwestern upbringing, neither girl was sure which one of them he was interested in. Eventually, he made his intentions clear and after a brief courtship, he and Harriet were married.
Although they were both Midwesterners from large families, Harriet's upbringing was quite different. She was the third of six girls and grew up in an upper middle class home with a maid and a cook. She could barely boil water and before meeting Paul, she thought spaghetti came in a can! Fortunately, Paul knew his way around a kitchen so he taught her to cook.
In the early years of their marriage, Harriet was a secretary and did some showroom modeling. When acting jobs were scarce, Paul did a lot of display work including Macy’s famous Christmas windows. His skill as a sculptor and model maker became well known and when the producers of a new children’s television show were looking for someone to make puppets, Paul was asked to join the crew. That show, Rootie Kazootie, went on to become of the most influential and successful children’s television programs of the era. Paul helped design and create the puppets, and was retained as a principal puppeteer.
During production, their only child, Victoria Anne was born in November of 1951. That evening while Paul was at work, Harriet and her mother, who was visiting from Minneapolis, were at the Palace Theater watching Judy Garland sing “Over the Rainbow” when Harriet’s water broke! It was a memorable performance for all.
Nine months later, the family moved from an apartment in Flushing, NY to a lovely tudor style home in Upper Montclair, NJ. The basement was large and even though it was a basement, the windows let in quite a bit of natural light—perfect for a puppet studio!
A few years later, a talented young comic named Chuck McCann was getting his start as a regular cast member on “Wonderama”, for the DuMont Network. The show starred Sandy Becker, another early kids’ TV legend. Sandy introduced Chuck to his colleague and fellow puppeteer, Paul Ashley. Chuck was amazed by Paul”s talent and the puppets. On the flip side, Paul, now in his early 40’s, recognized that
Harriet & Paul (Ashley) Sposeto on their wedding day, September 12, 1947
Santa pays a visit to the Ashley-Sposeto family, 1955
although 22 year old Chuck was inexperienced, he was a comedic genius, so he decided to take Chuck under his wing and mentor him. Every day, Chuck would leave his home in Queens, NY taking a bus, a train and another bus to the Ashley home in New Jersey to learn from the master puppeteer.
Their hard work paid off and thus began their careers in children’s television as outlined here.
The 60’s & 70’s
Show business is an on again-off again business so in the early 60’s, between shows, Paul once again fell back on his sculpting and display talents to work at Freedomland, USA Amusement Park in the Bronx. He was hired as the Special Effects Supervisor. In this role, he was responsible for the special effects but also the design and construction of the parks most popular rides and attractions.
The commute from New Jersey to the Bronx was long and a traffic nightmare, so the family moved to New Rochelle, NY in the summer of 1959. To get back and forth to work, Paul purchased a strange little Italian import called an Isetta. One day, Paul’s work colleagues pulled a prank by making a huge wind up key out of wood, painting it silver and mounting it to the back of the car. Paul thought this was hilarious and continued to drive it around like a giant wind up toy!
Paul’s big wind-up toy, courtesy of the Freedomland artisans.
After his stint at Freedomland, Chuck and Paul got another show. The pair were now working almost seven days a week but they managed to fit in some R&R too. Paul loved to water ski and Chuck had a catamaran/houseboat that went fast enough to water ski behind. One summer day, Chuck, his wife Eileen, their 2 little girls and the Ashley family went out for a spin when one of the huge outboard motors went dead. Paul got into the water to try to determine what was wrong. He discovered that somehow, the motor had gotten loose. All of a sudden it let go with Paul struggling to keep himself and the motor afloat! In typical Chuck fashion, instead of helping, he went racing around the deck yelling “Man overboard! Get my movie camera!” Paul wisely decided that the motor was less important than his life so he let go and it sank into the depths of Long Island Sound. Too bad Chuck didn’t get his camera in time!
By the late 1960’s Chuck was ready for a change so he moved to Los Angeles to pursue serious acting roles, commercials and voice-over work. Paul and his puppets stayed In New York doing industrial films and performing at trade shows and events for major corporations.
