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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Museum applauds arts of puppetry

Famous creatures find their stage at UConn

STORRS, Conn. -- The setting is about as unassuming as the name is grand. The four small galleries and gift shop of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry are strung through ordinary rooms of what was once a residential cottage for the mentally retarded.

Founded 10 years ago as a repository for the work of Frank Ballard, master puppeteer at the University of Connecticut, BIMP, as it is known, has become a magnet for donations of puppet collections that might otherwise have ended up in ``the trash heap of time," said Cheryl Gardner, the museum's director, during a recent tour.

The current exhibit, ``Bits & Pieces," features storybook characters crafted by legendary masters of puppet-making materials ranging from wood and cloth to foam and papier-mâché. Among them are works by Bil Baird and Tony Sarg, who in 1928 together developed the first helium-filled creations to float over the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Marionettes, mostly presented in dioramas designed to look like giant storybook pages, are a prominent part of the displays. Visitors learn that string puppets in the Orient are an art form dating 3,000 years. The Virgin Mary was the most popular character when marionettes appeared in 16th- century Europe, hence the name.

Masks are also considered a form of puppetry, according to Gardner, because at the heart of the craft is ``giving life to an inanimate object."

Ballard founded a graduate program in puppet arts at UConn in 1968. In the early days, Ballard staged elaborate puppet operas, often using soundtracks featuring some of the best-known voices of the day.

Preserving the more than 1,000 puppet characters Ballard and his students built for those productions was an impetus for starting the museum.

Ballard, born in 1929 in Alton, Ill., was a professor of dramatic arts at UConn and established the first bachelor of fine arts degree program in puppetry at an American university in 1966. He staged elaborate puppet operas, often using soundtracks featuring some of the best-known voices of the day. A decade later he founded the National Puppetry Institute at UConn.

Ballard was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in the '70s and retired in 1989. Preserving the more than 1,000 puppet characters he and his students built for those productions was an impetus for starting the museum (and Ballard lives nearby).

Among the artifacts that can be seen are marionettes created by Margo and Rufus Rose, who created puppets for television's ``The Howdy Doody Show" in the 1950s. The humor they brought to the task is evident in characters such as a grasshopper whose ``life is a picnic" outlook is juxtaposed with Ant Prissy, an insect dedicated to keeping her offspring's noses to the grindstone. ``There were a lot of puns," said Gardner.

The museum is on a secondary UConn campus that was formerly the Mansfield Training School. It is now a mix of dilapidated and overgrown structures and renovated building s that house various university programs. Have your driving directions in order before trying to find BIMP.

``We obviously have a challenge in attracting visitors because we're not on a main road and we're not near a downtown," said Gardner, ``but once people find us, they keep coming back." The museum mounts a new exhibit each year. In 2003 the Legislature proclaimed it Connecticut's official museum of puppetry.

What does Gardner think the attraction is? ``It's a kick in the imagination," she said. ``People in this high-tech age still yearn for something handmade."


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All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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