Chester Martin Remembers Fred Arnold, Chattanooga's Favorite Puppeteer

Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Fred Arnold and his puppets
Fred Arnold and his puppets

Fred Arnold was already headed for success by the time he was in the 6th grade at Anna B. Lacey school. That school celebrated May Day every year with a large outdoor event which involved performances by every grade in the school, and every student. All the classes would be distributed around the perimeter of a large playground on the west side of the school, with a new student "announcer" having been selected from among the sixth graders - and I distinctly remember how Fred Arnold fulfilled that role one year.

I can remember him to this day as he made his introductory announcements from far across the field. He stood straight and tall, wearing white summer clothes, making his announcements loud and clear. I was in second grade at the time.

Our school's field day had nothing to do with athletics or militarism, although it was during the bloodiest days of World War II. Each class was called upon to perform some kind of European folk dance, and Miss Joberta Robertson, our teacher, had selected two or three such dances for my room to perform. When all the individual rooms had done their dancing, the sixth graders were granted the privilege to "Dance (or Wind) the Maypole". These performers also danced to recorded European folk music being played by a major symphonic orchestra, gracefully winding long strips of colored crepe paper around a special pole which was set up for that purpose in the middle of the field. All our parents attended the event - and attention was focused on the young announcer whose superior grades and good character qualified him for that role.

Mrs. Ethel Stroud, long-time school principal, was a strong promoter of that event which lasted until the Soviet Union's appropriation of May Day for its massive armed forces celebrations. When that happened, "our" May Day festivities suddenly ended.

Being an impressionable young boy, my parents were constantly urging me to try to "be like" someone that they themselves admired - whether from church, school, or neighborhood. I therefore took note of Fred Arnold and followed his career in a loose way all through the years. I remember when he first made publicity as a puppeteer while at McCallie School. He was one of those people destined for success in whatever field he wanted to follow. But I lost track of Fred for a long time before he popped back into my sphere of interest, making regular appearances at Miss Fannie Mennen's Plum Nelly Clothesline Art Shows held every fall on Lookout Mountain above Trenton, Ga.

Miss Mennen was extremely good at utilizing the best talent in the region capable of adding color and interest to her shows, and Fred Arnold was her "top act" for many years. His "madcap" (her description) puppet shows helped attract untold numbers of people to that annual “pilgrimage”event. From here on we will let Fred tell his own story as he sees it. These are his own words…

“While doing the Plum Nelly shows I produced the Cadek Marionette Theatre, sponsored by the American Association of University Women at the Cadek Conservatory, from 1966 to 1969, when the University of Tennessee took over and it was no longer possible. We mounted three productions of RUMPELSTILTSKIN, THE LITTLE MERMAID, and THE NIGHTINGALE.

“In 1980 Flo Summitt, director of the Oak Street Playhouse, asked me to create a puppet theatre there. This theatre was housed in First-Centenary United Methodist Church (my own church). We opened in 1981 with a production of THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES and subsequently mounted six other productions – THE NIGHTINGALE, THE RATCATCHER’S DAUGHTER, AN AMERICAT IN PARIS, ODIE’S MAGIC CARPET, our magnum opus, a musical adaptation of Nobel Prize-Winner Maurice Masterlinck’s THE BLUE BIRD (with a cast of 50 puppets). We did not call these productions “puppet shows”, but, “puppet theatre”, because they were fully staged dramas which drew thousands of children and adults. We played on week-ends in the fall with during-the-week performances for school field trips. Many people in Chattanooga and surrounding area will remember them fondly.

“In 2010, when we ended the run, Colleen Laliberte from the Signal Mountain Community Arts Center bought our three-stage proscenium and the entire production of THE BLUE BIRD and has been presenting it in the fall at the center.

“I wrote the script, lyrics and music for all of our shows except THE LITTLE MERMAID, for which I used the haunting impressionistic music of Claude Debussy. I designed and built the puppets and scenery, with help from costumers and carpenters. We were fortunate to have the talents of some of Chattanooga’s best actors and singers for the voices and some members of Chattanooga Symphony for music, as well as a great team of skillful and devoted puppeteers.

“My puppets have been displayed at the Signal Mountain Community Arts Center, the Chattanooga Bicentennial Library, the Atlanta Puppetry Guild, the Dalton Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institute. Some of my religious art work is on display at three area churches, including my own First-Centenary Methodist, and in numerous private collections.

“In 1953 I began teaching at Dickinson Junior High and then at Elbert Long Junior High and from there to the central office of Chattanooga Public Schools where I was Curriculum Director in Art. I ended my teaching career as a teacher of the gifted in Walker County, where I retired in 1990. In 1966 I was named Educator of the Year by Valamont Woman’s Club, and in the 90’s received the Outstanding Teacher Award by the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts. In 1990 I was named Walker County’s Teacher of the Year.”

                                        *      *      *

Here ends the story of Mr. Frederick A. Arnold as told in his own words. As modest and “understated” today as ever, he will long remain a master showman in the memories of many. I am very happy to have known him in his formative years and am not at all surprised by his record of achievement.

And please give me a moment to explain to the younger set – or even the older, who have moved into our area, that the name “Cadek” which appears in many of my stories refers to the name of the “Cadek Conservatory of Music”. Cadek is a Czech name and in Czech is spelled with a tiny “v” over the C, which changes the C to Ch. It is pronounced like the Ch in the word “Chopper”, and never like Sh in “Shed”. “Cadek Conservatory” stood/stands for Excellence in Chattanooga music, and the Arts in general.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )


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