Puppets and Purse Strings
The local puppetry scene struggles to survive amid a renaissance of the art form
By Christina Schweighofer 03/21/2013
Adrian Rose Leonard was 13 when Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets, died in 1990. The event rattled her world. Raised in Johnson City, Tenn., Leonard could not remember a time without The Muppets and “Sesame Street,” and all she had ever wanted as a girl was to work for Henson.
After Henson’s death, Leonard tried sculpting, drama, theater and painting; she attended film school in Nashville and “kind of got into film.” But when “The Lion King” came to Nashville seven years ago, the young woman realized that people were still making a living in puppetry and that she could be one of them. Since then, Leonard has been a professional puppeteer, most recently as a member of The Bob Baker Marionette Theater in Los Angeles.
Puppetry is enjoying a renaissance in the United States, especially among the generation of people who were raised on Henson’s TV shows in the 1970s. Puppets are featured in movies and commercials and, with the production of the musical “Warhorse,” they have made it to Broadway fame. LA, with its film industry, is one of the art form’s hubs. But the puppetry community is fragmented and underfunded.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater, located in a graffiti-rich neighborhood north of downtown LA, has been hanging on by a string for years. And the International Puppetry Museum in Pasadena, with close to 6,000 marionettes, hand and finger puppets, rod puppets, show posters, books on puppetry and other ephemeral items, is gradually moving its collection out of state. If the relocation to the Northwest Puppet Center in Seattle, Wash., goes as planned, Southern California will have lost the collection by mid 2014.
Bob Baker, one of the most prominent figures in the local puppetry scene, recently called IPM’s move “ridiculous” and “disgraceful.” But South Pasadena native Alan Cook, IPM’s collector and CEO, said that, while he would have preferred for his puppets to stay in Southern California, there simply isn’t enough support here. Cook considers himself “lucky to have the Seattle option.” At 81, he appreciates that the Northwest Puppet Center produces shows, that it is a second-generation puppetry enterprise and that the people who run it “are younger.” (The Center’s director, Dmitri Carter, is 36.)
Cook can remember a time in the 1930s when local department stores such as J.W. Robinson’s in Los Angeles put on marionette performances for children. It was there that he saw his first puppet show, a rendition of “Snow White,” before the Disney movie came out.
Cook’s collection — containing puppets from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas — started with a Dutch boy marionette his parents gave him for Christmas when he was 4. A black and white photograph at the museum in Pasadena shows Cook as a youngster, with short cropped blonde hair and a tucked-in shirt. Hands up in front of him, eyes looking downward, he is maneuvering the strings of two marionettes. One of them is the Dutch boy, his first marionette.
Cook is full of stories about his collection. Showing visitors around the museum, he throws out names, numbers and references mixed with commentary, such as “We don’t value history the way we should.” Cook cannot only remember when and where he acquired certain pieces, but also the names of designers, builders and puppeteers who worked on or with the puppets. He knows with whom these puppeteers trouped, and who taught them the ropes — or strings. Based on Cook’s memory, six volunteers at IPM are currently creating an inventory of his collection that includes valuable context for each item.
Baker classifies the IPM collection as “amazing,” adding that “[Cook] has stuff that goes way back. I have watched him collect all my life.” The most antique American puppets in Cook’s collection were created 130 years ago, and his oldest international puppets, the Sicilians, date to the 1930s. Puppetry as an art is, of course, millennia older: The ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon mentioned puppets in their writings in the 5th century BC.
Puppeteers give various reasons for why the art form continues to fascinate. Leonard, the puppeteer who dreamed of working for Henson, believes that it connects us to being a child and playing with toys. “We animate the inanimate,” she said. “We are pretending again.”
Another puppeteer, Steve Golden from the IPM in Pasadena, points out that puppetry allows puppeteers to be actors but invisible. “The attention is not on your face, it’s on the creation,” he said. “People see things that aren’t there.”
Last Sunday, at a show of The Bob Baker Marionettes in Los Angeles titled “Something to Crow About,” about three dozen children sat wide-eyed as puppets representing goats and pigs moved across the stage, turning, twisting and twitching as they ran to the sounds of a big band and Vaudeville-style songs. Most girls and boys in the audience shrieked as a bumble bee the size of their heads flew close to them. Leonard and her young fellow puppeteers were in plain sight all the time, yet those watching seemed oblivious to the manipulations of the artists.
There is another factor of which most viewers of puppet shows are not aware, and that is how much time — and with it money — goes into building a single marionette, which Leonard said takes from 400 to 700 hours.
Baker who, a few years ago, almost had to close his theater because of financial problems, dreams of an organization like the Annenberg Foundation or the city of Los Angeles supporting puppetry “so that we wouldn’t worry every morning whether we are [still] going to be here tomorrow.” At the same time, he is concerned that people in LA are “more interested in a football stadium in the middle of town” than in the arts, and that LA lacks “people with imagination.”
Baker would like to see Cook’s puppets displayed in a museum at the same location as his theater. “People should be buying tickets for the show and to the museum at the same time,” he explained. The vision and, more importantly, the funding for a puppetry center in Los Angeles may be missing. But for puppetry fans in the LA region, good times are ahead. The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles will be holding its annual Puppet Festival on April 7.
The first LA Puppet Fest, with happenings in different locations across Los Angeles, will also be held in April, though details are still sketchy. Puppeteers in LA hope that the events will spark a larger conversation about the art form.
An immersion in the art form is possible at The PuppetART Center in Detroit and at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. Both organizations combine museums with shows and workshops.
“Atlanta is amazing,” Leonard said. “Workshops, three theaters, a museum — why don’t we have something like that?” In a possible answer to her own question, she added that puppeteers are artists and hence “often unorganized when it comes to business. It takes business-minded people to come in.”
The International Puppetry Museum in Pasadena, located at 1062 N. Fair Oaks Ave., is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays.
Christina Schweighofer is a freelance writer in Pasadena. Visit her Web site, christinaschweighofer.com.