Center for Puppetry Arts Announces New Acquisitions to its Worlds of Puppetry Museum

Staff Report From Metro Atlanta CEO

Wednesday, July 31st, 2019

The Center for Puppetry Arts is proud to announce that it has acquired a number of marionettes and props from the New England Marionette Opera (NEMO) that are now on display in the World of Puppetry Museum’s Global Gallery. The collection includes figures from NEMO’s 1994 production of “Porgy and Bess,” the very first, fully staged production of George Gershwin’s opera performed exclusively with puppets. The Gershwin estate insisted on seeing the production before it would grant permission for NEMO to add it to their repertoire. Gershwin trustees attended a performance, and NEMO became the only company that was ever permitted to stage the opera with puppets as well as include it in its collection.

To perform the tragic love story set in the fictional Charleston neighborhood of Catfish Row, artistic director Roger DuPen modeled all of the marionettes after famous African Americans. The Sportin’ Life character is designed to look like Sammy Davis Jr. who portrayed the role in the 1959 film in which he starred along with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandrige. Other puppets were modeled after Oprah, Boston Celtics star Robert Parish and MC Hammer, just to name a few. A total of 22 marionettes were used in the production, along with a company of eight puppeteers.

Additional donations include a witch from “Macbeth” and Escamillo from “Carmen,” along with props and playbills from all of NEMO’s productions.

Ted Leach, founder and director of the New England Marionette Opera, planned to reprise NEMO’s production of “Porgy and Bess” in 1999. However, on January 1, 1999, a fire raged through NEMO’s elegant 150 seat theater. Within 22 minutes, the fire destroyed the 156-year-old structure along with nine complete opera productions and close to 235 marionettes. While no one was hurt in the fire, the company could not recover from the emotional and financial setback and NEMO closed on December 31, 1999.

Miraculously, a few marionettes were recovered a few months after the fire. They had been almost completely preserved due to the sub-zero temperature of that fateful New Year’s Day. Leach had the vision to save those puppets and has generously donated them to the Center for Puppetry Arts to be conserved and protected for generations to come. The puppets are now on exhibit and carry the story of this unique American puppet company and American puppet opera. They live alongside Opera dei Pupi puppets and the Salzburg Marionettes, a reminder of the cross-cultural presence of puppetry and puppet theater.

"We are so pleased that our few remaining marionettes have now found a safe and prestigious haven at the Center for Puppetry Arts," said Ted Leach. "We can’t thank Founder and Executive Director Vince Anthony and his organization enough for offering a home for these survivors."

While the Center for Puppetry Arts is the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to puppetry in the U.S., the story of the New England Marionette Opera is reflective of the numerous theaters and museums in communities around the country and the world that work keep the art of puppetry alive.