Two of the most interesting, accomplished, and talented people ever to appear on the Springfield arts scene were Romain and Ellen Proctor, who quite casually fell in love with the ancient art of puppeteering during the Great Depression and over time became influential and internationally known experts in the field.
Romain Proctor — or Proc, as he was known, even to his wife — was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1899. As a child, he took a fall while playing outdoors, and a terrible infection set in, causing him to be hospitalized on and off for two years. During his lonely convalescence (he was just 8 years old), his only playthings were some Japanese hand puppets that his parents had given him. He couldn’t possibly know then that the long and imaginative hours he spent with his wood, cloth, glue and papier-mâché friends would eventually develop into a talent that would put food on the table and send his children through college.
The young Proctor developed into such a promising illustrator that he was sent from Alabama to the Chicago School of Fine Arts and thence to the Art Institute of Chicago. There he studied both illustration and theater and, after earning his degree, came to Springfield, where he took a job as an illustrator with the Capitol Engraving Co. Here he did not only illustrations for his employer but freelance work as well — illustrations for books (he illustrated Benjamin Thomas’ book on Lincoln’s New Salem, as well as much other Lincolniana), watercolors, and woodblock prints (one of which hangs in the Vachel Lindsay home). He was also active in local theater as a makeup and scenery man and taught art classes at the Springfield Art Association at night.
In 1921 he married Ellen Sawyer, a member of a prominent Hillsboro family and one year his junior. Sawyer was a writer for the society page of the Illinois State Journal. Marriage spelled the end of her journalism career, for newly married women in those days left the workplace to start their families. While Proc was still teaching at Edwards Place, the Art Association decided to stage the Beaux Arts Ball, which became an annual event. Proc and Ellen were asked to perform a puppet show with a pair of Punch and Judy hand puppets that another instructor had brought from Germany. Not knowing anything about puppeteering but willing and eager to learn, they read everything they could on the subject (eventually their library on the subject was the country’s best) and went ahead with the production. Thus began their passion for the art form that would endure for the rest of their lives. As Proc told Liberty magazine in a 1945 interview, “Don’t start playing around with marionettes unless you’re willing to have the little devils crawl into your heart. They have an appeal that’s all their own. Once felt, it’s hard to deny.”
At first, puppeteering was merely a hobby for the Proctors, who lived at 1128 S. First St. But during the Great Depression, business at the engraving company slumped, and Proc and Ellen found a moneymaking niche by performing for church groups and local civic organizations for a percentage of the gate. They also performed at local schools and turned the proceeds over to the PTA to buy bread and oatmeal for the students, many of whom were drastically undernourished by today’s standards.
In the basement of the couple’s home, Proc had a workshop, in which he began turning out exquisitely beautiful characters for their productions — mostly classic folk tales (oftentimes adapted), such as “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” They produced everything they used in their shows and constantly worked and traveled around the Midwest, performing for kids and lecturing and holding workshops for adults at colleges and museums (among them the Field Museum in Chicago and the Detroit Institute of Arts). The pair traveled in an International truck pulling a trailer of Proc’s design and manufacture.
“I did our own booking, and I did our own bookkeeping,” Ellen said in a 1985 oral history with Milton Moore. “Proc had no sense about money.”
In 1954, the Proctors took an apartment in London and used it as their headquarters while they toured Europe. Proc revived the International Puppeteers Association (he founded the American branch) and sat on its executive board. He also designed the Puppeteering badge for the Girl Scouts of America and wrote the qualifications for its fulfillment. Proc and Ellen made the art form their lives, and they worked together until Proc’s death in Springfield on Jan. 6, 1961.
After Proc’s death, Ellen became a curator in the Theater Arts Department of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“I told the kids to take the puppets up to the attic,” she said in the 1985 interview. “I never wanted to see another puppet as long as I lived. So the puppets stayed up in the attic for a whole week. Then I brought them out one at a time.”