The World on a String
To celebrate Oklahoma’s Centennial year, John Hinkle dresses and acts out the part of “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, a former governor of Oklahoma. A performer, artist and puppeteer for over fifty years, Hinkle was born in Ponca City and has lived all over his home state.
He began his career in 1957 after watching the Muppets on a Washington D.C. station. “I was entranced,” said Hinkle. “Since then I’ve done all kinds of puppets—hand, rod, finger, and shadow puppets. Once at a rock opera, I performed with a puppet which had a 54-foot arm span.”
Few artists get to use as many art forms as puppeteers. “It’s drama, music, and art all in one,” said Hinkle, who makes his own puppets. “What other occupation do you get to carve, mold, paint, sew, and write the script? I even get to direct the play, act, do publicity and travel around the state.”
A beloved storyteller, Hinkle worked with the Oklahoma Public Library System to promote children’s reading programs. “Every summer I put together a different reading program with new puppets,” he said. The Arts Council helped fund Hinkle’s fee as he traveled to promote the programs at state libraries. He has visited 48 city libraries to date.
While performing as “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, Hinkle has traveled to over twenty cities in celebration of the Centennial. “Alfalfa was a controversial character,” said Hinkle, who says he already had the straggly hair and bushy eyebrows for the part. “While he [Murray] was Governor of Oklahoma, if you were poor you loved him, but if you were rich, you hated him.
“Our Oklahoma Constitution gives more power to citizens of [our] state than any other state,” said Hinkle. “And ‘Alfalfa Bill’ helped mold it. We have more elected state officials and a stronger legislature. Of course, that means if we have bad government, it’s our own fault.”
Hinkle says that in Alfafa Bill’s early years, he was a champion of the agrarian, hence his name. “As governor during the 1930’s depression and dust bowl, he plowed up ground around the capitol to plant vegetables. He dug up flowers and made a garden. Many people say they would have starved if it wasn’t for Alfalfa Bill.”
Though John Hinkle says he retired this year as a master puppeteer, he admits he still owns a two-story house filled with all kinds of puppets and he did fifty-one puppet shows—two shows a day, five days a week and some weekends—this past June and July.
However, at age 73, Hinkle is now enrolled as a freshman art student at the University of Central Oklahoma. He takes classes for his own pleasure. “I want to learn how to paint and draw and use water colors. I’m not seeking a degree. At my age, I don’t have to prove anything.”
As a puppeteer of fifty years, Hinkle recently attended an International Puppeteer Meeting in Turkey. “I met a Turkish man who said he had been puppeteering for seventy some years,” said Hinkle. “He told me to come back when I could say the same.” With Hinkle, it might just happen.
Hinkle, whose next big project is an O’Kelly’s Irish concert, advises anyone interested in learning about puppets or acting to go to their local library. “You’ll find lots of information there.”