I was very sad to receive the winter edition of the Puppetry Arts Institute newsletter and see that their long-time director, Diane Houk, had passed away last November. Diane was a charming and talented lady who, with her husband and family, had travelled extensively, always serving the communities where they lived by volunteering her time and talents to worthy projects. She had loved the art of puppetry since childhood, and gathered puppets from many of the exotic locales that she lived in during her husband’s posting overseas. Once she and her husband returned to the U.S. and settled in Independence, Missouri, Diane devoted her energies to the creation of the Puppetry Arts Institute, which, once established, she continued to run and make a success.

Hazelle with one of her marionettes.
Hazelle with one of her marionettes.

My first knowledge of this lovely lady came more than twenty years ago when we saw a notice in the Puppeteers of America journal indicating that the Greater Kansas City Puppetry Guild had been given the remaining stock when the Hazelle Puppet Factory in Kansas City had closed down. The puppet parts were now available for purchase from the Guild. The proceeds from these sales were to be used to raise funds for the planned Puppetry Arts Institute.

The Christmas Present of Christmas Past: 'Mock-Hazelles' along with our own marionettes.
The Christmas Present of Christmas Past: Our ‘Mock-Hazelles’ along with our Elwoodette Marionettes.

Around that time, my husband, Hugh, and I had started a marionette performance company, and although Hugh was making many of our puppets, we were also using six Hazelle marionettes that I had owned as a child. Since Hugh was making puppets that would be compatible with my existing puppets, the opportunity to purchase Hazelle parts was irresistible, especially as this meant we could create and costume duplicate marionettes, thus enabling us to have ‘costume changes’ within our shows.

The Cinderella Caper: More 'Mock Hazelles'.
The Cinderella Caper: More ‘Mock Hazelles’ that Hugh made.

When I sent away to order a box of puppet parts, Diane was the person who responded. At first, I simply noticed that the name on the invoices was always the same, but over the next few years, our correspondence back and forth increased, and I became aware of the person behind the name. There was a caring, interested lady who took time to pick out exactly the right item to fill the bill. With the advent of email, our correspondence increased, and soon, I was sending Diane pictures of the mock Hazelles we had made with her puppet parts. Before I knew it, Diane had issued an invitation for us to come down and perform at the PAI if we ever were travelling in the area.

Guard Dog on Duty.
Guard Dog on Duty. The sheep and pigs were made using Hazelle heads.

We were not able to take her up on this invitation for many years, but in 2006, we planned a motorhome trip across the States, so I let Diane know that we could detour down to Missouri if she would still like us to come. Her response was immediate. She would set up a performance at the PAI to fit in with our travelling schedule. We had developed several shows by this time, and after much discussion, we decided to perform Guard Dog on Duty, a lively Max, the Ho Hum Husky show that featured cowboys, a farm and a big parade. Diane was delighted with our choice and thought it sounded perfect for the venue.

There was the theatre I'd had as a child.
There was the theatre I’d had as a child.

What a wonderful part of our holiday that proved to be. Visiting the PAI was extremely nostalgic for me. The moment I walked in the door, there was the Hazelle theatre that I’d had as a child. I recognized the puppet scripts and the boxes, the puppets I’d actually owned and the puppets I’d merely coveted from the glossy brochures. The displays were wonderful, and what a treat it was to perform there. The volunteers were friendly and helpful, and come performance time, the show went beautifully and the audiences were welcoming and most enthusiastic.

The Missouri Caves
The Missouri Caves

We enjoyed every minute of our stay, both work and play. Diane and her husband took us to dinner at a lovely restaurant called Verona’s on the first evening, and what gracious and interesting hosts they were. After dinner, they took us on a tour of the Missouri caves, and these amazing caverns turned out to be one of the most fascinating tourist sites on our entire trip. We had no idea there were caves in Missouri, let alone the massive underground network that actually existed, much of which was used for storage or industry. We even saw a train line running alongside at one point as we drove through. Here in the caves we also saw something that brought huge smiles to our faces. There, in the PAI storage unit, were the Sound of Music goats!

With Alice 'Diane' Houk, a lovely welcome from a very special lady.
With Alice ‘Diane’ Houk, a lovely welcome from a very special lady.

We were sorry to say farewell when it was time to move on, and Diane issued an open invitation for us to come back in the future. We had hoped to be able to return to the PAI, but as often happens, life detoured in other directions and we never got back to Missouri. However, Diane always kept in touch with cards and email notes and we kept her posted about our shows. This Christmas had been unusually hectic for us so a lot of the usual seasonal things passed us by, but I remember suddenly thinking that we hadn’t heard from Diane. Now, of course, I realize why. Even though our contact was so brief and transitory, we felt so sad to see that she had passed away. Those that knew her well must miss her terribly. She was the driving force behind the PAI and I can’t begin to imagine what countless hours she must have devoted to making that dream a reality. A remarkable woman indeed, and one who is always in our minds and hearts when we pick up our Hazelle marionettes. The world of puppetry has lost a very special friend.

Remembering a very special lady