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Puppets Are Immigrants Too

How New York City Turned Ancient Traditions into Cutting-Edge Art

The puppets that arrived in New York City in 1738 were certainly not the first here. Puppets had been created way before then by the Lenape people, who lived in the area for centuries; some of the tiny finger masks they made to represent the god of hunting, Misinghali'kun, in religious rituals still exist. And the Dutch had a tradition of puppetry dating back to the fourteenth century, so surely itinerant Dutch puppeteers existed in New Amsterdam, the colony that their countrymen established in 1624, four decades before the British took over the city and renamed it. But the first-known specific record of a puppet show in New York is an advertisement in the New-York Gazette newspaper, from February 1738, for The Adventures of Harlequin and Scaramouche, or The Spaniard Trick’d, to be performed at Mr. Holt’s Long Room for a ticket price of five shillings.

Both Harlequin and Scaramouche are characters in Punch and Judy, which is “probably one of the oldest continually performed puppetry traditions,” Monxo López explained to me, after he had shown me the exhibit of the Lenape finger mask and the reproduction of the Punch and Judy ad. Now he was pointing out different puppets, from Italy, Germany, Poland and France, each of which was a variation on the Punch character. They were among more than a hundred puppets on display in “Puppets of New York,” the exhibition López curated for the Museum of the City of New York, located in East Harlem.

“Almost every culture has developed their version of Punch”—a political puppet who “speaks truth to power,” López said. And nearly every culture’s puppetry, as his exhibition made clear, found its way to New York City.

“The Chinese were among the earliest here. There were the big dragons used in the Lunar New Year celebrations, and the small hand puppets from Chinese opera, and also Chinese shadow puppetry. Chinese shadow puppetry was here in New York City as early as 1799,” López said, pointing to a poster from that year for just such a show, called Ombres Chinoifes. (The title was in French, although the puppeteers were Chinese.)

López was giving me this tour on the first day of New York City’s first-ever official Puppet Week. Launched in August, it also featured another exhibition he curated, along with Leslee Asch, entitled Puppets of New York: Downtown at the Clemente, a look at the puppetry of a dozen living, avant-garde New York artists, which was taking place at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center on the Lower East Side. These and three other exhibitions were hooked to the second biannual International Puppet Fringe Festival of New York, also headquartered at the Clemente, offering three weeks of live in-person and virtual puppet performances from some dozen countries, as varied as Argentina and South Korea; India and Côte d’Ivoire.

“New York has for a long time been the global capital of puppetry,” said the festival’s artistic director, Manuel Morán. But even for New York, this was an unusually concentrated dose of puppetry.

Puppet Week offered something else as well. It encouraged a different way of looking at this ancient form of theatre and the lively, varied, often cutting-edge expressions of it that have been continually forged in this city of immigrants.

The press and the public ate it up. Here was a chance to revisit such beloved characters (all of which were on display) as Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street, Trekkie Monster (a kind of Oscar alter ego) from Avenue Q, and Julie Taymor’s beasts from The Lion King, as well as earlier American TV favorites Howdy Doody and Lamb Chop; Shari Lewis’s daughter Mallory even performed with the feisty sock puppet both at the exhibitions and in the festival.

A bearded man smiling and standing in front of a large, light brown female puppet with an ample build.

Image of Monxo Lopez with Titania.*

But Puppet Week offered something else as well. It encouraged a different way of looking at this ancient form of theatre and the lively, varied, often cutting-edge expressions of it that have been continually forged in this city of immigrants.

“The puppets of New York come from so many civilizations and traditions, and they represent the cross pollination of our diverse communities,” Whitney Donhauser, the director of the Museum of the City of New York, said at the opening of its exhibition.

“With every wave of migration, we’ve had new puppets come into the city,” said López, who himself migrated from Puerto Rico. He was now standing in front of a puppet on display that was nearly twice his height. “This is Titania, from a Spanish-language version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was created in the Puerto Rican puppetry tradition by Teatro SEA, a New York-based bilingual theatre company (led by Morán). Titania was a single massive sculpture at the museum, but in performance she pulls apart into different pieces—arms, legs, head—that require seven puppeteers.

We next stopped in front of a puppet not quite as large, but even more imposing: a knight in armor named Rolando.

“Sicily has a centuries-old puppetry tradition,” López began.

But he didn’t have to elaborate. I knew about Opera dei Pupi. Years ago, I had heard the story directly—how the French knight Roland who was ambushed in the eighth century became a popular French legend in the eleventh century; then the hero of an epic Italian poem, “Orlando Furioso,” in the sixteenth century; and eventually the center of an elaborate saga, populated by a huge cast of heavy wooden marionettes, that became immensely popular in Sicily in the nineteenth century. That’s when the first member of the Manteo family learned the art of puppetry. His son moved to New York and opened Papa Manteo’s Life-Sized Marionettes in the 1920s, first in the Lower East Side, then in Little Italy.

