Peace, Love, and Puppets: Why adults may need the Center for Puppetry Arts more than kids do

The Midtown museum, playhouse, and education center, which turns 40 this month, is one of the only institutions of its caliber in the world.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta Vincent Anthony Jon Ludwig
Center for Puppetry Arts founder Vincent Anthony, on left, and artistic director Jon Ludwig

Photograph by Ben Rollins

“Puuuuu-pet!” “Puuuuu-pet!” The chant echoes through the halls during the Center for Puppetry Arts’s annual summer camp. “Puh-ah-uh-ah-pet!” belts the leader in an operatic falsetto. “Puuuuh-huh-huh-huh-pettttt!” she cackles like the Wicked Witch of the West. Campers chime into the call-and-response—clapping and shouting that magical word, the reason why everyone is here: “Puppet!”

On this Tuesday afternoon, puppeteer Jeffrey Zwartjes is talking to a roomful of curious tweens about how to invent a character. Half hipster, half camp counselor, he sports thick-rimmed glasses and a thicker beard, a newsboy hat, and a pair of calf-high, striped tube socks that look straight out of Stranger Things. On a whiteboard easel, he sketches different examples, explaining how the shape of a head can convey personality. Square faces are stronger and brawnier; the puppet might be a bully—or a robot. A smaller, round face is happier. He asks the kids for suggestions.

“Draw a chicken nugget person!” exclaims camper Emerson.

“Okay, a chicken nugget person,” Zwartjes plays along. He draws a squiggly oval, then adds facial features suggested by the kids, who are sitting around the room on carpet squares. A crusty mouth that drips sauce. Acne. Big doe eyes.

“It looks like Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” someone murmurs.

Animated junk food isn’t the only thing that the Center for Puppetry Arts has in common with Cartoon Network. Both are Atlanta exclusives. Think about it: Pretty much every major city has universities, professional sports teams, art museums, zoos, ballets, and historic sites, but only Atlanta claims a world-renowned puppetry institution—or Adult Swim. In fact, during the 1996 Olympics, international visitors flocked to the Center because, as administrative director Lisa Rhodes explains, it wasn’t something they could experience back home. Some area attractions actually lost business during the Games, she says, but the Center was overwhelmed, adding midnight performances to accommodate demand. “I felt bad for the other venues,” Rhodes says. “They would call us and ask, ‘Is anybody coming there?’ because they were like crickets. I felt guilty. We were so slammed.”

That was when Newsweek decreed the ensemble “one of the most exciting companies in American theater.” Founded by Vincent Anthony 40 years ago this month, it is the largest nonprofit dedicated to puppetry in the nation and one of only a few such international organizations. It hosts around 17 shows each season on its two stages, about half a dozen of which are original productions. The others are presented by puppeteers from across the United States and around the globe. The Center also houses a museum with a 4,000-piece collection, provides more than 1,600 hours of educational programming annually, hosts well over 100,000 visitors each season, and acts as the U.S. headquarters for UNIMA, the world’s largest puppetry organization.

Serving as a museum, performance space, and education center all rolled into one makes the Center stand out on the world stage. “There is no other place on Earth that makes it as accessible to discover, view, or experience the art of puppetry,” says Paul Robinson, the executive director of Puppeteers of America.

Cheryl Henson, daughter of Muppet inventor Jim Henson and president of her late father’s foundation, says, “There is only one Center for Puppetry Arts in the United States. We are so lucky that it exists.”

For the Center’s 78 full- and part-time staffers
, working here isn’t so much a job as a calling. More than half have been with the Center for five years or longer; a quarter have been employed there at least a decade.

Aretta Baumgartner, who heads up the education department, just celebrated her seventh work anniversary. In front of the campers, she is constantly in motion, jumping and waving with all the enthusiasm and dramatic flair of Oprah unveiling her Favorite Things, her short, merlot-colored locks bobbing, fingernails sparkling with glitter, and her gold necklace flashing PUPPET in block letters.

Baumgartner’s quick timing and spot-on delivery betray her roots as a theater student. Just after graduation from Ashland University in northern Ohio, she reluctantly accepted an internship with a scrappy Cincinnati company, Madcap Puppets. Back then, she was mortified at the thought of becoming a professional puppeteer. “I was a serious actor, right? I wanted to do edgy theater,” she recalls. But her internship quickly convinced her that “puppetry is a serious art form.”

Now, she oversees all of the center’s learning opportunities—eight to 14 weekly puppet-making workshops, outreach programs at venues like schools or libraries, summer day camps, and quieter performances customized for children on the autism spectrum. She also teaches more than a hundred puppet performance and history workshops to high school and college students each year, traveling to Denver, Tampa, and Memphis—even overseas to countries as small as Bahrain and Honduras. It’s not unusual for her to pull 80-hour weeks. Still, she can’t believe she’s lucky enough to work at “the mothership.”

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta Aretta Baumgartner
Education director Aretta Baumgartner shows off a hand-and-rod puppet.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Baumgartner spreads the gospel of puppetry with the passion of an evangelist, referring to the Center’s outreach as an urgent mission. And if you ask why it’s so important to teach new generations, her answer is simple and adamant: “We have no choice.”

“Puppetry is a universal language,” she says. The smaller the world gets—as technology and globalization bring us closer to those who speak different languages, look different, and hold different values—the more important it is to find common ground and the less we can rely on the spoken word to connect. But all humanity, Baumgartner argues, shares a passion for storytelling.

“Before we had written and spoken communication, we used objects,” she says. “It’s in our human DNA to communicate with objects.”

