Virginia Upson Houghtaling
Virginia Upson was born on September 16, 1908 in Billings Montana; the second child after sister Mary Belle, born in 1904. Naomi came along in 1911 and Robert in 1916.
Her mother, Gertrude, and father, John Upson met in the Savings and Loan company owned by John’s Uncle Joe. Gertrude had attended business college and took shorthand and typing. John saw active duty in the Spanish-American war, and after returning home attending the U of M, receiving a law degree in 1902.
They were married shortly afterwards in Minneapolis.
Mary Belle was born in 1904 and in 1907 they moved to Billings Montana, where John planned to start a law practice. They bought ten acres outside of town and John built a barn.
The family lived for a short while in a tent, and then Gertrude “got a bug in her ear” and refused to spend one more night there. So, the family moved into the barn, with a big door, where they lived for several year. John had planned on building a house, but ended up building another barn for the livestock, which consisted of one horse and a couple chickens for eggs.
In 1908 Virginia was born in the barn, attended by a doctor who made both house and barn calls. That year the people of Billings saw the first motorcar operated in town. It was started, went a short distance, stopped, was started, then stopped and soon no one was impressed.

Mary Belle’s friend came over on her horse to play with the girls. John went to his office every day on the family horse.

In 1911 Naomi was born and the family moved into town where they rented a few rooms in a house. There was a long wooden sidewalk that went past an orchard to the outhouse, which was shared with another family. Once Naomi took a bite of the fruit on the way to the outhouse.

As a young child Virginia never saw any puppets, but she remembers her doll with moving eyes that she had lots of fun playing with. She poked out the eyes and cut off the hair with her father’s razor, which she called “Daddy’s cutty thing.”

Gertrude and the three girls came back to Minneapolis in 1912. John put the family on the train and then stayed in Billings to try to build up his law practice.

Gertrude parents met them at the train station, and they all came home on a streetcar. Grandpa looked handsome in his fur hat. The girls got motion sickness on the streetcar. The conductor stopped and waited while the girls got off and vomited, and then got back on. Unfortunately one of the girls got sick again and couldn’t wait long enough to get off, and the conductor felt the fallout. The family quickly sneaked off at their stop, while someone brushed off the conductor.

They stayed at the grandparents’ home for a while. Times were tough, and John came back to Minneapolis to try and get his law practice going here.

In 1914 the family purchased and moved into a wonderful house on Lombard Avenue, with a vacant lot next door.

Robert was born in 1916 and the girls now had a little brother who they just adored.

In 1918 John left the law firm and joined the army, which took him to France for two years during the First World War. He was put in the Cavalry Remount Service, since he had experience with horses. He and another man took large groups of horses up to the front lines, and then took back the tired ones. One time a captain approached in a car and wanted the horses off the road. John, who was just a lieutenant, but knew the law from his years as a lawyer, insisted that the horses had the right of way. The captain ended up falling in the mud and court-marshalled John, who later plead his case, won, and was back as a lieutenant.

Back home Gertrude couldn’t keep up the payments on the house and let it go back to the bank. The family moved around to several apartments, and then back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.
John came home and got another law job.

In the summer of 1924, Virginia was a member of the YWCA Girl Reserves, and went to Lake Okoboji in Iowa. There she saw Margaret Skewis, a swimming instructor, who later married Rufus Rose, the famous puppeteer. (Later she would be called Margo.) Margaret performed a marionette show that totally fascinated Virginia and got her started in puppetry.

Back home she was determined to make and operate a marionette herself. When she described what she wanted to make, no one in the house understood. Her grandmother had seen a marionette show years before called “Babes in the Woods,” and said, “Oh you mean poppets.”

Virginia went to her grandmother’s woodpile, cut off pieces with a butcher knife, cut off the tip of her finger and she still has a scar. She used a knitting needle, heated red hot on the stove, to burn holes for joints. The first marionette she made was a man about six inches high. She made a fabric stuffed head, used some of her own hair for the beard, and sewed wood pieces together for the body. The control bar was made of sticks and strung with heavy thread. She couldn’t make him walk, and spent all day just to make his knees bend and his feet go ahead.

