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Today’s guest post is by Christopher Dowie, who shares his ‘Nana’s’ recipe for paper mache paste. He also tells us a few stories from his family’s long-time love affair with puppet-making and marionettes.
Paper mache has been in Christopher’s family tradition for three generations. He tells us some of his family’s stories below the video.
My Nana’s Special Method for Making Paper Mache Paste
©2018 Christopher Dowie
Over my lifetime I’ve used paper mache for more projects then I care to mention. The only constant throughout this whole story is the paste. The recipe for the paste and what’s more important the technique with which it is made comes down to me from my grandma, Violet Dowie (a.k.a. Nana) who use to make paste for Pop, who was a paper hanger by trade.
So every night Nana would make a great big pail of paste and then leave it on the back of her big old oil stove to keep it warm. When pop left for work in the morning, he always had a nice warm bucket of paste to keep his hands warm on his way to work. “Real nice on a cold days”, he would say.
When I was very young I would paper mache for my dad, but he would always make the paste and never showed me how to do it. He just said I was too young. When I was around 10 years old my grandparents moved into a flat my dad had built behind his shop for them to live in so they would be close. One day I was doing some paper mache for Dad who was not at home at the time and I ran out of paste. I asked Nana to make me some and she was shocked I didn’t know how to make paste!
So she set to and showed me how to make it. I have tried to write out the recipe for her paste a few times over the years, but it’s not in the recipe it’s in the technique of how it’s made. You can really use any amount of flour. So the only way that I can teach you is to make a video and show you how it’s done. You can see the video above.
For a while now I’ve been wanting to share some of my knowledge with people because I find if you have knowledge and you don’t share it then you run the risk of having what life has taught you lost forever. So in the spirit of “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, Teach a man to fish and feed him for life.” I would like to share with you my knowledge of paper mache.
I started paper mache when I was just five or six years old, working for my dad who was a commercial artist at the time. I remember he was making a large Easter display for the lobby of the Vancouver Hotel. I recall there was 4 or 5 rabbits 4 to 5 feet tall dressed in waist coats and bonnets, a giant yellow duck who moved it’s beak and lots of very large flowers, bigger than your hand, along with 25 or 30 giant Easter eggs.
This must have been about 1964 or 1965 and he taught me how to paper mache and set me to covering balloons to make the giant eggs. As I recall it was some form of cruel torture and I made lots of mistakes.
Starting Early with Paper Mache
So I started in the craft of paper mache when I was very young and I learned all sorts of stuff along the way. It’s one of my modus operandi to always hone my techniques no matter what aspect of craft that I might be working in.
I’ve always been of a mind to experiment with new ideas and find out what is the best possible way of doing something and then sticking with that and then try to improve upon it. The path to success is through failure, so long as you learn from your mistakes then they are not failures. To learn nothing is the true failure.
My dad, Fran Dowie (a.k.a. Himself!), was an Entertainer and a Showman and produced variety shows of all manor and size for all sorts of different occasions. For instance he produced a show at Barkerville Historic Park in the interior of British Columbia for some 19 years in the summer months and he also produced variety shows for Dawson City in the Yukon.
During the winter months he would do convention shows and Boy Scout shows as well as mount shows of his own. He would turn his hand to just about any form of show business that came his way. One of the things my dad learned early was that puppet shows sold well at Christmas time.
Pop Discovered Marionettes in France in WWI
My grandfather Frank Dowie (a.k.a. Pop) was in the first World War and fought at Vimy Ridge. While overseas, when he was in France, he saw a rather amusing show performed by puppets and it intrigued him. He found out they were called French marionettes. After Pop got back from the war he married my grandma and my dad was born in 1920. Soon after dad was born they all moved to Vancouver B.C. from Regina Saskatchewan.
Pop became a paper hanger by trade because in those days you had to have a respectable job and being part of a theater troupe was not considered respectable. So pop would hang paper by day, but his heart was in performance and he would do what show jobs he could on the side.
Pop would sing songs and do the act he created in the trenches in WW1 when he was part of the famous spur of the moment theatrical troupe called “The Dumbells” that was formed amongst the ranks to entertain themselves.
Through the 1920s pop would perform a Vaudeville Act with a fella who was his partner for a while. One day when dad was 8 or 9 years old, so the story goes, Pop’s partner was too drunk to perform. So dad stepped in and took his place and “Frank and Francis” became an act and performed in Vaudeville all throughout the Lower Mainland of B.C.
How Marionettes Helped the Family During the Depression
When hard times hit in the 1930s and Vaudeville was in decline pop remembered the French marionettes that he had seen in Europe and proceeded to build a show for my dad to perform.
French marionettes works on the “black art” principal of puppetry, where you dress in black velvet from your neck down and you stand behind a stage that comes up just above your waist. Behind you is a black velvet curtain.
