New Book Brings Historic Marionettes Tales to Life


Could the curtains again rise on Saline’s most famous show?

Jim Cameron hopes so.

Cameron is the co-author of Tales Come Alive, The Meridith Bixby Marionettes: An Oral History.

For 50 years, from 1932-1982, the Bixby Marionette shows delighted schoolchildren in Saline and throughout the Midwest.

Meredith Bixby, a Saline native and son of the town’s dentist, was the father of the production. He meticulously carved the three-foot-tall puppets. He designed the wires and strings that controlled the figures. He crafted the scripts based on Russian folk tales. He created the scenes and backdrops. His wife, Thyra, made the costumes. Meredith even operated the puppets for a time before turning over the duties to students or recent graduates - who took the show on the road and played at schools across the Midwest.

Bixby did all this from his office on South Ann Arbor Street, atop what is now Carrigan Cafe. Bixby’s space also had a stage where he previewed his productions every year.

Cameron and his wife detail the story of Bixby and his Marionettes in the book - many years in the making.

Growing up, while he was playing sports and horsing around Chelsea, Cameron didn’t know of the Marionettes. But his sister saw a production or two.  Cameron never saw them until after Bixby’s death. He visited the museum dedicated to the Marionettes in what was then the home to the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce in downtown Saline. During the Great Recession, the museum closed, and the Marionettes were stored in the basement of Saline City Hall. For the most part, that’s where they’ve been ever since.

According to Cameron, other museums and schools have offered to host some of the Marionettes, but Bixby’s son Mike wanted them displayed in Saline.

The Bixby Family Trust has an agreement with the city to maintain and promote the collection, which features over 100 puppets and 200 props.

In recent years, there has been some renewed interest in cataloging and promoting the Bixby Marionettes. Cameron's book is part of the effort to raise awareness about the history of the shows and raise funds for a new museum for the collection.

Cameron is a retired Saline Area Schools history teacher. He’s also an active member of the Michigan Oral History Association.

“As time went on and the questions about the Marionettes came up, it became clear that we needed to tell these stories before all the people involved passed,” Cameron said.

Cameron knows history worth preserving when he sees it.

“The city spends money on the Depot Museum and the Rentschler Farm Museum, and I’m all for that. But the Bixby Marionettes are a cultural phenomenon that was born in Saline and that is uniquely tied to Saline. A Bixby Marionettes museum belongs in Saline,” Cameron said.

The book allows some of the people closest to the Marionettes to tell the story of Meredith Bixby, his wife Thyra, their company, the puppeteers and shows.

Among those who contribute to the book are the Bixbys' son and daughter, Mike Bixby and Norah Bixby. Several of Bixby’s employees, including puppeteers Don Watkins, Brian Steimel and Fred Thompson, and local residents with connections to the Bixbys, spoke about the Bixbys, their shows and more.

“Nobody had a bad thing to say about Meredith,” Cameron said of the man behind the Marionettes.

That doesn’t mean he was easy to work for.

Meredith would spend all year arranging the shows, creating the puppets, painting scenery, and training the puppeteers. And then after debuting the show in Saline, he’d send the show off to tour the schools around the Midwest.

“He was a taskmaster. He’d sneak out to a show in Ohio and make sure they were doing what they were supposed to do,” Cameron said.

Where did Bixby’s Marionettes come from? Bixby attended an art school in New York. While working at a library, he appreciated Russian folk tales. Then, he found a book on how to make and manipulate marionettes. He started putting on puppet shows based on those folk tales for his mother’s Ladies Club. They enjoyed the shows, and a career was born.

For many children, the three-foot Marionettes were larger than life when the lights went down and the sound came on.

It’s an element that may be missing from the life of today’s child, Cameron said.

He recalled putting on an adlib puppet show for his granddaughter, using two dolls in a story about a missing necklace. By the end of the play, the granddaughter was completely engaged, yelling, “The dog has the necklace, it’s right behind you.”

“Plays remind us that kids still have an imagination. They can fill in the blanks. They don’t need everything imagined for them like in a video game,” Cameron said.

Some of Bixby’s early productions were perhaps too real.

One scene pictured a puppet’s head on a platter. When the show was finished, there were several puddles on the floor - left by scared kids who’d wet themselves. Bixby toned down the show for his audience.

While putting together the book, Cameron met with puppeteer Brian Steimel at Saline City Hall. Steimel excitedly asked if he could see one of the puppets in the city’s basement. He hadn’t worked with a Marionette since 1981.

“It was like riding a bike,” Cameron said.

Recently, Cameron and other local residents visited Pleasant Ridge Elementary School to sell copies of the book. They brought along a Marionette. Local resident Erik Grossman, who has learned to control the puppets, operated the Marionette for kids.

“The kids were curious. When Erik started operating the puppet, a big smile crossed one child’s face,” Cameron said.

Copies of the book cost $20 - and proceeds are expected to help pay for a new Bixby Marionettes museum. But these are puppets - more than 100 puppets that have entertained 10s of thousands of kids over the years. And puppets aren’t meant to sit lifelessly behind glass.

“Well, that’s the grand idea,” Cameron said with a smile. “Wouldn’t it be nice if the museum has a stage area where performances happen?”

Copies of the book are available for purchase at Saline Community Education.

One can also order by contacting Cameron at

Learn more about the Bixby Marionettes here:

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