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He'll have to pull a few strings

Alan Cook has a mind-boggling archive collected from around the world. Does anyone have an empty museum to spare?

July 17, 2006|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

THE faces of global puppetry are tucked away in an old church hall off an alley in north Pasadena. There's Punch and Judy, of course, but also rough-hewn wooden heads from Mali, finely detailed porcelain marionettes from China, a cartoonish La Cucaracha from Mexico and a pretty credible Phyllis Diller.

These are the playthings of Alan Cook, who has spent the last 70 years building this puppetry archive, which some believe is unrivaled in its breadth and depth. And like the old woman who lived in a shoe, Cook has so many puppets he doesn't know what to do.

The collection long ago swamped Cook's homes, first in North Hollywood and then in Altadena, where he moved two years ago. Puppets have overrun the house and spread into three sheds, a double garage and a line of temporary storage bins in his backyard. For Cook, it is not just a collection run amok. He sees himself as the private tender of a public trust.

There's no room to spare at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, either, the third in a series of temporary headquarters for the Conservatory of Puppetry Arts, a nonprofit organization created in 1999 to promote puppetry in Southern California. The group's first project: to give structure to a collection it has yet even to quantify.

That's not for lack of effort. Volunteers began cataloging the collection about four years ago, says Executive Director Beth Fernandez. At the time, Cook thought he had about 3,000 pieces but the catalogers are already nearing that mark with scores more boxes and crates to go. Fernandez thinks they could hit 5,000 by the time they're done, though she can't predict when that might be.

Whatever the total, Cook's collection far exceeds that of the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts, with about 1,300 puppets, and the Detroit Institute for the Arts' 800-puppet collection, considered among the finest institutional archives in the country.

Cook's collection surpasses even the 3,000 items held by the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut, one of only two colleges in the country that offer degrees in puppetry, says the program's director, Bart P. Roccoberton Jr. Many of the institute's puppets were created on site for teaching and performances, he says. Cook's collection was built almost exclusively from the outside.

"Not only are they exemplary figures of the puppet arts in America, but Alan has the knowledge of their connections and their history," Roccoberton says. "They're rich alone, and invaluable because of him."

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Multicultural array

Cook's puppets come from many cultures, including Greek shadow puppets, two-dimensional figures that are manipulated on a small, backlighted stage; gourd-headed figures from Mali; and Malaysian stick puppets. Even many cultures without a stage-theater tradition have a puppet tradition, and Cook seems to have samples from most of them. American puppetry is heavily represented; Cook can trace the genealogy of each, citing which puppeteer influenced which others.

Cook, 74, figures his collection is worth millions, but he hasn't seriously considered selling, even though his puppets have been flirting with homelessness. Puppetry doesn't tend to draw the kind of high-donor attention that leads to permanent housing, and Cook's collection has been as itinerant as the medieval Punch and Judy shows.

The conservatory moved into the church hall last November after the nearby building in which it had rented space for 2 1/2 years was sold. The conservatory had already been bounced from another building when the city of Pasadena needed space while City Hall was being renovated.

Cook, Fernandez and others dream of building a puppetry museum around the collection, but they sound more like people talking wistfully about that vacation retreat they'll get some day. The conservatory is supported by about 250 members. Occasional fundraisers, donations and memberships that begin at $25 a year feed an annual budget of $25,000 to $28,000, "most of which goes to rent," says Fernandez.

Fernandez speculates permanent space would cost more than $2 million, but that's just a guess -- no studies have been done, and the conservatory has yet to even appoint a committee to look into the issue or find a way to raise funds.

"We want to, but we're not doing anything actively to make it happen," Fernandez says. "It just seems so overwhelming, frankly. We're going day to day, trying to get the puppets cataloged and hoping for more exhibits and that kind of thing."

Cook bought many of the puppets, but others were gifts from people who knew of his interest and bequests from fellow collectors who shared his passion.

John Bell, a puppetry historian at Boston's Emerson College, sees Cook's collection as a repository of world culture, drawn not only from Europe but also from the nooks and crannies of the world.

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