Around your neck you have hanging a small 12 inch tall puppet body with arms and legs operated by black rods and as your hands are wrapped in Black Velvet, the audience cant see how the puppets are being moved, it’s quite a splendid effect.
Then you would sing a song, make the puppet dance around and have some sort of gag to end the act. With this idea, Pop and Dad produced a whole variety show in miniature. Pop would play the piano and my Dad and his younger brother, Oliver Dowie (a.k.a Toller O’Shae) would sing and perform the puppets.
None of those puppets survive and I’ve never seen them, but dad told me they were made of paper mache. The little show turned out to be a real money maker during the depression. Not so much from doing the actual shows but from selling advertisements on the front curtain which was a tradition of the old vaudeville theatres.
The “front of house curtain” was referred to by a nickname, “the Oleomargarine”. In most big-time theaters the makers of Oleo Margarine always took the center spot on the front of house curtain what was covered with adds for local businesses and as people would take there seats before a show, they couldn’t help but read the advertisements. Thus the nickname resulted from that.
So Pop would make better than $200 a season just selling ads on the oleomargarine of his puppet theater. Good money for the 1930’s.
A Second Generation Gets Into Show Business
My dad remained in England after the second world war which he took part in. He was a Flight Sergeant with the Canadian Air Force entertainment troupe known as “The Black Outs” where he was a comedian and also, where he met my mom who was a singer in the same outfit.
After the war my parents stayed in England and performed at many of the Air Force bases throughout England and Europe with their shows. Their best show was called “Pistol Packin’ Rhythm” and was a musical cowboy spoof type of show.
Dad would play a very small guitar and mom would accompany with a washboard with cow bells and horns all over it. Part of the show was “Stainless Steel the wonder horse”, what was a pantomime horse made out of paper mache and worn by the base player and the fiddler and they had a crazy act to go with it.
The Dowie family came back to Canada in 1960. By then I was the youngest of four kids. I was born in 1958. Dad carried on with his Showbiz career and in 1962 he started performing in Barkerville Historic Park. A real original gold rush town from the great gold rush if 1862.
Dad became known as the “High Priest Of Nostalgia”. Dad’s Barkerville Show,”Nuggets Galore,” went on tour across Canada in 1966 and 1967 for the confederation centennial celebration paid for by the federal government. They wound up the tour in LaRonde, Quebec at Expo ’67.
My sister, Sally and I were billeted with a family in Richmond BC while our parents and other two siblings were on tour across Canada.
French Marionettes Arive
One day dad showed up out of the blue. He had with him a big black box about a foot deep, 2 feet wide and 6 feet long. He proceeded to unpack the Box and inside it was a set of French marionette puppets. In fact there was an entire show.
He emptied the box and turned it upside down and legs folded out and that became the stage. The box lid became the top of the stage connected by wing supports and pillars on each side of the stage and the proscenium arch what were all made with paper mache.
All the bits and curtains turned into a small theater and thus, we kids started performing Christmas shows. That was 1966. I still have that box with those puppets, some of which are made out of paper mache. In subsequent years the sets got bigger and became elaborate castles, all made with paper mache. The acts got more elaborate too and a lot of that was done with paper mache.
Dad’s Large Displays Made with Paper Mache
Dad would build large seasonal displays for a few of the larger hotels and they were almost exclusively made from paper mache.
I remember one time Dad was commissioned to make two 30 foot tall Snowmen for on top of the veranda at the front of the Vancouver Hotel. He built them out of paper mache and gambled on the fact that December would be cold and snow would be falling instead of rain.
But unfortunately 2 days after the snowmen went up, Vancouver had a major downpour and OH NO! There it was on the front page of the Vancouver Sun newspaper, headline- “Snowmen Melt! A Soggy Christmas!” with a half page photograph of the withering disaster.
The Day I Met Face-to-Face with a Giant
Dad was always building giant things out of paper mache. One of his standard rentals was a 12 foot tall Santa Claus made from paper mache and big hotels would rent it for their Lobby at Christmas time.
I remember once when I was about 3 years old, dad had a shop in Ladner B.C. and one day he locked his keys in the shop. His solution was to put me through a small window at the back of the shop and have me unlock the door.
Unfortunately for me at the back of the shop is where Dad stored the 12 foot tall Santa Claus. When I came through that window and was suddenly confronted with this giant man who looked so real I thought it was alive! I was afraid he would just reach out and grab me…… I froze solid.
It took some coaxing from my dad to get me to move and I moved real slow so I wouldn’t attract the giants attention. That terrified me for a long time. I thought Giants were real and no matter how much my dad told me it wasn’t, I didn’t believe him because I had seen it with my own eyes.
When eventually I realized that he had made it, the fear went away.
I Begin Making My Own Puppets.
Soon after I started performing puppet shows I started making puppets myself. When I left home for the first time when I was 18, I set out on my own and built my own show with puppets and sets all built from paper mache.