The Manteo marionettes were so celebrated as part of the era in New York that they would make a cameo appearance in the movie The Godfather Part 2 (a vicious white-suited mobster watches the armored knights clashing on a little stage during a festival in Little Italy and exclaims: “Oh, this is too violent for me.”) But by the time I talked to the Manteo family, on its fifth generation of puppeteers, their theatre was long gone, and their collection of hundreds of hundred-pound puppets, housed at the Staten Island Museum, was being evicted.

A puppet knight dressed in bronze with a matching bronze shield.

Image of Rolando.*

“The Monteo family puppets are like the Holy Grail of American puppetry,” López told me. “There is no one that we know of in the US who can still perform this kind of puppetry.”

Did he know what happened to the puppets themselves, I asked.

“I know that the Italian American Museum has about thirty-six of them. They lent this one to us.”

The lesson of New York City puppetry, however, is not that there is a direct correlation between the traditional and the original, but that they accommodate one another.

It may have been those very Manteo marionettes that an Italian immigrant in New York named Remo Bufano saw as a child in Little Italy that inspired him to devote his life to the art.

He became the foremost avant-garde puppeteer in the 1930s and 1940s, directing the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project marionette unit—yes, they had government-sponsored theatre devoted to puppetry—and working with Eugene O’Neill as part of the Provincetown Players. Bufano also built, and performed with, the puppets for fifteen shows on Broadway, including Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Skin of Our Teeth, and Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town.

There is a relatively small puppet of Bufano’s, called Silver Devil, on display in the exhibition. But most of Bufano’s puppets were huge. His puppets for Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex were ten feet tall. For the Rodgers and Hart musical Jumbo, he built a puppet thirty-five feet tall.

I thought of Bufano as I observed the puppets on display created decades later by Ralph Lee, Theodora Skipitares, and Federico Restrepo, three of the dozen “important downtown artists,” as the Clemente exhibition’s introductory label put it, “who are committed to exploring the theatrical possibilities of puppet theater.” All three are inventive, imaginative artists whose work I’ve long admired—and all three work with larger-than-life-sized puppets that felt like cousins to Bufano’s.

Lee, who founded the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade and built the towering puppets that still lead it every year, is represented in the exhibition by Skeleton Lord of Death and Toad Lord of Death, which he built for a play inspired by the Mayan creation story. Among the objects by Skipitares is the tremendous head of New York City’s “master builder” Robert Moses from her play, The Radiant City. A Big Business Corporate Giant Puppet is in the exhibition from Restrepo’s Urban Odyssey, which was specifically about immigration and the transformation of American culture.

A large, titled puppet depiction of the American designer Robert Moses with two tiny brown-skinned puppets in front.

Image of Robert Moses in The Radiant City.*

Some of the other puppet works on display offered a more obvious and direct connection with older puppetry traditions. Maiko Kikuchi’s Daydream Tutorial, for example, which combines the use of objects placed on an overhead projector with live action, puts a modern spin on shadow puppetry. Ping Chong’s Kwaidan, a stage adaptation of Japanese ghost stories, features a set design that looks like a Japanese interior and puppets that suggest Bunraku dolls but are more plainly dressed.

The lesson of New York City puppetry, however, is not that there is a direct correlation between the traditional and the original, but that they accommodate one another.

I went to opening night of the fringe festival, and saw The Triple Zhongkui Pageant, a fifteen-minute monologue in both English and Chinese based on a character from Chinese opera and featuring puppets in a range of sizes all wearing traditional Chinese costumes.

Afterwards, I caught up with the members of Chinese Theatre Works, the twenty-year-old New York-based company that put on the show. The co-artistic directors are Kuang-Yu Fong, who studied Chinese Opera in Taiwan, and Stephen Kaplin, who studied puppetry in Connecticut and has designed and performed for Taymor, Chong, Skipitares, Lee Breuer of Mabou Mines, and the Bread and Puppet Theater. Hardcore puppet man. The stories in their show are Chinese, Kaplin told me, but “the puppetry is Western—except for the hand puppet.”

It didn’t look Western to me. In a scholarly article in 1999, Kaplan wrote: “A whole generation of puppeteers has labored to synthesize stylistic influences from around the planet and to meld emerging technology with traditional forms.”

To a layman, New York puppetry is all about the melding.


*All photos were taken at Puppets of New York Exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York by Jonathan Mandell.

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Thanks for the heads up, Jonathan. I'll try and catch the virtual panel discussion live later today (I'm in Los Angeles) or in a re-broadcast if they post it archivally. The Puppet Fringe Festival looks beautifully inventive as so much of the great puppet work has always been. Thanks again!

Jonathan -- thank you, I loved reading this. The connection you make between the long presence of puppets in NY (and the US) and immigration is profound. Really enjoying thinking about this and reading about some of history of puppets in New York. There are first-rate puppet-makers around the country who continually remind us that theirs is a beautiful art form. Thanks again!