Photograph by Ingrid Höfer.
Puppet creator Sarah Frechette and “Wally” made in tribute to her grandfather. Courtesy Sarah Frechette.

By Mary Ann Lickteig

Muppet Roosevelt Franklin looks ready to belt out the blues. A slew of ice fisherman cavort in and around their shanties. Bread and Puppet Theater presents the “Possibilitarian” state and Polaroid facsimiles provide a snapshot of pop artist Andy Warhol’s life before Campbell’s Soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles.

All are found in Shelburne Museum’s new exhibit, “Puppets: World on a String,” on view until June 3. Celebrating the magical, age-old world of puppetry, the exhibit features national and local artists and provides a brief look at the history of puppetry, which dates back more than 3,000 years and spans continents, curator Carolyn Bauer said. “It’s one of the oldest tools and forms of communication and artistry.”

Upon entering the exhibit in the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education, the viewer stands face-to-face with the expressive and lavishly costumed Prince Tomino and Queen of the Night from “The Magic Flute.” The puppets are the work of Frank Ballard, who, in 1966 established the first degree-granting college program in puppet arts. The University of Connecticut program still is considered one of the field’s most prestigious.

Courtesy of Ballard Institute and Museum, University of Connecticut
The Blue Fairy by Margo and Rufus Rose; plastic, wood, and fabric

One of its graduates is Sarah Frechette of Georgia, Vt., and Portland, Ore. The founder and artistic director of puppet touring company Puppetkabob lent the exhibit her hand-carved rod puppets and set pieces from her original work, “What the Moon Saw.” The fantastical, elaborately costumed puppets include Mousie and Froggie posing with a mushroom-hung hammock.

Also on display is Frechette’s rendition of her late grandfather, Walter Bell, of St. Albans, as a hand-carved and painted marionette, “Wally.”

Puppets, which capture the essence of a person rather than providing an exact copy, allow artistic liberties, Frechette said. “The simple shape of an egg-head fit my grandfather, who was, for most of his life, the superintendent of the poultry building at the Champlain Valley Fair,” she said.

Other Vermont companies featured include Putney’s Sandglass Theater and Glover’s Bread and Puppet Theater. A string of ice shanty vignettes populated by jaunty fishermen create a tiny frozen village in Sandglass’ “All Weather Ballads: The Ballad of the Ice Shanty.”

Papier-mache panels create a proscenium arch and backdrop for the large Bread and Puppet figures that flank the door at center stage. Created by Bread and Puppet co-founder Peter Schumann for this exhibit, “The Possibilitarian Door” tells the story of the Possibilitarian takeover of society: throwing out the ruling class, implementing alternatives to capitalism, abandoning war and focusing on the health of the Earth and its people.

Puppet likenesses of President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew continue a political theme. The puppets are copies of the papier-mache sculptures that artist Rick Meyerowitz made for social and political activist Abbie Hoffman to pose with for a 1970 cover of National Lampoon magazine. After it appeared, a German company produced 3,000 copies of the puppet pair. The one on display in Shelburne belonged to Andy Warhol.

Warhol, himself, appears in three 1947 photographs holding an ape-like hand puppet. With him are colleagues from an early job he had creating window displays at the Joseph Horne department store in his hometown, Pittsburgh.

Among the most recognizable puppets displayed are the work of Jim Henson, whose Muppets — made of fabric, foam, fleece and fake fur — taught millions of children their letters and numbers in “Sesame Street,” and then went on to entertain their parents with “The Muppet Show” and “The Muppet Movie.”  On display is Roosevelt Franklin, who debuted on Sesame Street in 1970, and was one of the first Muppets designed to represent a person of color, and the imposing, austere Featherstone, who wears a ruffled shirt and a powdered wig and counts among his screen credits “Hey Cinderella,”  “The Perry Como Winter Show” and “The Muppet Show.”

Jane Nebel, who later became Henson’s wife, created Little Girl Puppet, which appeared in “Sam and Friends,” the first live TV show Henson created, alongside Nebel.

Noting the irony of displaying puppets stationary, the museum brings movement to the exhibit with Laura Heit’s “Two Ways Down,” which uses tabletop dioramas and projectors to throw shadows and animations onto gallery walls. A nearby TV screen shows Christian Jankowski’s “Puppet Conference,” a mock media film that features Muppet Fozzie Bear, Sesame Street’s Grover, Shari Lewis’ Lamb Chop and others in a panel discussion on “Puppets in Media.”

The museum has special events planned in conjunction with the exhibit including puppet-making workshops and puppet shows. A tour and puppet workshop are scheduled for Friday, beginning at 10:30 a.m. For information and to register, go to shelburnemuseum.org.

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