Oklahoma's history has strings

Saturday, September 27th 2008, 6:48 pm
By: News 9

By Christian Price, News9.com INsite Team

CHANDLER, Okla. - - The teaching practices of Miss Fay Armstrong are still being put to use today, making Oklahoma history come to life through puppetry.

The Museum of Pioneer History in Chandler uses marionette puppets to educate children about Oklahoma's past. Joann McMillan is the museum's Artist in Resident. She puts on the one person marionette show for children.

"I have been a puppeteer since I was a small child. I have been a professional puppeteer since about 1976," McMillan said. "The Marionette Theater goes back to 1992 when Jeanie Hoffman Smith from Oklahoma City gave us a challenge, or actually gave Mrs. Ferrell and the folks here in Chandler a challenge, to find an exciting new way to teach Oklahoma history."

Once the challenge was made, local teacher Miss Fay Armstrong was the first person to come to mind.

"Miss Fay Armstrong taught first grade here in Chandler from 1911 until 1961. For over thirty years of that time, she used marionettes in her class room," McMillan said. "She built marionettes. She went to Columbia University to get a masters degree and learned all about marionettes through the W.P.A. program there and brought that back here."

Within the Museum of Pioneer History is the Children's Historical Resource Center, where the stage has been set up for puppet performances.  Some of Miss Fay's original marionettes are also on display.

"Her first play was ‘The Three Little Pigs', and the pigs and mama pig are all back there. She made the marionettes and wrote the scripts," McMillan said. "We have big scrolls of paper that are her scripts that she must have put up behind the stage."

Miss Fay also used her shows to teach proper etiquette.

"She made dozens and dozens of little props. Part of what she wanted to do was to teach manners," McMillan said. "She made food and table settings and would incorporate how you should properly eat into her birthday puppet show and her Thanksgiving puppet show."

Today, the marionettes are new but still handmade. The shows are interactive, and entertaining, and  they are based on Oklahoma history.

"These programs are all stories that are intended to help teach fourth graders, which is when they have it in school, Oklahoma history," McMillan said. "We have this show that's based on Bill Tilghman, which covers three of the land runs. Then we have another one that's called ‘The Last Land Run', the opening of Kickapoo territory, which is right down the road here in Wellston. That was the last land run, number five."

The theater is located in Chandler, right on the mother road, Route 66. Everyone is welcome to come to any of the shows. Many classes and schools reserve times to bring their students to the performances.

"They're open to anybody. All of them are free and open to the public," McMillan said. "It's advisable to make a reservation because, like today, we had 72 children. You'd be better off coming on a day that we have 45 because we have a lot more room."

In 1955, Miss Fay was Lincoln County's Teacher of the Year. Her memory and legacy still lives on through her passion: marionettes. McMillan also brings Miss Fay back to life when she portrays her in productions.

"She was a treasure to this town," McMillan said.