Paul always stayed physically fit. He didn’t smoke, was a moderate drinker and when he was stressed, he swam at the local YMCA. He also enjoyed golf and once, got a hole in one at Wykagyl Country Club where the family were members.
After Vicki graduated from Iowa State University in 1974, she moved to Colorado and got a job at Copper Mountain Ski Area. Paul was an avid skier and visited often. Still handsome well into his 60’s, Vicki recalls her friends at the ski area swooning as her dad made his way through the lift line.
Paul hits the slopes in Colorado, 1976.
A Dream Cut Short
Paul retired in the mid 1970’s but he was restless and seemed depressed. Harriet proposed that they relocate to Los Angeles with the idea that Paul and Chuck resume their partnership and begin producing shows with the puppets once again.
Chuck was elated and he began making plans. In the fall of 1979, the Ashleys moved to LA. Things were looking up. Chuck and Paul were all set to begin work on two pilots—Tiny TV, a satirical/variety puppet series aimed at adults and LBS Children’s Theater, a children’s film anthology show where Chuck and the puppets would introduce prime time animated specials and theatrical cartoons, but unfortunately, Paul was not himself. He was not adjusting to the move and simple tasks were becoming increasingly difficult.
In the spring of 1980, Paul was admitted to the UCLA Medical Center and after a couple of months, the family received some devastating news. Paul had Parkinson’s Disease and something else—Alzheimer’s Disease, which, in the early 80's, no one had ever heard of. There was almost no information about it and no treatment or cure. It was extremely difficult explaining to family and friends what was happening to this once vital man. For the next four years, Paul battled these terrible diseases which took his life on September 3, 1984 at the age of 71.
Major Paul Ashley Sposeto was buried with full military honors at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, MN. Harriet, who served as a sergeant in the Marine Corps during World War II, was buried with him after her death in 2004 at the age of 90.
They are survived by their daughter Victoria Sposeto Munroe and grandsons, Alexander and Andrew Munroe.
Taken when a dear friend stopped by Paul's home in New Rochelle to wish him well as he was packing for the Los Angeles move.
Rootie Kazootie—The Beginning
Paul & Rootie Kazootie,
who started it all.
“The Rootie Kazootie Club”
WNBT (1950-1951); NBC (1951-1952); ABC (1952-1954)
Paul Ashley arrived in New York just after World War II to pursue a career in theater. With acting jobs hard to come by, Paul relied on his talent as a sculptor to support his young family. Word of his sculpting expertise got around and when producers of a new children’s television program were looking for someone to create puppets, Paul was an obvious choice.
Originally named the Rootie Tootie Club, Rootie Kazootie first aired locally on the New York NBC affiliate WNBT on October 14, 1950 with hosts Todd Russel and John Vee. NBC began broadcasting the show nationally on July 2, 1951 until November 1952. It was picked up by ABC beginning that December. The last telecast was seen on May 7, 1954. It was wildly popular with an estimated audience of 2-3 million viewers.
Paul not only designed and created the puppets, he was also one of the principal puppeteers.
The Rootie Kazootie Puppets were acquired in the fall of 2019. With a few rare exceptions, the Paul Ashley Puppet collection now contains every puppet Ashley made that is still in existence. Paul occasionally made puppets for commercial purposes and for other clients like Bob Smith, for whom Ashley created a Howdy Doody puppet for the revival of the show in the 1970's.
It was during Rootie Kazootie that Ashley fell in love with puppets and puppeteering because it was a brilliant way to combine his love of acting with his talent as a sculptor. Thus, his career as a puppeteer was born.
Paul worked with a team of artisans to create the amazing Rootie Kazootie characters: Rootie Kazootie, Polka Dottie, Gala Poochie Pup, Poison Zoomac and El Squeako Mouse.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore”
DuMont TV Network WABD, April 8, 1956
Paul’s next puppet project was the television “spectacular”, an all puppet production of the HMS Pinafore. Ashley created and operated all of the puppets, and was involved with all aspects of the production.
Paul Ashley & Chuck McCann:
An Extraordinary Partnership
For videos of the puppets in action and clips from the Chuck McCann Show, click here.
