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.
1940's: 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.
1950's: Personal & Professional Milestones
After the war, Broadway beckoned so Paul 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 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 West 21st St. in the Chelsea district of Manhattan with his sister Mary, a talented fashion illustrator. Mary introduced him to two attractive roommates who lived across the hall--Rita Walsh, from Pittsburgh and Harriet Lund, from Minneapolis who became friends while serving in the Marines. Paul became a frequent visitor in their apartment and Harriet later joked that Paul would bring his own bottle of beer but then eat all of the candy provided by other suitors! Always a gentleman with a polite Midwestern upbringing, neither roommate was exactly sure which one of them he was wooing. Eventually, he made his intentions clear and after a 6 week courtship, he and Harriet were married.
Although they were both Midwesterners from large families, Harriet's upbringing was quite different. She was of French and Swedish descent and the third of six girls from 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 the 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. Paul's reputation as a talented sculptor and model maker was noticed by the producers of a new children’s television show who were looking for someone to make puppets and asked Paul to join the crew. That show, The Rootie Kazootie Club, went on to become one of the most influential and successful children’s television programs of the era. Paul not only helped design and create the puppets, he became a principal puppeteer.
On November 6, 1951. while Paul was at work, a very pregnant 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! The following day, Paul and Harriet welcomed their only child, Victoria Anne.
The following spring, the family moved from an apartment in Flushing, NY to a lovely Tudor style home in Upper Montclair, NJ. A deciding factor in the home purchase was it's spacious basement with large windows letting in a lot of natural light—perfect for a puppet studio!
A frequent visitor was a talented young comic named Chuck McCann who 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 his puppets. On the flip side, Paul, now in his early 40’s, recognized
Above: Harriet & Paul (Ashley) Sposeto on their wedding day, September 12, 1947
Below Santa pays a visit to the Ashley-Sposeto family, 1955
that although 22 year old Chuck was inexperienced, he was a comedic genius, so Paul decided to take Chuck under his wing and mentor him. Every day, Chuck would leave his home in Queens, NY taking two buses and a train to the Ashley home in New Jersey to learn from the master puppeteer. This resulted in a life long friendship and partnership and began their successful careers in children's television which you can read about 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!
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.
Above: Paul’s big wind-up toy, courtesy of the Freedomland artisans.
Below: Paul hits the slopes in Colorado, 1976
1980's–Present: A Dream Cut Short
In the mid 1970’s Paul decided to retire but soon became restless and depressed. Harriet proposed that they relocate to Los Angeles with the idea that Paul and Chuck would resume their partnership and begin producing shows with the puppets once again.
Chuck was elated and the partners began making plans immediately but a big question emerged—where to house 170 puppets and assorted props? In order to accommodate Paul's workshop, Chuck built a full scale production studio within his home and the reunited pair began work on two pilots— "Tiny TV", a satirical variety puppet series and "LBS Children’s Theater", a film anthology project.
Unfortunately, as work progressed, it became clear that Paul was not himself. The restlessness and depression that began in New York continued and simple tasks became increasingly difficult.
In the spring of 1980, Paul became part of an in-patient research program at UCLA Medical Center and after a couple of months, the family received devastating news. Paul had Parkinson’s and something else called Alzheimer’s Disease. At the time, very few people had ever heard of the illness and there was almost no information about it other than it had 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.
With Paul's untimely death, Harriet became the sole owner of the collection, however it was decided that they would remain with Chuck who would have creative control over them for the rest of his life and that the Ashley family would receive compensation for any puppet earnings. Harriet Ashley passed away on November 30, 2004 at the age of 91, leaving the collection to her and Paul's only child Victoria. Harriet, who served as a sergeant in the Marine Corps during World War II, is buried with Paul at Ft. Snelling.
For almost 40 years, the puppets were kept out of sight in Chuck's Hollywood Hills home. A year after Chuck's passing in April of 2018, the entire puppet collection including props, costumes and plaster molds, were inventoried and moved to Oregon where Victoria (Vicki) lives. Once the puppets were received, Vicki embarked on a massive, year-long restoration project, which you can read about HERE.
113 of the puppets were auctioned in December of 2021. The rest are with private collectors and in museums.
Above: Taken in 1979 when a dear friend stopped by Paul's home in New Rochelle to wish him well as he was packing for the move to Los Angeles.
Below: Harriet and Paul in the gardens at UCLA Medical Center shortly after his diagnosis. Circa 1980.