by Karen Backes
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|Jean was born in New Jersey in 1906. Although she never played with puppets as a child, she was interested in art.
While attending Antioch College in Ohio, she met Truman Jeffers, a Civil Engineer. Jean graduated with an art degree, married Truman (known to us as "Jeff"), and they moved to North Dakota, where he was employed at the GE Company. They finally settled in Minnesota, and lived for many years on Ottawa Avenue in West St. Paul. They had four sons; one died as a child, but three grew up in West St. Paul. They were Truman Jr., Bruce, and Dick, and are still living in the Twin Cities area with their families.
Jean worked for years as an interior decorator and had the chance to open a store. She decided against the store, continued her interior decorating, and persued a new hobby-puppetry. She studied puppetry for about four years, by reading library books and carving marionettes out of wood. It took her about a year to construct her first marionette, Yolanda.
In 1947, Jean became friends with Lem and Mary Williams, after seeing them perform puppet shows around town. She was facinated by their beautiful marionettes, and enjoyed their company. They told her about the Twin Cities Puppeteers Guild, and she joined. At this time, our guild was a group of performers and friends who often got together in the Williams' basement workshop.
|By 1952, Jean had made 20 marionettes, and was performing shows with the help of her son Bruce. He worked a few of the marionettes with Jean, took care of the lighting, changed records, and set up the 8' x 10' aluminum tube constructed stage that Jeff's friend built for Jean. Her son Dick, later helped her perform shows with the tape recorder. Most of the voices on tape were Jean's, but a few were Jeff's voices.
In June 1953, the P.of A. held their National Festival at the University of Minnesota. Jean was pictured in the newspaper with Mary Ellen Kruger and Bob Westerfeld, holding marionettes that she later manipulated at a workshop.
A Day of Puppetry in 1957, was held in Jean's backyard, and called "The Festival of Puppetry and Magic". It was put on by the TCP members performing magic and puppet shows. Jean performed a show and later after the event, the family had a big clean-up job.
|Around 1959, the TCP members discussed a group project that would be a first for the guild. They wanted a show in which a large group of members could operate all types of puppets, and "Ali Baba" was chosen. Jean painted almost all of the scenery, as she had experience working at the Fred Boldt Paint and Wallpaper Company. All ten performing members helped work on the show by refurbishing some of Jean's puppets and making others. Jean's drive and persistence was the main reason that the show ever was completed and performed. Rehearsals were done in Jean's livingroom, where her big stage was set up. Over half of the 26 puppets in the show, were Jean's.
In the summer of 1962, Jean and a new member, Paul Eide, took the Greyhound Bus to the P.of A. National Festival in Oxford, Ohio. They met Jim Henson for the first time.
During the 1960's, Jean worked full time as an interior decorator at the paint company, was TCP President for a second time, Regional Director for the Great Plains Region, and performed puppet shows, often with the assistance of Paul Eide. The shows were variety numbers on a nightclub stage, for banquets and church groups. Paul was the assistant by setting up the stage, running the sound, handing Jean marionettes, igniting the gunpowder that shot the clown out of the cannon, and occasionally operating a puppet.
In the late 1960's, Jean and Jeff went south for the winter, but Jean was still very active in our guild, and regularly gave rides to Sister Cabrini and Karen Backes. Jean was TCP President, again, in the early 1970's.
Ali Baba was performed for the last time, by our guild on May 28, 1971. The TCP Guild hosted our first Regional, a "Festival of Puppetry", at the Pick-Nicollet Hotel in Minneapolis. After the two o'clock performance, the show was dismantled, and members took their puppets home. Jean later sold her big stage. The Festival was very successful and drew puppeteers from around the country.
In 1974, Jean and Jeff sold their Ottawa Avenue home, and moved to Arkansas. In 1975, Jeff passed away, and Jean returned to live in the Heatherwood Apartments in West St. Paul. We remember the meetings in the party room, and Jean's enthusiasm about swimming in the apartment complex pool.
Jean attended many national festivals through the years, and helped the Samaniskys in the Puppetry Store, where she also sold several of her marionettes. She attended the TCP Mini-fest in June of 1979 at the St. Stephen's Church in Bloomington with one of her sons.
In 1987, Jean moved to the Wilder Residence, where she enjoyed playing bridge, and was a member of the St. Stephen's Lutheran Church in West St. Paul. She had nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren at the time.
Jean made about 200 marionettes through the years, and kept about 25 along with a portable stage. She started a scrapbook years ago, and encouraged members to each start one of their own on their puppetry career. We remember Jean performing for the guild with her many marionettes; including a breakaway skeleton, dragon, and undersea characters. A TCP Holiday party was held at the Wilder Center in January 1992, where once again we could visit with Jean, our longtime friend.
Several of our TCP Members attended Jean's funeral service in January 1995.