There are lots of Avery roads in New London County, but one I regard with special affection is Avery Lane in Waterford because Rufus Rose, the descendant of an Avery immigrant, lived there in a house with a stage and dozens of beautiful puppets. I used to dread big family reunions, but when Cousin Rufus and his wife were the hosts, I was one happy kid. Their magical marionettes took my breath away.
Rufus' ancestor, James Avery, came to America as an 11-year-old boy in the 1630s; you can see a bust of James on Poquonnock Road, across from the Groton Shopping Plaza. The Averys fought battles against Native Americans, yet advocated for humane treatment of the Pequots. They learned the Pequot language and helped to establish the first Indian reservation in America. During the Revolution they fought and died at Groton Heights and suffered with Washington at Valley Forge. They walked through the Panamanian jungle to get to the Gold Rush. They fought in the Civil War and every subsequent American conflict. Like so many families, theirs is the story of America.
But there's more to history than wars and adventure. There's art, beauty and creativity, and the pursuit of these endeavors takes courage, too, especially for a young couple beginning their partnership in the performing arts at the onset of the Great Depression.
Rufus met Margo Skewis at Tony Sarg's marionette studio in New York City in 1929. Margo was pretty and smart, and she shared Rufus' passion for puppetry. They hit it off instantly. After their wedding, the Roses formed their own marionette company and began traveling all across the United States delighting audiences with productions of "Aladdin," "Pinocchio," "Snow White" and other childhood favorites. The highlight of this period was the variety show they staged at the 1933 Chicago World Fair.
The World Fair engagement brought them national attention, making them the most famous husband and wife puppeteer team in America.
During World War II, the puppets were idle while Rufus went to work at Electric Boat and Margo volunteered with the American Red Cross. After the war, the Roses resumed their entertainment careers, and made some ground-breaking firsts. They produced "Jerry Pulls the Strings," the first full-length movie with non-human characters. One Christmas Eve ABC hired them to broadcast Dickens' "Christmas Carol," the first live marionette show on television. Their TV series, "The Blue Fairy," earned a Peabody Award for excellence.
Perhaps most famously, they were behind the scenes of television's "Buffalo Bob Show," manipulating the freckled-faced boy, Howdy Doody, and creating other appealing characters.
In 1961 Rufus went into politics, serving in the State Legislature for 12 years. He concluded his last session in Hartford by putting on a puppet show for his colleagues. Both sides of the aisle applauded a man who not only thought it was his civic duty to participate in government, but who'd devoted his life to entertaining people.
In 1990 Jane Henson, widow of the Muppets' creator Jim Henson, founded The Rose Endowment for Puppetry at the Eugene O'Neill Center. In 1997 most of the Roses' puppet collection was donated to the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at UConn's School of Fine Arts. However, Howdy was locked away in a Rhode Island bank vault while a legal battle swirled around his permanent disposition. The Detroit Institute of Arts was finally awarded custody.
The Roses' marionettes are expertly cared for, enjoying lasting fame at Storrs, Detroit and on the Web. Rufus and Margo might be surprised to know how many of us still remember, when TV and the world were young, that special surge of joy when it was " Howdy Doody Time!"