Virginia continued making marionettes, the later ones 18” high. She pasted together strips of paper over a clay base to form the head, and the bodies were stuffed. She never had modeled before, so the first head had a square nose, but she didn’t care and kept on going.
Soon she was modeling heads in clay, making molds of plaster of Paris, pasting in strips of paper glued together to make the head. She painted the heads with showcard paint.
She carved arms and legs from Balsa wood, and stuffed and jointed the bodies.

She performed her first show for the Journalism class at North High School. Everyone thought it was great, so she gave a show for the Drama Club, using her Gypsy, and Pierrette. Her first play was Red Riding Hood and she changed her voice for the different characters. The wolf was made from the fur collar of Virginia’s winter coat.

She also made three characters that looked like faculty members at the school.

The family moved to an apartment house on Oak Grove near Loring Park.

Virginia came down with Rheumatic Fever from infected tonsils, later removed. It affected her heart and she spent a year recovering. But she graduated from North High School in 1926, walking with a cane.
That Fall Virginia saw an ad in the paper for a puppet-making class, sponsored by the Park Board, and a man named Cedric Lindholm would be in charge. The first evening Virginia was one of only three people--all women--who showed up. The class of four went ahead and built and operated several marionettes under Cedric’s direction. Virginia thought Cedric was a wonderful man. They performed a show “Why the Chimes Rang” a couple times at Christmas.

When the class was over, Virginia remained friends with Cedric and his wife Ann, who wished that someday they would have a daughter just like her.

Heart problems caused Virginia to need a lot of bed rest, and she needed to build up her strength. She would perform a show--then rest; build some puppets--then rest; and this is how she really got into the business.

In 1928 the family moved into a house on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, and her brother and sister, Robert and Naomi, are still there. Robert remained single and always lived in the house and Naomi moved back there after her husband died.

Mary Belle and Naomi worked in offices after high school, but with her sisters’ insistence Virginia continued with her puppet business.

Friends gave her patches of fabric to use in costuming her puppets, but later she shopped at remnant sales, where she bought silk and satin fabric for her marionettes.

An average character had nine strings, but a dancer had eleven, including strings on the toes. Strings for the animals were attached on the ears or the tail, depending on what she wanted them to do.
Virginia made a Harlequin who played a mandolin, and had a record playing behind the scenes.
There was Muriel, a green-faced blonde who was a dancer; Professor Rogansky, a red-haired piano player; Santa, jugglers, a clog dancer, a pole balancer, a tightrope walker, jack-in-the-box, clowns, Mr. Toad, characters for Paul Bunyan, The Three Wishes, King of the Golden River, The Magic Fishbone, and Sleeping Beauty, among many others. Virginia even carved a bridal party of marionettes for a bridal salon in Thomas’s Department store in 1940. She made ten character brides, starting with 1840, plus one for every ten years, up to the modern bride of that year. She even made characters for a mock wedding, which she performed. Greg Samanisky later bought the marionettes.

She was now carving heads for the hundreds of characters she made over the years. She performed on a regular stage that she constructed, and it was equipped with curtains and scenery, with Virginia hidden behind it.

Several shows were performed at Christmastime in Powers Department Store in the appliance department. The customers scratched the appliances while watching the shows, so in the following years she was put in the window to perform.

Virginia remembers performing five shows a day, seven days a week, at the Emporium during Christmas for $250. She felt rich but exhausted, and ate apples between the shows for nourishment.

She worked for the Minnesota Public Health Association, which sponsored the Christmas Seal Program.
As the years went by, the name “Virginia Upson” was known around town.

She gave shows at every school in St. Paul, County Fairs, out of town shows, and 54 shows one fall at the Minnesota State Fair. Her sister Naomi drove her and all her equipment around town, and she performed at churches and clubs also.

In 1934 her brother Robert graduated from high school, later went to college, joined the Coast Guard, which took him to the Arctic for a couple years.

Virginia continued with her puppet shows. The first national P of A Festival was in Detroit Michigan, and Virginia subscribed to the organization newsletter, but didn’t attend any festivals, as she was busy at home.

In 1936 she wrote monthly articles on puppetry for the newspaper, the Minneapolis Journal. The subjects were 1-Puppetmaking for Children; 2- Puppet Shows made and performed for troops overseas; 3-African puppet shows with billows and witch doctors; 4-The life of Papa Schmid, who started in 1858 with a set of marionettes and a small stage; 5-an article about Tony Sarg, as she had once seen his show.

