Born in Kansas City in 1910, Hazelle (Hedges) Rollins secured her place in history with the dedication she had to the art of puppetry. As an art student at the University of Kansas in 1929, Rollins was approached by a neighbor’s young son who had received a marionette from Italy as a gift. He asked her to make him another one. Rollins did so, carving a head out of wood. She instantly had an affinity for these objects and soon found herself creating lots of puppets. She began writing plays for them and putting on shows for school kids.
Rollins thought the puppets would be much more interesting if they were able to move like humans. She began experimenting with their design, making their limbs and jaws movable, and creating what she called “airplane controls” to make them work. These also made it easier to move them and keep the strings from becoming entangled. She was awarded four patents for her innovations.
Requests began pouring in for her to make more puppets, so, in 1933, she founded Hazelle, Inc. The company began selling puppets internationally in 1935. Eventually she was making marionettes, hand and finger puppets, offering more than 200 characters, including her most popular, “Teto the Clown.” She was among the first to make puppets’ heads from plastic instead of wood.
In 1941, Rollins married John Woodson Rollins, an industrial engineer, who worked in an airplane factory. He was able to offer his wife knowledge of the assembly line to apply to puppet construction. By 1947, Hazelle, Inc. had more than 50 employees, producing 1000 puppets a week. The factory became a popular place for children’s tours, and Rollins became a well-known international businesswoman.
Rollins was the first woman chairman of the Kansas City Advisory Council of the Small Business Administration and was also a director of the Women's Chamber of Commerce. She was also president of the Women's Commission for International Relations and Trade and a member of People to People International. In 1969, she was named an Outstanding Business Woman of the Year in the state of Missouri. She was also a founder of Puppeteers of America.
Rollins operated Hazelle, Inc. until 1975, when she sold the company and retired. Many of the puppets in her private collection were sold to museums including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the Kansas City Museum. She died in 1984, at the age of 74, after her company had sold more than one million puppets worldwide.