The Restoration Project
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. Paul was meticulous about the puppets and kept them in pristine condition. In the years since his passing, they were properly stored for the most part but they were not maintained in the same way and some had been altered from their original design.
When the puppets arrived in Oregon, each was examined carefully. Of the 182 in the collection, 41 had no bodies. 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. Great care was taken to preserve as much of the original costumes as possible but some 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.
There will always be debate whether it's appropriate to restore a work of art or leave it as is. After much consideration, it was decided that restoration was necessary to restore Paul's work to its original form, protect it from further deterioration and preserve the Paul Ashley legacy for years to come.
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 amassed 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 with the puppets in Oregon and the work being done in New York but as soon as the team was assembled, the first batch were carefully packed and shipped.
Doug works on the heads and has spent hours filling, sanding, painting and repairing exactly as Paul would have done. He is replacing damaged internal mechanisms with newer, better materials that won't snag or break.
Doug worked with fellow puppet maker and artist Rick Liljeblad to cast new hands and feet in silicone using Paul's plaster molds. .
Brilliant costume designers and artists Gary and Linda Garabedian of Nelly D.Janian Haute Couture, have taken on the daunting task of creating new bodies and costumes. Fortunately, Paul took copious photographs of his work. They are using existing items as patterns and matching the original fabrics whenever possible.
The costume for Cher is being designed from scratch because she is just a bald head and no photo of a finished Cher puppet could be located. She will be a knockout in Bob Mackie's famous feather gown created in puppet scale!
Gary and LInda's attention to detail and tailoring would have made Adelaide Davis, Paul's original costumer, proud.
Before and After Gallery
Cher's Transformation to Diva
Click the image to enlarge and to see the transformation.
Restoration of Charles de Gaulle
Click the image to enlarge and for step by step descriptions.
How to Make a Paul Ashley Puppet
A clay sculpture was created for each head.
Plaster was applied to the clay to create a mold.
After the plaster was dry, the mold was separated into 2 parts (the face and the back of the head )
The insides of the 2 sections were thickly coated with Plastic Wood (a wood putty/filler)
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.