Station’s Archived Memories Remembers Early Puppetry at KRMA
By Anne Marshall Christner for the SAM Project
SAM’s Marketing Chair Laura Sampson discovered that the National Museum of American History – one of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC – is featuring an exhibit of puppetry in America through March 28. And she thought Volunteer Bulletin readers would be interested to learn about some puppetry used in the station’s past. So, she, Buzz Sampson and I offer this multimedia presentation on Alma Greenwood and her puppet friends, drawing from all categories of the SAM archives.
The Smithsonian website reports that puppetry is one of the oldest forms of performance art in America. The tradition was brought here from Italy, France, and Great Britain – Punch and Judy, which dates back to 17th Century Italy, comes to mind. As with other cultural traditions, puppetry received a uniquely American stamp over time. The Smithsonian website says that “puppetry relies on the harmonious relationship of a puppet, a puppeteer’s imaginative manipulation, and an audience whose willing suspension of disbelief allows it to accept the puppet’s actions as ‘real.’”
Commercial television has used puppets since Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo in the 1950s. Public television brought us Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with hand-puppets King Friday and Queen Sarah Saturday from 1968 to 2001. And don’t forget the Muppets, which joined forces with Sesame Street beginning in November 1969; the Muppets became beloved by adults as well as children. Jim Henson and his Muppets went on to produce a number of popular movies. And Frank Oz, puppeteer for Sesame Street’s Grover, Cookie Monster and Bert, also was the voice and puppeteer for Yoda in the Star Wars films (1980 to 2008).
All of this suggests that puppets and their stories always have and continue to enchant us in ways that live action does not.
Local TV stations also featured puppets in their children’s programs. At KRMA in 1960s and 1970s, Alma Greenwood, a second- and third-grade teacher with the Denver Public Schools, was invited to create and present several on-the-air programs to enhance elementary school teaching. She did so for language arts, social studies, and math directed at grades one through three. Of particular interest here is Mrs. Greenwood’s use of puppets, especially in a daytime program called Storytime, in which she told and read stories.
Sounds simple, right? In fact, the program and its content were closely monitored, according to Alma Greenwood, who was interviewed for a SAM oral history in 2004.
Mrs. Greenwood described how she was required to have every story she chose okayed by the head librarian of the Denver Public Library. Any book approved had to have been reviewed by at least three different national sources as being the best in children’s literature. Moreover, the show’s producers had some difficulty with copyrights, in that publishers feared that if children’s books were read on educational TV, then families wouldn’t want to buy those titles. (Mrs. Greenwood said that, in fact, they found that when she read a story on the air, if the children liked the story, they wanted their parents to buy the book!)
Why use puppets to teach? Mrs. Greenwood felt that children would have difficulty sitting in their chairs in classrooms watching a screen and being remote from the TV studio. In thinking about what would catch and keep children’s attention, she thought sidekick puppets would provide visual focal points. Don Allen of the KRMA art department designed her regular sidekicks, Worm and Sir Willie (a dragon), as well as other puppets used from time to time to tell a story. Allen also designed the sets used in her shows.
The puppeteers who worked with Worm – Judy Chumly and later, Joyce Thorn – were not professionals, but they worked well because of the chemistry between them and Alma Greenwood. A station producer, Will George, gave the action and voice to Sir Willie. Mrs. Greenwood and her puppeteer associates did not follow a script for the live shows, but instead interacted and spoke spontaneously after having discussed the show ahead of time and what they wanted to accomplish.
When Alma and friend needed more puppeteers for certain stories, they recruited from the staff at KRMA, of whom Alma said: “They were a bunch of hams!” Select the Storytime video clip(s) you would like to view:
- Click here to view a preserved clip from Mrs. Greenwood’s Christmas Storytime, or go to http://vimeo.com/83528258
- Click here to view a clip from Storytime with Alma Greenwood and her puppet, Worm, or go to http://vimeo.com/83528259
- Click here to view Alma Greenwood reading “Three Pigs” with her Storytime puppets, or go to http://vimeo.com/83523820
Mrs. Greenwood was very happy to have had the experience of teaching on TV for almost 20 years. She said in her oral history interview that she felt that she was able to do things that classroom teachers could not do. This was not because those teachers weren’t capable, but because they don’t have the time or they have too many distractions from children’s activities and disciplinary problems.
Even so, television teaching was not easy. Alma – affectionately called “The TV Lady” by her school children audience – cited some statistics at the time that posited that television teachers needed an hour to prepare for one minute of on-air time. Thus, each 20-minute Storytime show would have required 20 hours to prepare.
Additionally, Alma Greenwood had to use her summer breaks to write the teacher guides to accompany her televised lessons. She said of the job that “it was hard, hard work, but fulfilling.”
Apparently, Worm the puppet also felt it was worthwhile, since he received more fan mail than Alma did!
To learn how SAM volunteers contributed to the content of this story please read the below article, "Putting Together the Puzzle Pieces" by Laura Sampson.
Putting Together the Puzzle Pieces of Rocky Mountain PBS' History
Laura Sampson, SAM Marketing Chair
*Follow the links within this interactive SAM article!
This month's historic article, Station's Archived Memories Remembers Early Puppetry at KRMA, introduces you to KRMA-TV's on-air talent, Alma Greenwood, who hosted various children's programs from 1960 to the late 1970s. The article was meticulously compiled by gathering information from the treasures contained in the station's archives. Each of the volunteer-driven archive committees within Station's Archived Memories (SAM) contributed unique information to complete the puzzle for the Alma Greenwood story.
➢ ORAL HISTORY: Who is Alma Greenwood? What could be learned directly from Alma Greenwood through an Oral History Interview? What was it like to work on a "live" televised program in the early years of KRMA? Click here to listen to Alma tell the story in her own words.
➢ MEMORABILIA: What memorabilia items are in the archives that add to the story of Alma Greenwood and the puppets used on her program? Alma contributed several scripts and beloved puppets to the archives.
➢ PHOTOGRAPHS: What photographs are available for the article? More than 180 photographs of Mrs. Greenwood and her programs have been archived by SAM volunteers. Click here to view a flipbook of Alma's photographs.
➢ STATION RESEARCH: When did Mrs. Greenwood work at KRMA-TV? What documentation is available to learn about her contributions to KRMA programming?
➢ PRODUCTION PRESERVATION: Where is footage of original KRMA educational programs? SAM has preserved several clips of Mrs. Greenwood's KRMA-TV productions.
- Click here to view a preserved clip from Mrs. Greenwood's Christmas Storytime.
- Click here to view a clip from Storytime with Alma Greenwood and her puppet, Worm.
- Click here to view Alma Greenwood reading "Three Pigs" with her Storytime puppets.
➢ COMPUTER: How are the archives preserved? The Computer Chair develops the archives' Filemaker Pro databases to enter historic information that can be easily retrieved and enjoyed.
➢ DISPLAY: Periodically, the Display volunteers create community displays of SAM memorabilia. The date of the next public SAM display will be announced in an upcoming Volunteer Bulletin.
➢ MARKETING: Various interactive pieces of audio, video and visual puzzle pieces were collected so YOU could appreciate the depth of information contained in the SAM archives. Consider volunteering your time on this dynamic committee!
As you can see, it takes a team of volunteers to put the puzzle pieces together! You can help discover MORE stories for Rocky Mountain PBS. You are invited to volunteer in the station's archives. Training is provided, fun is guaranteed!
If you have materials to contribute to the archives or personal time to volunteer in the archives, contact SAM: SAM@rmpbs.org or 303-620-5734.