Written by Toni Sherwood | Photos by Anthony Harden
Puppeteer Clyde Hollifield and his wife, Adrienne, traveled the country with their Appalachian Puppet Theatre for 22 years. A master craftsman, Clyde can build just about anything, from marionettes to rod puppets, stages, background scenery, musical instruments, and even a life-sized gypsy wagon called a ‘vardo’ to travel around in. For her part, Adrienne sings, writes scripts, and gradually grew into the role of marketing guru.
“Something happens when a puppet is on a roll and he starts saying things before you’ve even had time to think of them,” Clyde says. He introduces me to Big Malcolm B. McFee, a rod puppet about six inches tall wearing a kilt and wielding a sword. “Don’t make me lift up this kilt!” McFee warns, as he dresses ‘regimental’… meaning no puppet underwear.
“Some say all my puppets have the same personality,” Clyde admits. “They’re sassy, naughty, smart alecs that like to tease people, or goof on them as I call it.”
Clyde grabs what resembles a wooden handbag. Once opened, it transforms into a painted stage and background for Monkey Man, a wood-carved rod puppet.
According to Clyde, puppetry has always been the art of the people; the puppets traveled with them, as impromptu entertainment, and they seemed to have a life of their own.
Clyde’s puppets are expressive and detailed; some have multiple jointed limbs that can imitate human movements, some have hands that can grab things, but according to Clyde that’s just icing on the cake. “A good puppeteer doesn’t need a fancy puppet,” he explains, “a piece of cloth and a candle and you’re in business.”
Life Partners in Puppetry
When Adrienne first met Clyde, he had an engineering degree from Western Carolina University and was making dulcimers and crafts. “He had both a background in science and the resourcefulness and common sense that comes from growing up in poverty in Appalachia,” Adrienne says, “so making things came naturally to him. He was also the most creative and playful person I’d ever met, or have met since.”
The puppetry began when someone gave Clyde a book of patterns for making carved, wooden circus marionettes. He started creating them one by one, with no purpose in mind. Soon they had a whole roomful, so the couple decided to collaborate with friends and create a puppet show. “Clyde took the lead,” Adrienne recalls. “He had no fear of doing new things and seemed to have an innate ability to figure out what was necessary to make something work.” Clyde plunged in headfirst working on a script and scenery.
Adrienne says she was a shy young woman, but Clyde’s approach to learning gave her confidence. “Clyde taught me that learning was a process that needed persistence and dedication,” Adrienne says, “but it could be done by anyone with a little pluck.”
Working with another couple, they created a puppet show. Along with another couple, they worked out the show. For their very first performance, they strung a sheet between the living room and kitchen, and invited friends to a potluck supper and puppet show. The script was a simple story outline. They improvised all of the dialogue.
Six months later, another couple hired them to work with them on a show in Georgia. Lacking both a telephone and promotional materials, their puppet theater began humbly as occasional events. The seed was planted, however, and Clyde began fashioning a performance they could do themselves.
“We decided that we couldn’t do marionettes if we were going to make enough money to live on,” Adrienne explains, “so Clyde built the stage and puppets for a rod puppet show where each of us could work more than one puppet at a time.”
Local musician Billy Edd Wheeler, who lived in Montreat, North Carolina, and wrote songs for Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers, inspired their first show, “The Coming of the Roads.” They continued their successful formula of using a loose script and improvising the lines, and Adrienne sang the song during the performance. The Appalachian Puppet Theatre was born.
Fateful Meeting: Hobey Ford
Hobey Ford was a young man, single, headed to San Francisco from Connecticut for college. He had read the book, Rolling Thunder, by American journalist Doug Boyd, about a medicine man named Rolling Thunder who had founded a nonprofit community. “I thought I’d stop and look around,” Hobey says, of the 262 acres in Nevada established in 1975 by Rolling Thunder and his wife, Spotted Fawn.
Clyde knew a Cherokee woman who was spending some time at Rolling Thunder’s community. He and Adrienne were there to visit her.
“Rolling Thunder was a mixed bag,” Hobey recalls. “He was a rough character who grew up in the migrant work camps. He was a crusty fellow.” Yet the Native American community held him in high regard, as did some of the rising stars at the time such as Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead. “The Grateful Dead owned the land that the community was on,” Hobey says, “and Rolling Thunder was their Medicine Man.”
“I showed up at a camp Hobey was living in,” Clyde recalls. “It was sort of a commune with some Native Americans, some hippies, and some back-to-the-landers.”
Clyde had brought along a shaving kit with small puppets and shadow puppets inside. “I would take out a puppet and before you knew it everybody in the camp knew him,” Clyde says.
As far as his meeting with Hobey, it was simple. “I pulled out a bag of puppets and started a lifelong relationship,” Clyde says.
“He was my first big influence,” Hobey says. “When I met him, Clyde was already very accomplished in rod puppetry.”
The two men bonded and Hobey made a life-defining decision to follow Clyde back to North Carolina to study puppetry with him.
“I learned as much from Hobey as he did from me,” Clyde says.
“Clyde is very humble,” Hobey says “He’s very resourceful and inventive. He’s a Renaissance guy. He knows about engineering, ancient stone tools, and native plants. He’s also one of the most creatively tapped-in people I know.”
A Life with Strings Attached
“I was 18 and Clyde was about 34.” Hobey recalls, “He said, ‘You’ve got to make a living somehow so that you can do puppetry.’”
An entrepreneur at heart, Clyde’s strategy was to live cheaply while he built his business. He had rented a cabin he nicknamed ‘Squalor Holler’ for $25 a month. Hobey recalls the carpet-covered holes in the floorboards, an outhouse, and a wood stove. He followed suit and got a similar place just a couple of miles away.
