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The Restoration Project

Pre-Restoration Condition

The Paul Ashley Puppets are between 50 and 70 years old. They were hard working entertainers, having performed thousands of shows over thousands of miles. In the 37 years since Paul Ashley's passing, many of the puppets had fallen into disrepair and some had been altered from their original design. Paul was meticulous about care and maintenance. While he was alive, he kept the puppets in pristine condition and would have never allowed them to be anything less than perfect!

When the puppets arrived in Oregon, each was examined carefully. Of the 182 in the collection, 41 had no bodies. For the most part, the magnificently sculpted heads were in remarkable shape but the internal mechanisms controlling the eyes and eyebrows were worn, causing them to stick. Facial paint, particularly the whites of the eyes and teeth had yellowed. 

The bodies and costumes were another matter. Original materials such as foam rubber used to form the bodies had disintegrated and the latex hands had turned black and brittle. Many costumes were heavily soiled and in some cases, the fabrics had completely deteriorated. We tried to preserve as much of the original as possible but most had to be replaced. 

For the most part, the animal puppets have not been restored. Their heads and bodies are integrated and it would have been necessary to remake and replace too much of Paul's original work. 

As with many works of art, restoration is necessary to repair and preserve, so after much consideration, we decided to proceed. A total of 71 puppets were restored in varying degrees. We believe we have succeeded in returning Paul's artistry to its original form, protecting it from further deterioration and insuring that the Paul Ashley legacy lives on for years to come.
Most importantly, we are confident that Paul would wholeheartedly approve of our efforts.

Restoration Photo Galleries: (right)

Top A small sample of some remarkable before and after transformations.

Middle: Restoring Cher

Bottom: before and afters of "reimagined puppets".

Opportunity Knocks at an Unexpected Time

After Paul's daughter took possession of the collection in 2019, discussions were underway to donate a number of puppets to the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City and the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. The rest were to be auctioned in the fall of 2020 at Julien's Auction's, a premiere auction house specializing in entertainment memorabilia.

However, when Covid-19 tore across the globe in the spring of 2020, all of those plans were put on hold. As terrible as the situation was, it presented a unique opportunity—time to restore the puppets.

A few months earlier, Vicki acquired the Rootie Kazootie Puppets. When she saw their remarkable restoration, she knew there was only one person she could trust to meet Paul's exacting standards—Doug Preis. She was delighted when her request for help was met with an enthusiastic, "Yes!"

The Restoration Team

During the 1970's, Paul was doing a lot of commercial work and industrial shows. He hired an extremely talented young man named Doug Preis as his apprentice. Doug had grown up watching the Paul Ashley Puppets on TV. He was a huge fan and an avid pupil. Besides learning how to puppeteer from the master, he learned everything there was to know about the puppets while working side by side with Paul .

Doug went on to have a successful career as a voice over artist but he never forgot his love of puppets. Today, he is the foremost historian of Edgar Bergan and Charlie McCarthy and has his own impressive puppet collection.  

Doug knew this was going to be a huge project requiring a specialized team. Besides the Rootie Kazootie puppets, Doug had restored many from his personal collection so he knew exactly who to call. Had it not been for the virus, these talented individuals would never have been available.

It was a logistical challenge because the puppets were in Oregon and the restoration team was in New York and Minnesota but as soon as the team was assembled, the first batch of puppets were carefully packed and shipped..

Doug worked on the heads and spent hours filling, sanding, painting and repairing exactly as Paul would have done. He replaced damaged internal mechanisms with newer, better materials that won't snag or break. Most importantly, he kept the original integrity of the sculpts.

Doug worked with fellow puppet maker and artist Rick Liljeblad (in Minnesota) to cast new hands and feet in silicone using Paul's plaster molds.


The Costumes

While Doug was working on the heads, brilliant New York based clothing designers Gary and Linda Garabedian of Nelly D.Janian Haute Couture, took on the daunting task of creating new bodies and costumes for 75 puppets. This talented team normally creates custom couture bridal and evening wear for clients such as Vera Wang, Norma Kamali,  Ralph Lauren and Marchesa. Gary and Linda's attention to detail, tailoring and craftsmanship would have made Adelaide Davis, Paul's original costumer, proud.

