Rose Hill of Mildura, a devotee of puppetry and the mother of the brilliant puppeteer, Ross Hill, died in Melbourne aged 99. As she says in this link to a short ACMI video from 2017, she became involved with puppetry as an aid to helping Ross overcome a speech defect resulting from a bout of encephalitis. Those of us who knew Ross would never have suspected that he had ever had such a problem, but the puppetry not only helped him to overcome it, it launched what would become his career.
Rose and her husband Arthur, had a poultry farm in Mildura. They built the house themselves despite the constraints of wartime Australia, and there they raised a family of four boys, John, Keith, Ross and David. John has a strong boyhood memory of the day that Ross was born, 7 November 1954. Rose had been bedridden with encephalitis for some time before being transferred to the hospital and late that afternoon a tornado had swept across the district doing extensive damage.
With Rose’s help and encouragement Ross was presenting a regular marionette segment on local TV in Mildura when he was 14 and still at school. He had been particularly inspired by Peter Scriven’s Tintookies, and in Rose’s video you will see some of his marionettes from that time, many (such as the goat and the chook), clearly showing that influence. Especially interesting were the figures he had made which did not have the basic humanoid construction, and in later life Ross had an amazing skill in turning a free-hand sketch into a working puppet.
Rose made contact with the puppetry community, and puppeteers passing through Mildura often paid a visit. In 1973 Ross was invited by L. Peter Wilson to join the Tasmanian Puppet Theatre in Hobart and while there was responsible for a 13-part TV series. From 1977-1984 he was with Richard Bradshaw at the Marionette Theatre of Australia in Sydney where he was invaluable as a brilliant puppet-maker although he was also a gifted performer.
Rose, Arthur and Ross attended the UNIMA Festival in Moscow in 1976 and Rose also went to the 1979 festival organised by PUK in Tokyo celebrating 50 years of UNIMA. At that festival Ross worked as a puppeteer in the M.T.A.’s The Mysterious Potamus, for which he had made the puppets (to Norman Hetherington’s designs). Ross’s manipulation of Paul the Peacock and Calvin the Crocodile was outstanding. His cruel death in1991 at the age of 36 was a tragic loss to Australian puppetry, and a devastating blow for Rose and the Hill family.
Two political figures Ross made to designs by cartoonist Patrick Cook were installed in the Museum of Democracy in Old Parliament House, Canberra, near puppets by Peter Nicholson for the ABC’s Rubbery Figures which Ross had originally had a hand in making while at the M.T.A. After he left the M.T.A. Ross freelanced, and even worked for Jim Henson in London on the movie Labyrinth.
Rose Hill created the Mildura Puppetry Centre in a large room added on to the house. There she displayed Ross’s early marionettes and many other figures she had gathered or made. Some of Edith Murray’s figures from the Clovelly Puppet Theatre in Sydney were there. The Centre was visited by schoolchildren and other local groups and puppeteers who visited when they were passing through Mildura were surprised by the extent of the collection. The following link will give you some idea:
Rose Hill had been in hospital in Mildura where her mind was fading before being transferred to a hospital in Melbourne, to be close to her son, John and his wife, Kerry, and also to have the company of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She died three days after catching COVID-19 in hospital. A great character, with enormous energy, a good sense of humour and, to the very end, devoted to puppetry, especially as an educational tool.
There remains the problem of the future of the Mildura Puppetry Centre with Rose’s large collection of puppets. Rose would have liked to extend the facility to set up a museum as a tourist attraction but unfortunately it remained a dream. Rose’s sons hope there might be an enterprising puppeteer willing to purchase the property and restore the facility to its former glory. Perhaps they may even build that museum that Rose and Ross would have loved.
There are some excellent museums of puppetry in other countries and it would solve a growing problem if somehow, somewhere in Australia, a home for “retired puppets” could be established. If it can’t be in Mildura then hopefully another solution can be found to keep the collection together.
John, Keith & David would welcome any enquiries: 0408 688 122
by Richard Bradshaw and John Hill