Putting on Puppet Shows with an Edge

Putting on Puppet Shows with an Edge

Puppeteering is rarely an obvious career choice, but how Margo Lovelace (1922-2022) came to be a puppeteer is actually quite logical. Beginning in her childhood, in Edgewood, Pennsylvania, she had restless hands; she was always painting or drawing or sculpting or sewing. She also loved to act. She was good, but not great, at all of it, and was vexed by the idea that to excel at one she had to give up the rest. She decided to take a crack at clothing design, and after high school she enrolled in a fashion program in New York, but she chafed at the commercial aspects of the apparel industry and left within a year. Back home, in 1952, she was hired to design and build displays for Kaufmann’s department store in Pittsburgh. It was the first time that she had done something that merged almost all of her interests, and, as her son David Visser told me recently, “she discovered that the sum was greater than the individual parts.”

Perhaps she would have been content finding her métier in window displays, but, soon after she started at Kaufmann’s, she was asked to stage a Punch-and-Judy show for kids at a local arts fair. bingo. Constructing the puppets, sewing their clothing, painting the backdrops, and then performing—it was exactly what she had hankered for. Discovering puppeteering changed her. Pre-Punch-and-Judy photos show Lovelace wearing angora knits and A-line skirts, prim and constricted. Post-Punch-and-Judy, there is Lovelace swanning around in a turquoise-velvet, rhinestone-encrusted top, with an ostrich feather in her hair; and there she is sporting a billowy orange-and-purple blouson and several inches of aqua eyeshadow. She held on to her display job for a short while, but the minute she landed a four-week gig on a marionette show (this one at Gimbels, another department store in town) she quit her job at Kaufmann’s and dived in.

Soon after, she signed on to stage regular shows at yet another department store, Frank & Seder. (Who knew that department stores were so instrumental in the development of puppeteering?) At the time, she knew only the basics of the craft, but, after she joined the Puppeteers of America, a professional organization, she met Cedric Head, the seasoned operator of a prominent puppet company, who became her mentor. She apprenticed with him in Vermont and then returned to Pittsburgh, where she had established a puppet troupe she called Margo’s Moppets. By the early nineteen-sixties, her puppets—moppets no more, they were now known as the Lovelace Marionettes—were famous in Pittsburgh, and she was a local celebrity. She was charismatic. “People loved being around her,” Visser said. “She inspired people to want to be in her orbit, to help her out. It was a mysterious attribute of hers.” (Visser began directing some of the theater presentations when he was a teen-ager. “It was the way to be close to my mom,” he said.) Scores of young people interned with Lovelace Marionettes, including the acclaimed theater director Peter Sellars , who started working with her when he was only eleven years old. “I knocked on Margo’s door and my life changed,” Sellars told me. “She created an amazing ecosystem. She had high standards. You made everything by hand. For me, the beauty was in how serious she was about the deep traditions and skills of puppet theatre.”

She also stood out, Sellars said, for being an independent, creative woman in an era when that wasn’t easy. By the time Lovelace Marionettes was in its heyday, she was managing as a single mother of three children and proving to be a canny businessperson. In 1964, she bought a building in a bohemian Pittsburgh neighborhood and on the ground floor she opened a theater for her troupe—she referred to it as her “dream palace,” but its origin was as a ramshackle garage. (It is believed to be the first permanent puppet theater in the United States.) Then she began purchasing and renovating six adjacent buildings, which were going for a song. Rent from those properties helped subsidize the theatre, and, over time, in part thanks to its presence, the entire neighborhood spiffed up.

She wasn’t content to simply churn out the usual children’s fare. If she was staging “Rumpelstiltskin,” she would reimagine it as a story unfolding in ancient Egypt. Yes, she did the prop “Beauty and the Beast,” but she set it in Japan, incorporating what she’d learned at a Bunraku theater in Osaka. After spending a month studying with the avant-garde puppeteer Sergey Obraztsov, in Moscow, she decided to present shows for adults as well as kids. Her taste ran to the experimental—the likes of Jean Cocteau, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Giraudoux. “This wasn’t exactly standard fare in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” Sellars said. If she had time off, she’d head somewhere such as the Yucatán and study mask work and ritual. She was hungry to see just how far the seemingly benign craft of the puppet show could be pushed—how far she could take conceptual art and surrealism within the confines of a department-store window or a Pittsburgh garage. In 1977, she relocated Lovelace Marionettes to the Carnegie Museum of Art. The venue was bigger and perhaps more prestigious, but she missed her old theater and the feeling that she had complete artistic control.

Even after she retired, Lovelace kept creating. She knitted and sewed and made jewelry, her hands still restless. She never became a sweet old lady; she kept creating work that had dark, intense realities and jarring visions and unyielding creativity. She had long believed that even kids benefitted from seeing art that was challenging—and to her delight she discovered that the people of Pittsburgh embraced that idea. Many of her puppets—all handmade, some constructed out of pots and pans or other flotsam—are in the collection of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Comparing her with another of the city’s artistic stalwarts, Sellars said, “She was her own anti-Mr. Roger’s.” ♦

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