To make money, they handcrafted rocking horses and stick horses, and whittled nautical carvings to sell at shops and fairs.
Eventually the puppetry outstripped the crafts, and Clyde realized he could do just as well performing with the puppets. But it would take some marketing skill to get the word out.
“I grew into my part in this business,” Adrienne admits. “I kept asking questions of other successful performers, most notably musician, storyteller, and entertainer David Holt, who was very generous about giving information about how to market a show.”
Adrienne created study guide materials for schools and wrote press releases and grant applications. She learned to book several shows in one area to cut back on travel expenses. She called prospective clients, attended conferences, and mailed out brochures. She also wrote scripts, sang, and even danced in the show. Their performances were authentic and educational. To be certain her clogging scarecrow puppet was spot on, Adrienne learned to clog from Phil Jamison of the Green Grass Cloggers.
“We would run a show for two to three years,” Clyde says. Some were based on Appalachian tall tales or fairy tales, like Hansel and Gretel. The couple would travel the country with their act, performing at schools, libraries, and festivals.
As a one-man traveling puppeteer for almost 40 years now, Hobey Ford acknowledges that inventiveness is a prerequisite in his line of work. “Clyde’s shows were ingenious and inexpensive, with clever staging that breaks down to nothing.”
“Early on…we had visions of traveling all over the world doing puppetry,” Adrienne says. “It was very exciting, and Clyde was in the lead in everything. I learned a lot about how to be in the world from working with Clyde.”
A Surprising Favorite
You’d think their very best show might have been performing at the White House for Amy Carter. “That was a pretty stiff show,” Clyde quips, “not a lot of laughter.”
His favorite show may surprise you. “We were in a pretty scary town with a lot of drunks fighting. The lady who rented us a hotel room told us to stay in the room for our own safety, so we did,” Clyde says.
As he looked out the window over the snowy streets, he spotted some kids playing in the building across the way. Ever the prankster, Clyde hid behind the wall, but let his puppets play on the windowsill. It wasn’t long before the kids noticed them and started yelling and laughing. “They ended up coming down to the street and standing below the window looking up at the puppets, with drunks just pushing through them, not even paying attention to them,” Clyde recalls. To maintain the magic, Clyde never revealed himself to the kids.
“It was the most exciting show ever because it was completely unexpected, and there was no admission fee,” Clyde says. “I wonder where those kids are now and if they ever think about what happened that night.”
Priorities and Puppets
In 1979 they not only performed at The White House for Amy Carter, but they finally got a telephone. The business began to take off. There was just one little glitch.
“In 1980 our son Reuben was born,” Adrienne says, “and being on the road was suddenly much more difficult.”
The couple could no longer return from a show and collapse in their hotel room; they had a young child to entertain and care for. Adrienne realized it was time for a change.
Near the end of their 22nd year of performing, Adrienne began taking classes at UNC-Asheville to earn a degree in English and education. Between performances she wrote papers and read Shakespeare. Fortunately, by that time they were represented by a talent agent in Chapel Hill. Nelda Davies helped manage their careers and book shows.
Adrienne now teaches at Owen High School. Despite the many sacrifices, like having to perform through illnesses, and missing important events like weddings and funerals due to show schedules, Adrienne still cherishes those times on the road. “We were able to see the remarkable effect that puppetry has on the lives of children,” Adrienne says. “They would talk or react to puppets in a way they never would with people.”
Reclaiming Mountain Heritage
“Clyde makes the most ingenious fun little things just for the sake of whimsy,” Hobey says. He remembers Clyde built a chicken feeder where the chickens could step on a lever and corn would come out, along with a chicken horoscope with advice such as ‘Don’t cross the road.’
But Clyde’s current passion is the fly pig.
“They’re an old Appalachian novelty,” Clyde explains. “They’re pre-electric and pre-windup toys. The novelty was the toy moved on its own. It was magic.”
A fly pig is made from a pecan, which is hollowed out, and then carved and painted to resemble a cute piglet complete with matchstick legs and whittled wood for ears and tail. Back in the day, the fly pigs were set on a fireplace mantle where they would miraculously wiggle their ears and tails.
The secret to how the pigs move is, well… flies. The nose is a tiny plug of wood that can be pulled out to reveal the inner hollow.
“Put three or four flies in there and it’ll really get going,” Hobey says. Ladybugs work well, too. Once the fun is over, just let the bugs go.
Fly pigs were likely whittled while sitting by the fire around Christmas time when pecans were plentiful. Clyde’s fly pig website has instructions for making one using simple tools. The website assures that no flies were harmed, and encourages a catch and release philosophy. It also pictures a group of fly pigs getting into an old timey car with “PIGS RULE” painted on its side.
“These aspects of Appalachian history are just as important as the stories,” Clyde says. “I want to preserve them.” He continues to gather information on the fly pig’s history, though their origin remains unknown.
Not only does Clyde still craft fine musical instruments, he also restores vintage wine stoppers that are moveable wooden puppets. He is also restoring some famous 1930s marionettes that Hobey inherited.
“Clyde never really stopped doing puppetry,” Hobey says. “He’s just not on the school circuit anymore.”
These days you can find Clyde at the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering O’ Scottish Clans, which takes place near Linville, North Carolina, in July. It’s a perfect fit for Clyde and his entourage of Scottish inspired puppets; if you’re there and you’re lucky, one might just goof on you.
Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering O’ Scottish Clans
Fly Pigs of the Universe
Purchase Clyde’s fly pigs and puppet wine stoppers at The Merry Wine Market in Black Mountain.
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