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Exhibition Brings Puppet History To Life

February 28, 1986|CHRIS PASLES

Suspended in silent repose but ready to jump to life are hundreds of dazzling miniature ice skaters, clowns, knights and ladies, ducks, chickens and circus horses, and, of course, ghosts and goblins.

All are part of "The Great American Puppet & Marionette Exhibition," which opens today and runs through April 4 at the Brea Gallery in the Brea Civic Cultural Center. (Hours are Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.; Thursday, noon to 8 p.m.)

The exhibit was put together by puppeteer/historian Alan Cook from his private collection of about 3,000 puppets. It is sponsored by the Brea Foundation and the City of Brea.

"This is a North American survey that includes Mexico and Canada but is mostly United States," Cook said in a recent interview. "It goes through the whole spectrum from the 1880s to the present and highlights native-born or naturalized puppeteers.

"In this era of Rambo-mania, we're going to wave the flag--but with puppets instead," he added with a laugh.

"The puppets are pretty much all unusual, and almost all of them are performing figures that appeared on real programs, whether in films and TV or on stage," Cook said.

Cook has arranged the puppets in groups: Those used in vaudeville acts; movies such as the 1953 MGM film "Lili," and television programs; ventriloquists' dummies, and an enormous circus-theme collection.

The puppets are made of wood, modeling clay, papier-mache, cloth and various synthetic materials.

The collection represents a veritable "Who's Who" in the world of American puppetry, including works by:

- Len Ayres Mantell, Harry Deaves and Madam Jewell, who were leaders in American vaudeville touring acts. ("It's hard enough to find even one of their puppets: To have all three puppeteers in one collection is a tour de force," Cook said.)

- Tony Sarrg, the "father of the American puppet revival which began in the 1920s." (Sarrg traveled throughout the United States from 1917 to the early '40s; he brought such full-length plays as "Robin Hood" and "Alice in Wonderland" to the Southland.)

-Frank Perris, a noted solo performer "who pioneered the technique of working without a stage. He had a great influence on others."

-George Pell, who was "known for special effects in Hollywood films, but began working with stop-action puppet films."

"The exhibition represents a continuing tradition," Cook said. "A lot of people in this collection knew each other. They were influenced by each other and were good friends--or competitors."

A native of Los Angeles, Cook, who now lives in North Hollywood, first became fascinated with puppets as a child when he saw "all the puppet shows at Robinson's, Bullock's, May Co. and the Broadway. They were marvelous promotional shows, sometimes in the windows and sometimes inside."

He made his first puppet when he was in second grade as part of a summer recreation program, began his collecting then and eventually went on to work as a puppeteer in television, movies and theaters around the country for "close to half a century."

But he declined to give his age: "In show business, you never tell until you're 90."

For Cook, the art of puppetry is by no means dead. "There's always a wave of interest whenever someone comes along with something new--as when Bert Tillstrom pioneered puppets on TV, or later, with the Muppets.

"But that's only part of a larger picture. There have been puppet operas. Haydn wrote them ('Pilomon und Baucis' and 'Die Feuersbrunst') and so did Manuel de Falla ('El Retablo de Maese Pedro')," Cook said. (Other puppet theater composers include Benjamin Britten, Ernst Krenek, Aaron Copland, Arthur Honegger, Erik Satie and Biedrich Smetana.) "Shaw and Lorca wrote puppet plays. Goethe, in fact, said: 'He who loves not puppets is not fit to live.' "

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