Paul and Chuck as Laurel & Hardy.
On the WNEW set: “You Wanted It, You Got It” skit with Paul as “Sid Slick” and Chuck as “The Great Bombo”. Watch the video here.
Beginning in the late ‘50’s, Paul Ashley and Chuck McCann created some of the most groundbreaking children’s television programs of all time. They starred in a series of live, shows broadcast in the New York metropolitan area that were a hit with children and adults alike (‘kidult’). Their unique blend of hilarious live sketch comedy, sight gags and interactions with the fabulous Paul Ashley Puppets™ have stood the test of time and are as funny today as they were then.
Paul and Chuck were not only business partners, they were best friends. There is no better way to describe their relationship than in Chuck's own words in the video below.
WNTA-TV Newark, NJ, INDEPENDENT CHANNEL 13
“The Puppet Hotel”
Weekday afternoons, Starting in November 1959,
Paul and Chuck’s first show together was the “Puppet Hotel” featuring McCann as a frustrated desk clerk who tried to do his job while coping with the crazy antics created by the hotel’s guests and staff, portrayed by the Paul Ashley Puppets.
WPIX, NY CHANNEL 11
“Laurel & Hardy & Chuck”
Weekday and Sunday Afternoons
September 7, 1960– December 31, 1962
Guest performers and personalities would visit the show and would be engaged in warm and witty interviews with Chuck and Paul Ashley’s Laurel & Hardy puppets.
“Let’s Have Fun”
September 18, 1960– August 15, 1965
A four-hour comedy/variety show backed by the ‘Paul Ashley Puppets, this show combined stand-up routines, radio and comics.
“The Chuck McCann Show”
September 9, 1963 –1965
Set against the backdrop of a cartoon village, Paul and Chuck would perform character comedy skits, silent visual gags and interviews with guest performers. They also ran Krazy Kat, Beatle Bailey, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith cartoons and reruns of Laurel & Hardy, The Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello films. In addition, Chuck hosted a game show segment instead called the “Kookie Cookie Fortune Cookie Contest”. Run-ins with WPIX management caused Paul and Chuck to move to WNEW channel 5 in 1965.
WNEW, NY CHANNEL 5
“The Chuck McCann Show”
1965– Friday September 9, 1966
This time their show was set in a junk shop in an office building. Chuck and Paul did their hilarious comedy and puppet skits in between the reruns of Casper The Friendly Ghost and Space Angel cartoons and Republic movie serials.
Chuck McCann’s Laurel & Hardy Show
September 12, 1966–June 9, 1967
Set in “The Laurel & Hardy Fix It Shop,” Paul and Chuck played Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and interacted with their puppet counterparts in the skits. Other features of the program included guest entertainers and the Dialing for Dollars telephone quiz.
In addition to their television work, Chuck and Paul had a successful concert series, with look-a-like celebrity puppets giving live concerts in a theater in New York City, starring "Judy Garland", "Elvis Presley" and more!
TV, Broadway & Other Projects
An original set of Remco's wildly popular Beatle dolls from 1964 owned by Paul's daughter. They can also be found in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Nashville.
Paul and his puppets were frequent guests on many popular television and variety shows:
Home Show with Arlene Francis (NBC)
Armstrong Circle Theatre (NBC & CBS)
Good Morning! with Will Rogers, Jr. (CBS)
Robert Montgomery Presents (NBC)
The Today Show (NBC)
The Tonight Show with Jack Parr and Johnny Carson (NBC)
The Perry Como Show (NBC)
The Steve Allen Show
(NBC & ABC)
The Peter Lind Hayes Show (NBC & ABC)
The Mike Douglas Show (Westinghouse Broadcasting)
The Sammie Davis Show (ABC)
The Gumby Show
(NBC appeared for 26 weeks)
HBO Special: I've Got The World on a String: The First Annual All-Star Puppet Spectacular
Still of Ben Vereen and "Ben Vereen" from the HBO special. Paul gifted the puppet to Mr. Vereen.
