Wednesday, January 19, 2022

‘People are hungry for puppetry’

“The Bluest Eye" will be performed as a puppet drama Jan. 28-30 at the DuSable Museum.

     Chicago is a puppet town. Or was. Not only did the word “puppeteer” first see print here in 1915, but perhaps the most influential puppet show in American history, Burr Tillstrom’s “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” debuted on TV here in 1947. It not only got parents buying televisions en masse, but — my own pet theory — the funny, ad-libbed program helped spawn Chicago’s live improv comedy scene in the 1950s.
     Chicago is certainly Puppetville from now until the end of the month, as the 4th Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival takes over, offering 100 performances from 20 local and national companies at more than a dozen locations, from the American Indian Center in Albany Park to the DuSable Museum in Hyde Park.
     I’ve always felt an affinity to puppets. When the Festival began in 2015, I threw “Puppetry Week” on my blog, and tried to explain the appeal:
     This odd subcellar of culture, part sculpture, part folk art, part vaudeville, also has personal appeal to me. There is a kinship between journalism and puppetry. Both require dedicated craftsmen, albeit in dwindling numbers, practicing a profession that neither thrives nor vanishes, but somehow remains perpetually defunct. Both are rough simulacra of life; both had some legendary moment in the cultural spotlight in the hazy past — Hayden composed puppet operas for the royal court, a popular puppet dinner theater was steps off Michigan Avenue — but now linger on in the margins, practiced by various oddballs and misfits.
     Puppets are generally seen as comic, Kermit the Frog types. So it can surprise some that puppets are also dramatic, even tragic. Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” is being performed during the festival. One excerpt I saw in preview: Nick Lehane’s “The Chimpanzee,” to be performed at the Instituto Cervantes of Chicago Jan. 22-24, is a poignant, almost heartbreaking work about a chimp who once lived with a family, now mournfully remembering happier times, a captivity that strikes a chord in our COVID-19 locked-down world.
     “When we see puppets, we see ourselves in the puppets’ experience,” said Chicago puppeteer Blair Thomas, the festival founder and artistic director. “When we are caught up in the suffering of the pandemic, the puppet world is not caught up in that, but reflecting back, a mirror to us.”
     Last year Thomas didn’t consider holding the festival. Why risk it this year?

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  1. I wholeheartedly agree w/your theory about Kukla, Fran & Ollie & Chicago Improv. The show & style arose from the local theater scene which included the Chicago Repertory Group (featuring one Louis Terkel). Thomas Dyja's book "The Third Coast" does an excellent deep dive on that world, which he says "set text for improvisation, experimentation, topicality, and audience participation." Burr Tillstrom became a part of that scene, centered in Towertown (today's River North). Dyja includes a fascinating review of the development & progression of KF&O which I think supports your theory. Recommended reading. btw RIP Bill "B.J." Jackson, one of the great Chicago TV puppeteers of the 1970's.

    1. Oh, that's a great book. I particularly liked his scene with Mahalia Jackson campaigning for Richard J. Daley—how unexpected was THAT? I devote a page to Tillstrom in my upcoming book.

    2. I remember Thomas Dyja discussing "The Third Coast" at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square shortly after it was published. The number of notable Chicagoans gathered in the relatively small space was, uh, notable. My favorite part was during the question-and-answer period when Neil and Tony Fitzpatrick had a minor disagreement about some point or another, the subject of which eludes my memory. Two local treasures briefly going mano a mano, as it were, contributed to an interesting evening.

      I'm currently steeped in Mr. Tindall's more familiar period, finally getting around to "City of the Century."

  2. Looking forward to it. Dyja suggests that Daley's Machinery actually came through for his black voters w/jobs, favors, etc. And I am realizing I am much more familiar w/19th C. Chicago history than 20th (never heard of Towertown before). But w/this absorbing tome I'm quickly catching up.

  3. Great column. And I agree "The Third Coast" is a great read.

  4. Lots of people support puppetry.
    They are the puppets of T****!


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