Aside from the challenge of recreating so many costumes, they had to do it in puppet scale—no easy task. Paul took copious photographs of his work, some with costuming notes written on the back.  These were faithfully followed. Existing items were taken apart and used as patterns and original fabrics were matched whenever possible. 

For other puppets, they have created one-of-a-kind masterpieces. The costume for Cher is completely original because she was just a bald head and no photo of a finished Cher puppet could be located. She is a knockout in a replica of Bob Mackie's iconic feather gown. Likewise, Judy Garland is resplendent in a puppet size version of the gown she wore in concert at the London Palladium. Both costumes are embellished with hundreds of hand applied Swarovski crystals.

Before and After Gallery
Cher's Transformation to Diva
Click the image to enlarge and to see the transformation.
Before & After of "Reimagined Puppets"
The reimagined puppets were puppets without a defined identity. Each one was reimagined into a character from TV, the theater, film or literature. This was done with wigs, paint and costumes and without altering the original sculpt.
Make a Puppet

How to Make a Paul Ashley Puppet

The basics:

  1. A clay sculpture was created for each head.

  2. Plaster was applied to the clay to create a mold.

  3. After the plaster was dry, the mold was separated into 2 parts (the face and the back of the head )

  4. The insides of the 2 sections were thickly coated with Plastic Wood (a wood putty/filler)  

  5. As the Plastic Wood dried, it would shrink and the fronts and backs could be easily removed from the mold. 


Above: Paul's daughter Vicki watches her dad put the finishing touches on the Charles Laughton puppet circa 1955. This photo is a good illustration of Paul's process from the clay sculpture and the plaster mold, to chiseling and sanding the plastic wood to painting the features. 

Left: A bin of plaster molds 


6.  Internal Mechanics of the Head:

  • Eyes: The eyes are mounted independently on horizontal metal rods. They have a screweye in the back with a spring attached. The other end of the spring is attached below the eye socket. There is a string connected to the screweye in the back of the eye which travels up to another screweye in the top of the head. Then it goes down and out the back of the neck. When the string is pulled the eyeball rotates forward, closing the eye. The spring returns it to the open position.

  • Eyebrows: Eyebrows are attached to a continuous rod passing through the temple area. There is an angled lever soldered in the middle of the bar. A spring holds that lever in place. A string is attached to the lever traveling up through a screweye in the top of the head and then down and out the back of the neck. When the string is pulled, the lever rotates the bar down moving the eyebrows down. The spring returns the rotated bar back to it’s neutral position.

  • Mouth: The mouth is mounted on an axel with a spring attached to the back which keeps the mouth in an open position.

7.  After all the operational mechanisms were in place, the eyeballs and mouth sections were finished and painted, the 2 halves of the head would be glued together and the whole head was sanded and painted.

8.  Wigs, yarn hair, eyeglasses or other props were added to complete the character.​

Bodies & Costumes

Finished heads were attached to a padded body which included latex hands and a black sleeve to conceal the puppeteers arm. The mechanics for controlling the eyes and eyebrows ran through the sleeve.

The puppet was then handed off to an extremely talented seamstress and costumer named Adelaide Davis. Her attention to detail, historical accuracy and craftsmanship were unsurpassed. Depending on the intricacy, costumes could run up to $100 each which be close to $800 in today’s dollars.

As illustrated in the letter below, the cost of a completed puppet would have run between $750 to $1500 in $1969. In todays dollars, this would be at least $6000 to $12000, although I would assume Mr. Ashley would charge much more than $4-$5 per hour!

Right: Dressing Nelson Rockefeller and the finished puppet.

Below: A very sweet handwritten letter to then 12 year old Bobby Shinn, who wanted to purchase a puppet. Paul kindly explains how long it takes to make a puppet, how much it would cost and gives Bobby some good advice. 

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