“Pull the string and I’ll wink at you, I’m your Puppet. I’ll do funny things if you want me to, I’m your Puppet…” – 1966 soul hit written by Dan Penn
Carved from blocks of wood, porcelain, layers of paper mache or molded from foam or plastic, the guileful and enigmatic puppet comes to life under the magic spell of a gifted puppeteer. Enchanting audiences by performing skits or even teaching children, this ancient art form extends its fragile arms far back in history through all times and all cultures. Here in Los Angeles we are particularly gifted to be one of the main centers of puppetry in the United States. Right under the long and ever growing nose of Pinocchio, our city’s involvement in the art form stretches back over 100 years to when Los Angeles was still barely a mid-sized town. Perhaps it is our love of creation, our fascination with the mystique of make-believe or our obsession with play and eternal youth, but L.A. holds a treasure trove of puppet history.
The International Puppetry Museum, located in a non-descript building off of an alleyway in Pasadena, holds a spellbinding collection of over 5,000 puppets and puppet related items. There are Chinese puppets who luckily survived Mao’s communist Cultural Revolution when much of everything was burned or destroyed. There are amazing vaudeville show puppets that travelled the United States in the 1930’s; there are enchanting marionettes from late 19th century Germany and early 20th century Spain; there are shadow puppets, Vietnamese water puppets, Punch & Judys and gems from the creative genius of puppet makers Bil Baird and Bob Baker. In fact there is so much wonder to behold that walking around in this place is accompanied by a constant stream of oohs and aahs.
This museum stemmed from the collection of 81-year-old curator Alan Cook, a native of South Pasadena, who has had a lifetime affair with all things puppet related. His fascination began as a young child when he saw a Snow White marionette as part of a window display in the Robinson’s department store in Downtown L.A. It was a tie-in with the release of Disney’s 1937 animated film. The first puppet he owned, a Dutch-boy marionette, came to him at age 4 as a Christmas gift. Not long after that he took a puppet making class as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Worker’s Progress Administration recovery project and began performing backyard puppet shows for his friends. He went on to a monumental career as a puppeteer. His resume includes working for Sid and Marty Krofft Productions, the 1960’s TV show Davey and Goliath by Gumby creator Art Clokey, performing on Mark Wilson’s primetime TV magic specials (covered previously in this column: mark-wilson), and work on the famous rainbow scene of The Muppet Movie. Cook is literally a walking encyclopedia of the history of puppetry, full of amazing stories and insightful observations. He has seen a lot in his lifetime and is perceptive of the need to pass it on, “I am really aware of the bridges between generations. It is a really good conduit.”
Cook was a co-founder of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry which was started in 1956, and then in 1999 he founded the Conservatory of Puppetry Arts to promote puppetry in Southern California. With his own collection that evolved into the creation of the International Puppetry Museum in 1990, he was interested in both documenting history and in reflecting cultural influences that travel in many different directions. The puppets from Africa, Asia, Europe and North America within this collection are all influenced by each other in varying ways and the links and observations of what influenced what are endless. As Cook leads a show and tell of the collection it is apparent that his knowledge is vast and comes with the wisdom of having led an interesting life. One of the missions of the museum is a constant quest to preserve history and to document puppet shows of the past. By having knowledge of a particular puppet show and its characters it is possible to pinpoint the date or artist of a puppet that shows up at an auction or on eBay. Essentially it’s a whole lot of detective work and puzzle piecing at which Alan Cook seems to excel.
The museum is open for visits on Wednesdays when staff members are on site cataloguing items and often doing repair work. There are boxes and boxes of items in a back storage room giving you the mysterious suspicion that you are only viewing the tip of the iceberg of this grand and glorious collection. The upstairs is filled with more goodies and although I spent two hours here I know that there was so much more to see that could not be displayed for lack of room. Visiting this museum is a must for anyone loving art, history or theatre. The marvelous connection of how this all fits into the framework of Los Angeles cannot be denied. Not only is our city the home to Bob Baker Theatre, the oldest puppet theatre in the U.S., but so much puppetry has been used in films and TV shows shot in L.A. that it really is a discipline engrained here.
So step into a fantasy land of magic and check out this spectacular, but somehow secret museum that seems unknown to many. You will feel the excitement of a child and come away happy and inspired.
International Puppetry Museum: 1062 N. Fair Oaks Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91103; (626) 296-1536. www.puppetrymuseum.org