In 1939 our Twin Cities Puppeteers Guild was started. (The original name was Twin City Puppeteers.) Bob Longfield worked at the Minneapolis Public Library at the switchboard. Often he would connect several puppeteers together to talk together all at once (a conference call.) There was an attempt to start a club through the Park Board, but that flopped. So Bob Longfield and Lem Williams, who were so anxious to start the club, held a meeting at Lem’s home. All their friends were notified and came. Virginia and Naomi were among them.

Virginia got a job at Dayton’s in 1941. She worked in window displays and also was a proof reader. She gradually stopped performing by the mid-forties.

She was talking to her boss one day when Hal Houghtaling came in. She wasn’t too impressed with him, but he pursued her every chance he got. The girls in the office said, “He’s not bad! Why don’t you go for him! Do you want to be an old maid?”

Virginia thought maybe she would like to be an old maid but thought about it some more and finally gave in. They were married in 1945.

In 1947 her son Bob was born. She said this was the greatest accomplishment in her life. She took Bob for his first month’s exam, and then to her parents’ house for a visit. Hal didn’t take them back to their own house, because the door had been left open and the cold weather caused the plaster to fall off the walls. She stayed at her parents’ home. Hal went to the Dakotas to get settled, and then he would call for Virginia and Bob to join him. He must never have gotten settled, because he never called.

The marriage was not a happy one, and now they were separated. They were later divorced.

Virginia and Bob were now living with her parents. Her brother Robert was back from the service and working and living at home. Sister Mary Belle was out East, and Naomi was married, but living in town, and visited often.

Everyone just adored baby Bob, and babysat while Virginia worked.

John, before he died in 1950, taught his grandson many things. Once Robert pointed to the Northern Lights in the sky. Little Bob said, “That’s the Roly Boly Aris”, as his Grandpa had told him.

In 1951 Virginia left Daytons. She worked as a secretary at the Teachers’ Retirement Home, where Ann Lindholm now lives. She also continued as a member of the Twin City Puppeteers, and was a very good friend of Mary and Lem Williams, and Bill and Lucille Sholes.

Her son Bob called his Grandma “Ma”, Virginia “Gin”, and with all the relatives it became confusing. Virginia explained who everyone was, and Bob said “Everyone is mixed up like scrambled eggs.”

Bob didn’t play with any puppet toys, but occasionally Virginia got her marionettes out for him to see.

By 1958 Virginia decided to buy her own home, where she and Bob could live. It was on Newton Avenue South in Minneapolis. Bill Sholes, a lawyer, helped her find the place, and Lucille Sholes held the contract-for-deed. Virginia made a $1000 down payment with money she saved.

Bob graduated from high school, attended college, met and married Patty, and they had two daughters, Angie and Alissa.

Virginia retired at age 62. By the mid-seventies she had sold or given away most of her marionettes. A few of us lucky TCP members have one. She kept her favorites such as Mr. Toad, the Jack-in-the-Box, the Juggler and an assortment of others. They came out of storage from time to time to perform for her two granddaughters.

She attended our 1979 Regional Festival, and helped the Samaniskys in the store with the books.
In 1987 Virginia took her marionettes out of storage and found herself performing again. She took her variety show to nursing homes, retirement and child care centers, churches and a children’s museum, free of charge.

She drove around in her old white station wagon and didn’t take the freeways or go very far from home.
Often she would invite groups of people to come to her house, as a group of our TCP members did in December of 1989. On a Saturday afternoon, a small group of us gathered in her living room. She got out her Paul Bunyan characters which she used in the 1940’s. We got to manipulate several puppets and watched her perform several skits from her variety show. She had her stage set up in the living room.

Virginia sold her house on Newton Avenue in 1994 after living there for 36 years. She moved to an apartment building on York Avenue in Edina.

That year she enjoyed our “Mini-National Festival” on the St. Paul Campus of the University. This was the first National Festival she ever attended.

The summer of 1996 she moved to a retirement home in Apple Valley. Virginia passed away in 1999.

She was a fascinating and fun person to know, and a real professional in her work. We are all lucky to have known her.

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