Leila's Hair Museum and Puppetry Institute in Independence Missouri
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Leila's Hair MuseumWith perfectly manicured nails and a pale blond perm, tiny Leila Cohoon (Lee-eye-la) greets visitors to the world's only 'hair museum,' which displays her massive collection of hair wreaths and jewelry that began nearly decades ago.
Hair wreaths decorate lobby walls at Leila's Hair Museum from floor to ceiling. A Friendship Wreath features hair from 86 people, while another wreath is displayed with fabric from a wedding dress, flowers from the fabric flower bridal bouquet, and locks of the bride and groom's hair. Each wreath and accompaniments rest inside ornate frames with deep shadow boxes.
Cohoon began dressing hair in 1949 and later began collecting hair 'art.' Her collection now includes more than 600 wreaths and 2,000+ jewelry pieces. It has appeared inside dozens of publications, from People and Ripley's Believe It or Not, to GRIT and Roadside America. But visitors may not photograph Cohoon's collection, beyond the lobby.
Cohoon has also become a student and teacher of antique hair art skills, isolating 35 techniques used in their creation and replicating many of them. She even teaches classes 2-3 times per year. Cohoon also repairs and restores hair art for individual clients.
Two walls located in the first museum room display a jaw-dropping array of 'celebrity' hair locks, from Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, to Elvis and Michael Jackson after the Pepsi commercial fire. A hair wreath that she purchased from Phyllis Diller hangs nearby. Wreaths from non-celebrities tell poignant stories, such as one that includes a teacher's photo surrounded with a wreath made from locks of her students' hair, or a wreath crafted in honor of the first white child born in Wisconsin. As her collection has grown, Cohoon has also become an unconventional historian. She'll tell you that families placed small braids of their loved ones' hair in the front of family Bibles, during the 1700s and 1800s; people embroidered with hair during the 1800s; and the price of hair was higher than the price of gold or silver, in 1900.
Cohoon says most hair wreaths are horseshoe-shaped with the opening at the top. "They're open-ended for good luck or [representing] ascension to Heaven," she says. And, after growing up on a farm, she easily recognizes when horse hair was used to craft a wreath or hat. Some of her wreaths combine hair and feathers while several brightly colored pieces are made with wool while duplicating hair-wreath techniques. Cohoon has collected hair wreath tool kits that resemble miniature purses, and an ornately painted table designed specifically for hair craft projects. Hair art tools include knitting, darning and/or sewing needles, pieces of wire, and pieces of hair.
Large display cases hold hundreds of hair-based jewelry pieces, from funeral rings and buttons to long hair necklaces decorated with ornate brooches. Crafted in 1680, Cohoon's oldest brooch came from Sweden and encases hair inside glass. Hair decorates additional brooches like the one that Cohoon wears on her lapel. She is most delighted when she makes personal connections with museum visitors. "Three people have recently walked in and said, 'That's my family,'" Cohoon says.
The Puppetry Arts InstituteChildren squirm with excitement from the carpeted floor, as lights dim and the story of Pinocchio unfolds before them. During the next half hour a puppeteer makes Pinocchio dance, and a fairy godmother fly. Hand puppets spring to life, and elaborate masks transform the puppeteer into a worried Geppetto or a wizened beggar woman. After the applause ends, children race forward to have their photos taken with individual marionettes.
Behind the doors of a nondescript slot in a small strip mall, lies a world of live theater and creativity known as the Puppetry Arts Institute, which honors the legacy of a truly extraordinary puppet maker. After starting operations in her father's home, Hazelle Rollins's Kansas City puppet-making factory became the nation's largest in the 1930s.
Rollins had received a BA in Art from the University of Kansas and also attended the Kansas City Art Institute. While working as a switchboard operator at Kansas City, Mo.'s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, she taught Saturday marionette classes. After taking a summer marionette workshop in New York, she began her business.
Rollins initially created everything for her puppets from scratch. She even patented several features, from the 'airplane control' arm that held the strings, to a moving mouth with spring action, and shoes that were attached with screws so they didn't rotate. Rollins also created hand puppets, which she used when working with hospital-bound children.
Today, a collection of her puppets fills an entire room at the Institute. Longtime employee, Diane Houk, believes Rollins's puppets were so popular because children could see themselves in the figures, rather than characters with less-than-realistic features. Many other puppet-makers have since committed themselves to making well-crafted marionettes, such as Robert LeRoy Smith's stunning likeness of Harry S. Truman, which greets visitors to Saturday puppet shows.
In another room, dozens of international marionettes wear Indian saris, Japanese kimonos and Tibetan grass skirts as they hang on walls surrounding paint-splattered tablecloths and premade puppet heads. This is the workshop where children under age 12 make hand puppets ($5-6), and older children create their own clown marionettes ($25), with a choice of clothing and face paint. Once they finish, children create puppet shows in their own stage room.
But the centerpiece of the Institute lies just inside the front door -- the main room where professional puppeteers from across the globe offer half hour puppet shows to the public for only $5. Houk chooses a theme for the Institute, each year, and then builds a display around that theme. Most items are on loan from throughout the United States and across the globe.
Currently, a Russian Pinocchio speaks when its stomach is pressed, and Russian postcards with Pinocchio images hang beside a Polish Pinocchio doll. Dozens of books, paintings, postcards and marionettes provide an international look at the universality of Pinocchio's story.
"It's been 131 years since the Pinocchio story was written," Houk says. "It was a serialized magazine story and then a book followed. This really was a coming of age story."
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Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer and photographer, who has crafted thousands of stories and reviews for national, regional, and local print and online publications. Widely published in Greater Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri, she specializes in travel and food topics, and also writes human interest, health, and business stories. She was previously an editor for Kansas City Homes & Gardens and The Sun. The Countryman Press/W.W. Norton released Lisa's first national book, An Explorer's Guide: Kansas, in June 2011.