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More than 400 members of the Puppeteers of America will visit St. Paul this week for their biannual conference. The Minneapolis-based group will celebrate its 80th year with workshops and performances at Concordia University, culminating in a community festival, free puppet shows and a parade on Saturday.

So it’s an opportune time to tell the little-known story of Deborah Simmons Meader — a St. Paul woman who used puppets to get through the Great Depression. Traveling from state hospitals to prisons, parks, libraries, schools, churches and private homes, Meader championed the educational benefits of puppet shows.

She was one of more than 350 people working with puppets as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theater Project in the 1930s — a relief program that put nearly 13,000 people to work when unemployment soared after the stock market crashed.

She designed and sold puppets, received a patent for her breakthrough puppet theaters, taught teachers the craft and wrote dozens of puppet plays.

Her words from 80 years ago — long before Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Howdy Doody or the Muppets — ring true in today’s world of electronic gadgetry:

“Puppetry is … creative, not mechanical,” she said in 1937. “There is a need for stimulating creative effort in mechanized America. The appeal of puppetry to the imagination as well as its unique linking of the arts and handicraft with the drama is of great value.”

Deborah Simmons was born in Illinois in 1895, grew up in Iowa and earned a degree from Smith College in Massachusetts. She returned home in 1917 and married Great War veteran Amos Meader in 1919 before moving to St. Paul in 1927 with their 5-year-old daughter, Betsy.

The nation’s economy was about to crumble — and so was her family’s health. Amos had a leg amputated in 1927 and couldn’t work. Betsy was bedridden with scarlet fever and blinded in one eye in a 1931 accident.

Meader went to the St. Paul library to look for books about puppet making to entertain her daughter. “Imagine my surprise when I could find nothing published on the construction of hand puppets but a book in Italian which I had translated,” she said.

Puppets had been around since ancient days in Egypt, India, China, Japan and Greece. Meader was poised to help spark their revival.

“She became a crusader with and for her puppets,” her granddaughter, Elizabeth M. Colburn, wrote in a research paper preserved in the Minnesota History Center’s archives. “The time period in which she worked was one of the most unstable and demanding.”

To feed her family, Meader began putting on puppet plays for well-to-do Summit Avenue families. In 1929, she launched the Meader Puppet Shop at 1147 Lincoln Av..

Iowa’s Bureau of Dental Hygiene and the National Dairy Council were among her first big customers “to recognize [puppets’] adaptability to propaganda.” One character, “Mr. Tooth,” urged kids to brush their teeth. Another play featured a Crooked Man with weak bones because he couldn’t drink enough milk after the cow jumped over the moon.

For 12 years, Meader conducted puppet classes at Unity (Unitarian) Church in her St. Paul neighborhood, using her puppet shows to tell Bible stories.

Junior high school boys, she said, were her most enthusiastic students. “They especially enjoyed making the armor for Julius … from the tin foil that comes around Hershey Bars.”

Overweight, disabled or awkwardly shy children benefited from producing puppet plays — as did outgoing students.

“By protecting the children from the sight of the audience, it frees them from self consciousness,” she wrote. “Their attention and that of the audience is on the puppet. … It also puts the child seeking the spotlight in the shadow.”

Her patented, innovative puppet theaters, which sold for between $7.50 and $65, included semitransparent backdrops. So instead of performers uncomfortably twisting behind the theater’s stage, they could hold puppets directly in front of them while staying out of sight.

Under the 1935 WPA and its precursors, Meader began touring state hospitals, insisting “that puppetry had real value” connecting “handicraft activities” and “dramatic expression.”

With 2,000 women in a single day showing up at the St. Paul Auditorium looking for government work, Meader supervised seamstresses making clothes and toys for needy kids. Meader served as state supervisor of recreation in charge of puppetry for the WPA.

Among her most creative productions: a 1937 State Fair play called the “Creation of the World” — which retold Native American legends that the WPA hoped to preserve through puppet shows. Meader wrote the play with help from an Ojibwe tribal member, and the government hired indigenous people to hand-bead the puppets’ leather costumes.

Meader died in St. Paul in 1980 at 85.

In one of her last speeches in the late 1960s at the College Club in St. Paul, she said: “The production of a puppet show presents a succession of problems and it is a joy to see the excited determination and ingenuity in solving these problems.”

She said each member of the group, contributing something different while working for a common goal, is “one important lesson of life in a democracy.”

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com.

The Puppeteers are coming

What: Puppeteers of America conference features workshops and performances from more than 400 artists.

Where: St. Paul’s Concordia University

When: July 17-22

Highlight: A community celebration from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday with free puppet shows and a puppet parade.

More information: nationalpuppetryfest.org