Waco's Puppet Lady

By: Terri Jo Ryan, Waco Tribune-Herald

April 30, 2007

Although she never married nor had children of her own, Doris Goodrich Jones of Waco was the mother of hundreds of “little people” — the puppets she created to spin marvelous tales of wisdom and wonder.

She shared her home at 326 N. 14th Street (now part of the Freeman Center’s housing block for folks undergoing drug rehabilitation) with character like The Fiddling Cowboy, Monkeyshines the Brazilian monkey, Senorita Lolita, Sealeg Sailor, Jimmie Scarecrow and an assortment of clowns, dancers, elves and a menagerie of musical instrument-playing critters.

Doris Goodrich JonesOne of her most popular puppets, with black and white audiences alike, was the spunky and mischievous Esmeralda Arimathea Jenkins, a black child known as “Asthma” for short. Her antics often got her in trouble, but she’d figure a way out of the mess every time.

When Jones arrived in local schools in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, she mesmerized her young audiences and inspired many to go home and make their own puppet theaters.

Waco’s “Puppet Lady” was born April 2, 1902, in Temple, to William Goodrich Jones of New York City and Zollie Luther of Palmyra, Mo.

Her father (1860-1950) was born in Yankee territory “by accident” just as the Civil War was brewing, the family story goes, because his Galveston-based parents had travelled there on business. Luther (1865-1934) was the daughter of the president of Baylor Female College (later to became the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor). The couple wed in 1890, and Doris was the youngest of their four children, three of whom lived to adulthood.

According to the oral history Doris Jones provided the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University, when the young Doris came home from classes at age 7 with a “sweetheart,” she was taken out of public school and put into private education.

Her family moved to Waco in the late 1920s. Jones’ college career included earning a bachelor of music degree from Southern Methodist University, and coming to Baylor University for a bachelor of education degree and her teaching certificate. In the early 1930s, she taught at an elementary at Gatesville in addition to giving drama and music instruction at the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco.

But the course of her life was set after many summers spent in Chautauqua, N. Y. with relatives — especially two spinster aunts who prized independence and inquiry over conventionality. Chautauqua was, and remains, the summer resort community that plays host to an internationally-renowned non-profit adult education center. And Jones discovered her passion for the puppetry arts there.

The summer of 1935, she started producing puppet shows in Waco, after learning how to make her own puppets and sets during summers spent at Chautauqua. She would make $25 a gig ($364 in today’s dollars) performing for women’s clubs in New York.

But in Waco, during the school year, she made a humbler wage: Schools charged children a nickel each to attend her shows, and she split the proceeds with the campus, keeping 60 percent as her fee. As the years went on, that fee grew to a dime and then a quarter.

“Everybody is so busy with the paperwork in the schools and with TV entertainment and movies,” Jones told an interviewer in 1977, “but they didn’t have that then (when she was starting out). So I can just at the right moment in history for Waco and environs.”

As her shows caught on with local schools and then campuses throughout Texas and neighboring states, her cast of characters grew as fast as the number of her sets.

She travelled with Grace Gooda, the daughter of Southern Baptist missionaries to Brazil, in a panel truck W.G. Jones bought for $800 in 1939 for them to use in hauling around the “Doris Goodrich Jones Puppet Theater.” (Gooda died at one of the shows in 1957, at Sanger Elementary, of a heart attack).

The women even got extra gas rations from the federal government during World War II because of their educational efforts, especially in rural areas starved for other educational and cultural pursuits. Jones’ plays, many of which dealt with Texas history and Lone Star personalities, earned her lasting fame among generations of schoolchildren, according to her memoirs.

Jones and Gooda also performed at the Sears in Dallas from Thanksgiving until Christmas, 1942 through 1944, as the star attraction at Toyland. They employed a range of puppetry techniques: hand puppets, rod puppets, marionettes and even shadow puppets in their storytelling.

The Puppet Lady created biblical character hand puppets and marionettes for her Sunday School at Central Presbyterian Church, at no charge. And she never charged for performances of her humane education show, in which she taught about compassion towards animals and always ended with the plea: “Be sure to give your pet plenty of water and to give him a dry, warm place in the winter and a cool place in the summer.”

Thelma Cooper of Waco — whose grandmother was a sister of Doris Jones’ mother Zollie — recalled her cousin as a lively person not much bigger than her creations, at five-feet-tall and weighing less than 100 pounds. But she was a powerhouse of passion for her art, she added.

She also taught puppetry at Chautauqua for more than 20 years. This summer, officials there will host an exhibit of some of her many creations, as well as produce several of her puppet plays for new generations, said Cooper, who is assistant professor of piano in the music school at Baylor.

Jones continued to perform well into her 80s. In the early 1990s, Jones moved back to her native Temple, where she died on July 9, 1993. She is buried in the family plot with her parents and an infant brother at Hillcrest Cemetery of Temple.

Cooper’s daughter, and Jones’ namesake, is the Rev. Dorisanne Cooper senior pastor of Lake Shore Baptist Church of Waco for five years. She recalled the puppeteer as a grandmotherly figure for the family, the one who hosted the major family gatherings.

The Texas Collection at Baylor University, located on the first floor of the Caroll Library, currently has several of the marionettes on loan from the estate of Doris Goodrich Jones on display. The scenes from The Life of Elisabet Ney are a small sample of the more than 300 marionettes Jones crafted in her long performance career. The exhibit will remain through the summer.

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