Commercials and Industrial Shows
The Paul Ashley Puppets were featured in many commercials for Kelvinator Appliance, Harts Mountain, Ford, Chevron, Proctor & Gamble (Gain Detergent & Prell Shampoo), Fruit of the Loom, Borden's, Manichewitz Wines, Coca-Cola (Fresca), TastyKake and many more. The video below features the TastyKake "Tasty Baker" with Paul puppeteering and doing the voice.
In addition to the commercials, the puppets headlined in industrial shows for major corporations. Most notable are New York Telephone Company, National Retail Merchandisers Association, Eastman Kodak, Metropolitan Life, US Plywood and Brown Forman Distilleries.
Assistant Stage Manager:
“The Marriage Go Round”
In the late 50's, just before his television and puppet career took off, Paul was the Assistant Stage Manager for the hit play “The Marriage Go Round” before it came to Broadway and during it's Broadway run. It starred Claudette Colbert, Charles Boyer, Julie Newmar and Edmon Ryan. The show premiered on the Great White Way on October 29th, 1958 at the Plymouth Theater. It ran through 1959 and closed after 700 performances.
Acting & Modeling
As much as he loved working with the puppets, Paul continued to pick up acting jobs that would come his way. He often appeared in soap operas such as the early soap, Portia Faces Life and later on, Ryan’s Hope and One Life to Live.
Paul also did a substantial amount of commercial work with and without the puppets. With his classic good looks he appeared on the cover of LOOK Magazine portraying a surgeon. Most of his face was covered but he was chosen because he had such expressive eyes.
He was also chosen to be one of the iconic Marlboro Men for Marlboro Cigarettes. Wearing a Stetson with his arm casually draped over a saddle on a split rail fence, the ad appeared in national magazines, newspapers and on billboards. The inside joke was that aside from an occasional pipe, Paul didn’t smoke!
“To Tell the Truth”
In the late ‘60’s, Paul appeared as himself on the game show “To Tell the Truth”, in which the celebrity panel, Tom Poston, Peggy Cass, Orson Bean, and Kitty Carlisle asked questions of 3 contestants, one of which had an unusual occupation, in this case, a puppeteer.As the “subject”, Paul had to be truthful when asked questions about his job. The other contestants could just make up stories. It was up to the panel to determine which contestant was telling the truth. Unfortunately someone guessed Paul’s occupation so he didn’t win the money!
Supervisor of Special Effects: Freedomland USA 1960-64
In the early 60’s Paul worked at Freedomland USA, an amusement park in the Bronx, NY. Billed as the “Disneyland of the East”, it was actually 20 acres larger than Disneyland.
Paul helped design and build many of the parks most popular "dark rides" such as the San Francisco Earthquake, Mine Caverns and Tornado Adventure. He also supervised the special effects, most notable the "Chicago Fire" of 1871 (below) which was a star attraction. Every 20 minutes, a building would burst into flames, to be put out by "Chicago firefighters" in period costumes using reproduction firefighting equipment of the era.
Image courtesy of Freedomland USA-The Worlds Largest Entertainment Center
Model Making & Display Work
In between shows, Paul was always able to find work using his incredible gift as a sculptor. He did a lot of display work, such as Macy's windows as mentioned earlier but he also did model making for the toy industry.
When Beatlemania hit the US in the mid 60’s, Remco hired Paul to sculpt the heads of the fab 4 for their Beatle Dolls Collection. Just about every teenage girl had a set and if she was smart, she saved them because they are quite collectible today. In fact, there is a set in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville, TN!
Paul sculpted heads for other Remco dolls including The Dave Clark 5, The Addams Family and The Munsters, as well as heads for a series of dolls for Hasbro called Show Biz Babies: The Monkees, The Mommas and The Poppas (below), Bobbie Gentry, Spencer Davis, Mitch Ryder and Herman’s Hermits.
Although Paul never worked on the original Howdy Doody show in the 50's, he created several Howdy Doody puppets for the revival in the 1970's. One of his creations was auctioned at Christie's in 2002.
This newspaper clipping from 1954 is of Paul's daughter Vicky on the Howdy Doody Show—one of the perks of having a fellow puppeteer as a dad. She is identified as the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Paul A. Sposeto which was the surname the family used in private life.