Inside the New York Puppets at the Museum of the City of New York
Lamb chop. Created by Shari Lewis in 1957. This one was directed by James Patrick Brymer (2000).
Photo: Alexei Hay
New York has always been a land of puppets. From the childhood comfort of Sesame Street to the happy pop perversities of Avenue Q, From the avant-garde poetic effigies of Basil Twist to the zodiac animal glove puppets of Chinese Theater Works, puppet makers and puppeteers have gathered here for generations to hone their craft. In fact, New York is one of the only cities in the country where the puppeteer is a public service job: we have four of them, housed at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater in Central Park.
A new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York captures this legacy. Launched in collaboration with the International Puppet Fringe Festival NYC (which begins August 11 at the Clemente Center), New York Puppets will offer a historical look at the development of puppetry in the city as a marker and instigator of cultural change.
âPuppetry is a very old art and a very subversive art,â says Monxo LÃ³pez, member of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which organized the show. âThe puppeteers were a seedy bunch of people and the authorities were suspicious of their trust because the puppets are able to say things to power that humans cannot. My idea was to showcase the diversity of ‘puppet traditions’ – traditions, he says, that reflect the histories and migration lines that have shaped the city into what it is today. The irrepressible buffoon Punch, for example, came with the British; Over time, as diasporas settled in New York City from Asia, Africa and Latin America, newcomers added to the city’s line of puppets.
While putting on the show, LÃ³pez also dabbled in building and operating puppets himself, but soon realized he couldn’t. âIt’s not something you can learn on your own by watching YouTube,â he says. “It’s a very medieval art, you have to learn it with a senior puppeteer.”
But above all, the show will be fun: LÃ³pez’s 8-year-old daughter Xul has joined him on all studio visits to make sure. âWe’ll also have rock stars like Oscar the Grouch and Lamb Chop,â LÃ³pez says. “But in a way, all of these puppets come and are inspired by what we see on the streets of the city.”
New York Puppets opens at the Museum of the City of New York on August 13.