Pulling Strings

Sue Hastings was about as famous as a puppeteer could get in mid-1920s New York. She designed, created, and operated some of the finest marionettes of the time. Here’s how her collection ended up at the Dallas Children’s Theater.






PUPPET MASTER: Kathy Burks says, “I could build a whole world with my two hands.” These puppets, only a few in the collection, appeared at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Photo by Manny Rodriguez
Sue Hastings was about as famous as a puppeteer could get in mid-1920s New York. She designed, created, and operated some of the finest marionettes of their time. Her puppet collection eventually numbered about 3,000, and she oversaw as many as 12 touring puppetry companies. Her puppets performed on television and at the White House. They entertained at Gloria Vanderbilt’s childhood birthday parties and modeled clothes in fashion shows.

In 1952, Hastings retired and sold the collection to one of her students, Linnea Linsley, who moved to Dallas and continued performing with those puppets. She and her husband did a live television show called Early Morning with Tapper Rabbit and Mr. Frog that aired on WFAA Channel 8 (then a dual NBC and ABC affiliate). Linsley also taught students using the classic Hastings collection.

Then, in 1969, Linsley met Kathy Burks, who was looking for a new activity to keep her two school-age kids busy. When Burks saw the puppets, she couldn’t resist, signing up her children and herself for weekly lessons at Linsley’s Oak Cliff home. Burks was enthralled.

A year later, Linsley needed to sell the puppets, and she asked Burks to help. The astonishing collection ranged from animals to classic film stars. There was a dancing ballerina and a fire-breathing dragon who appeared on the cover of Esquire in 1951. “They’re a wonderful glimpse into Americana in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s,” Burks says. “It hurt me every time we sold one.”

So she offered to buy the entire collection. “It was all the money I had, and, to my surprise, she accepted,” Burks says. She had no idea then that she’d begun a life-defining journey. Thirty-six years later, Burks and her two children, Douglass and Becky, are still performing together.

The Burks began by performing at birthday parties and church events. Their first professional gig was an employee party for Dr Pepper. In the 1970s, they became regulars at the State Fair. Along the way, they added to their troupe one cousin, Sally Fiorello, and two “extended family members,” Trish Long and B. Wolf.

The Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts found a home at the Dallas Children’s Theater in 1996. They still tour often, and Burks has added 500 puppets to the collection, ones she and her troupe have made. This summer, some of those puppets will star in Sara Jane Armadillo Superstar at Six Flags. Think Brittany Spears—only with a snout and an all-amphibian band. And nicer people pulling the strings.

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