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Dallas, Texas


National Historical Landmark

by Clint Skinner

32. The Creative Arts Building

John Hardman
Producer, Puppeteer

Connected to the Embarcadero by a lobby, the Creative Arts Building was built in 1936 as part of a pavilion dedicated to food. It later became the center for all the arts and crafts competitions. Instead of being presented during the state fair, each entry is submitted months in advance. Thousands enter the competitions, hoping their project will win a ribbon and enjoy a prominent spot in the glass cases throughout the 17,000 square feet of exhibit space. There are a wide variety of categories including quilts, cross-stitching, ceramics, oil painting, holiday decorations, clothing, photography, stuffed animals, miniatures, dolls, stained glass, embroidery, and many more.

Dallas Fair Park - Creative Arts Building
The Creative Arts Building
Photo by Amy Wagliardo

To the left of the main entryway, a refrigerated room holds a butter sculpture, which changes every year to reflect the fair's main theme. The center of the building features two kitchen areas separated by a wall. The one facing the entrance serves as a stage for cooking demonstrations performed by local chefs while the other side contains several ovens, stoves, and microwaves for cooking contests. Some are traditional and others are offbeat. Some of the categories include chocolate, spam, pie, cake, biscuit, chili, cookie, egg, Tex Mex, barbecue, ice cream, and pizza.

In the back of the building, there is a theater capable of seating 250 people. It has served as the home of a puppet show called World on a String for twenty years, produced by a man named John Hardman. Raised in Wichita Falls, he first gained his inspiration to become a puppeteer after watching a performance at the visiting circus. His father saw his enthusiasm and got him a set of marionettes, which he later used to perform Little Red Riding Hood in the family garage at a charge of five cents a person. Because John could not do the same show repeatably and expect big crowds, he went to the library to research puppetry, but became interested in magic. Hardman then began the practice of performing as a magician in addition to a puppeteer. During the summer of his junior and senior years at high school, he filed records at radio station KFDX and learned all about the business as his duties expanded.

After John Hardman graduated, he worked for the city's first television station while attending Midwestern State University. He started as a floor man but worked his way up the ladder, serving first as a cameraman and ultimately becoming a director. He also performed magic acts on a local show while dressed as a clown.

Hardman graduated from MSU but decided to join the Marine Cops because his friends had joined the military. After spending three years in South California, he moved to Dallas and performed a cabaret show at a theater called the Eighth Day. While working at the McKinney Avenue location in Uptown Dallas, John received an offer to do a Punch and Judy puppet show at Six Flags Over Texas. He agreed to the proposition and started working for the Arlington theme park in 1963.

Between the Punch and Judy shows, in an effort to break the boredom, John brought in a puppet named Argyle the Snake. He used the character to talk with the audience members and tease them. Argyle became so popular, the park's owner told him to ditch the main show and focus on the snake. The result was a program centering around a snake that enjoyed teasing and insulting audience members and passersby.

Argyle became an instant hit and gained statewide recognition. In 1967, Rainbow Bakeries asked Hardman to promote the 1968 Hemisfair using his famous puppet. John agreed and spent the entire year traveling from town to town promoting Rainbow Bakeries and the Hemisfair through Argyle the Snake. Once the tour was complete, the snake performed at the grand event in San Antonio.

After the Hemisfair was over, John received an offer from magician Mark Wilson, an acquaintance who had just obtained a television show from CBS. The program was called The Magic Land of Alakazam and Wilson wanted Hardman to help him with the show. Hardman agreed and moved to California. While collaborating on the program, which lasted for six years, he worked with Sid and Marty Krofft. The future television producers had acquired a contract with Six Flags to produce puppet shows for its two parks. They wanted Hardman to be the head puppeteer at the one in Arlington and started training him on how to produce large shows.

He returned to Texas and started doing the Argyle show in addition to his other duties. When the Krofft Brothers left for television, Hardman was eventually put in charge of all the puppet shows at the Arlington location. He soon became responsible for all the shows of the Six Flags chain. After Magic Mountain was acquired, he moved again to California to help build its puppet theater and put together its first show. His responsibilities continued to grow as the franchise expanded. At one point, he was producing thirty-five shows a year. It eventually became too much for him to handle and he quit his job. He moved back to Texas, then spent some time relaxing while his wife taught drama at a high school.

John Hopkins opened Le Theatre de Marionette in 1993 at an Arlington mall. Because of its popularity, the owner tripled the rent, forcing him to seek another venue. He contacted Hardman, his friend and former supervisor, for help in this endeavor. Because he performed an annual Scrooge show at Northpark Mall, Hardman was able to persuade the owners to allow Hopkins to move there. A few years later, he bought the theater and made it a place where kids could enjoy marionette shows based on fairy tales. In addition to running the theater and performing the Scrooge skit, he established World on a String at the state fair and later presented The Bufford Buzzard Show. All seemed well for John Hardman until 2013 when he discovered that he had cancer. Despite the prognosis, he refused to stop performing. He fought hard for two years but ultimately lost the battle, thanks to a case of pneumonia. He may have passed away, but the memories he provided throughout the years will remain.

December 23, 2016
© Clint Skinner
*Author's Note:
All the pictures that are not mine are either public domain or creative commons. I provided the photographer's name.

FAIR PARK - Attractions:

1. Fair Park Station
2. Main Entrance
3. Founders Statue
4. Women's Museum
5. DAR House
6. The Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial
7. Sydney Smith Memorial Fountain
8. Music Hall
9. Fair Park Esplanade
10. Centennial Building
11. Automobile Building
12. Hall of State
13. Tower Building
14. Big Tex Circle
15. Grand Place
16. Old Mill Inn
17. Magnolia Lounge
18. Hall of Religion
19. African American Museum
20. Leonhardt Lagoon
21. Dallas Museum of Natural History
22. Science Place I
23. Children's Aquarium
24. Fair Park Bandshell
25. Texas Discovery Gardens
26. WRR Headquarters
27. Science Place II
28. The Texas Star
29. Cotton Bowl Stadium
30. The Texas Skyway
31. The Embarcadero
32. The Creative Arts Building
33. Food and Fiber Building
34. Pan American Arena
35. The Woofus
36. The Swine Building
37. Briscoe Carpenter Livestock Center
38. Livestock Pavilion and Arena
39. The Horse Barn
40. Fair Park Coliseum
41. Top of Texas Tower

3.Dallas Morning News Archives
5.Slate, John H. Historic Dallas Parks. Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
8.Winters, Willis Cecil. Fair Park. Arcadia Publishing, 2010.

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