1 Silver Dragon 3 Pigeons 1 Crow Head (no body) 3 Halloween Heads (no bodies)
The list goes on, but the president of the Jeffersonville Chamber of Commerce looked pleased. He and a companion had driven 2 1/2 hours to the New York Puppet Lending Library thinking they’d borrow a few puppets for the upcoming Jeffersonville Jamboree, but ended up scoring 18. Initially, they didn’t know what to expect, having learned from a local newspaper article about a puppet library operating out of one side of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn. The article didn’t mention a phone number; there could be an enormous line, the trip could be a complete bust. It wasn’t. “I was kind of floored by the take-as-many-as-you-want policy,” Greg Brooks, an antiques dealer and said Chamber of Commerce president later noted. “It really seemed almost too good to be true.”
Run by the Puppeteers’ Cooperative — a group of puppeteers based in Boston and New York with members spread out along the East Coast — the 100 or so puppets stored inside the Brooklyn monument have the same mission as a good book from the public library: Circulate. Theresa Linnihan is the regular librarian, but on a mid-summer afternoon, Jill Reinier, a storyteller and director of Flying Bridge Arts, minded the store.
Visitors are encouraged to climb the spiral staircase and browse the collection, which stand at attention along landings, propped up against walls, or set atop a convenient staircase post. The assortment is vast. There are 16- and 20-foot tall numbers like “City Puppet”, a veteran of Boston’s First Night Parade; or “Bride and Groom”, an oversized pair commissioned for a Long Island wedding which even a novice can strap on like a backpack to operate. There are smaller ones, too; dragons, all sorts of birds, and ponies which a child can ride. “We’ve made it a study to engineer our puppets so that they’re very light,” says Linnihan from her home in Brooklyn, noting that even the massive-looking, 20-foot puppets fold up conveniently into a car.
Open only on Saturdays from May to October, the library sees about 30 to 50 patrons on a given day; many are performers or community groups looking to borrow puppets for street festivals and block parties. Dancing skeletons are popular around Halloween and for Day of the Dead celebrations, but there’s also the occasional activist looking to spice up the next demonstration or rally. Don’t ask for a George Bush puppet, they don’t have them. As Linnihan points out, a Puppeteers’ Cooperative puppet is more likely to pop up in a play about affordable housing and community gardens than in a White House protest. Borrow as many as you can carry, the organization only asks for basic contact information, which is kept in a notebook, and a suggested donation of $5.
Do the puppets come back? “We haven’t had a single theft since we’ve been open,” says Linnihan with a mixture of pride and pleasure in her voice. “It really restores your faith in human nature. I think it’s because when you trust people, they respond in an honorable way.”
Once the fellows from the Jeffersonville Jamboree were on their way, Reinier had a moment between visitors to catch her breath. “It’s kind of a magical space to climb around,” she observed, and she’s right. Just stepping through the yellow door into a hollow arch filled with puppets is like discovering the wardrobe to Narnia or finding Platform Nine and Three-quarters to catch the Hogwarts Express, only it’s all in plain sight. Outside, cars zoom by Grand Army Plaza, shoppers buy fresh corn from the green market across the street, and a real bride and groom pose for the camera, unaware that right under their nose, “City Puppet” waits for someone to take her home.
Bas Sax/The Bass Saxophone, a marionette production from The Czechoslovak American Marionette Theatre, plays every weekend through October 30 at the Memorial Arch. Shows are Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3 & 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. For further information, visit www.czechmarionettes.org.