Mildred Foster Kelley was Harmony Club’s 16th President (1940-1941). She was a music teacher from 1916 to 1965 at the Abraham Lincoln Elementary School on Binghamton’s south side (the school is now the Lincoln Court Apartments for seniors and the disabled). In 1939 Mildred became interested in marionettes as a result of a night school course she took, and so began a new hobby making marionettes.
In 1940 she took a group of marionettes from the play “Betsy Ross” to an international puppet exhibition in NYC and won a first prize ribbon.
Mildred’s marionettes took the stage in several special Harmony Club programs. On April 1, 1953, as part of Harmony Club’s study of late 19th century opera, Mildred put on a marionette show version of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” with club members performing the music and assisting in manipulating the stringed characters.
For the February 1956 meeting, Mildred presented a marionette version of “South Pacific.” A 20-piece orchestra played the overture and members of the club sang numbers from the musical.
In February 1963, more of Mildred’s puppets were featured in a program of “Hansel und Gretel.”
Mildred performed plays and fairy tales for many community groups, including the Girls Club of Binghamton (“The Magic Thimble” 1953), Broome County Section of National Council of Jewish Women (“The Magic Thimble” 1953), Harpur College Faculty Women’s Club (“Madame Butterfly” 1954), Binghamton Exchange Club (“The Frog Prince” 1954), Temple Israel (1956), Park Terrace Methodist Church (1964), Literacy Volunteers of Broome County (1970), and the Christian Business and Professional Women’s group (“The Small One” 1973).
Her “wooden children,” as Mildred called them, were about 16-17 inches tall, smaller than professional marionettes, because her puppets had to operate on a portable stage. “But when they start to move, on their miniature set, my actors seem to come to life,” she said. “The audience doesn’t realize how small they are.” Her puppets first hung in an upstairs clothes closet, but as her collection grew to 100 she had to convert a coal bin into a room for them.
Mildred was a member of the Shakespeare Dramatic Club (and its President in 1961), as were several Harmony Club members. Mildred presented many puppet shows for the Shakespeare Club. On December 15, 1955 she presented Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in puppet form. For the Shakespeare Club’s 45th anniversary in 1960, Mrs. Paul Titchener wrote a puppet show, “The Bard who Came to Binghamton,” depicting 3 of the club’s first members, one of whom was Harmony Club’s charter member Alice Wales. Mildred Kelley made puppets for the show, which was presented March 24, 1960 in the Monday Afternoon Clubhouse (now Phelps Mansion), with Kelley and Titchener reading the parts. In 1964, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Mildred designed and constructed marionettes of Queen Elizabeth, William Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” who inspired many of his sonnets.
Whether from fairy tale, musical, operetta, or grand opera, Mildred Foster Kelley could pull the strings and bring a wooden character to life.