One of the biggest challenges
the Center faces is that, in the U.S., puppetry is often viewed as juvenile entertainment. Baumgartner attributes this partly to the advent of television. When producers in the 1950s and ’60s needed inexpensive family programming, she says, it was easy to hire “a dude or gal with a bunch of puppets.” Not that this was a bad thing: It spawned beloved children’s characters such as Howdy Doody, Lamb Chop, and, eventually, Kermit the Frog. But in many other countries, Baumgartner explains, puppetry is predominantly for adults. “We’re just catching up,” she says. “We’ve got some work to do to respect this art form.”

But attitudes seem to be shifting. Puppets now make regular appearances on Broadway in shows such as War Horse, The Lion King, and Frozen. Jim Henson’s 1982 cult classic, The Dark Crystal, is being revived as a Netflix series. Puppet slams, similar to their poetry counterparts, are cropping up all over the United States.

The Center is producing more adult programming than ever. A couple of classics—vaudevillian Halloween favorite The Ghastly Dreadfuls and the annual Xperimental Puppetry Theater, a variety show of avant-garde media—have been around for more than a decade. However, two newer programs, the annual National Puppet Slam and a costume ball (this year themed after The Dark Crystal), are gaining traction at Dragon Con, which added a puppetry track, run by Center community coordinator Beau Brown in 2012. After long, winding lines outside the original, 150-person­–capacity room at the Marriott Marquis jammed up the hallways, the convention now allocates them more than double the space. And, year-round, the Center has introduced adults-only events such as “Puppets and Pints,” which offers a cash bar and a chance to view the museum without having to maneuver around excited children. That program, plus “Fizz and Foam,” a mimosa and puppet-making brunch, sell out quickly.

Artistic director Jon Ludwig’s adaptation of Rankin/Bass’s stop motion animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, first staged in 2010, has also proved a nostalgic hit with adults and has become as much of a holiday tradition as the Nutcracker ballet. Its message of inclusion—for nonconformists like Hermey, the elf who wanted to become a dentist instead of a toymaker; Charlie, the jack-in-the-box whose name wasn’t Jack; and, of course, Rudolph—still resonates. “They get it,” Ludwig muses, remembering how he felt when he watched the show as a kid. “They get what it’s like to be a misfit.”

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta
The Center’s annual staging of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has become an Atlanta holiday tradition.

Photograph by Clay Walker

Indeed, puppeteers can be misfits. Their art form doesn’t get as much mainstream attention as music, film, or dance. It’s a small but tightly knit community: Baumgartner describes the Puppeteers of America’s regional festivals as “family reunions.” She and Anthony are both self-admitted introverts, attracted to acting because it allowed them to express emotion without having to reveal their authentic selves. Baumgartner says when she performed in her high school band and color guard, the flag and flute were essentially her puppets. “I’ve always been using a thing I can express myself through, because part of me is terrified of sharing myself,” she says. “Being a stand-up comic would scare the heck out of me.”

Like Baumgartner
, Anthony has roots in theater. The Florida native studied acting at New York’s Herbert Berghof Studio, and, in 1964, he answered a classified ad seeking a puppeteer and auditioned for a company called the Nicolo Marionettes.

“I fell in love at the audition,” he says, sitting at the oak conference table that fills much of his office at the Center. A soft-spoken man in a crisp white dress shirt and slacks, he talks slowly, putting care into every word. “They gave me this [marionette], and when I started working it, all the eyes in the room went to it, and it fascinated me. They thought I did a superb job manipulating it, but in reality, I had no idea what I was doing.”

He toured the country with the company’s production of Pinocchio, and in 1966, he moved back to the South to launch his own company in Atlanta, the Vagabond Marionettes. They performed at the Woodruff Arts Center for nearly a decade, and when the Spring Street building—formerly a historic school integrated by the children of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy—became available in the late 1970s, Anthony seized the opportunity for a more permanent performance space.

As president of Puppeteers of America, Anthony had gotten to know Jim Henson, whose television show Sesame Street debuted in 1969, followed by The Muppet Show in 1976, helping take the genre mainstream. When Anthony invited his mentor to the opening celebration in Atlanta, Henson replied, “Well, Kermit will be there, and maybe he’ll bring me along.” On September 23, 1978, Henson and Kermit the Frog cut the ribbon in front of a crowd of about 200 people.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta 1970 JIm Henson
Jim Henson and Kermit at the grand opening in 1978.

Photograph courtesy of the Center for Puppetry Arts

Anthony’s work alongside Henson planning the 1980 World Puppetry Festival truly inspired the Center’s mission. The international festival—based on three core tenets of performance, education, and exhibition—drew artists and puppeteers from 20 different countries to the Kennedy Center, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Smithsonian. Anthony adapted the festival’s principles here in Atlanta and, more importantly, realized his center needed to have a global outlook. After all, puppetry has a wide-reaching history. In India, puppets are mentioned in the epic poem The Mahabharata, the oldest segments of which date back to 400 BC. In England, Punch and Judy, the comedic duo that delighted British audiences in the 1700s, still perform today.

The Center’s Global Collection boasts thousands of artifacts; a tall Sicilian knight named “Orlando” greets visitors at the entrance. Among the oldest in the collection are two clay figures from the Huasteca region of Mexico dated 1200–1500 AD, thought to have been used in ceremonial rituals. There are Vietnamese figures that dance upon the surface of water and would have been operated by puppeteers standing waist-deep in a pool behind a screen. And it takes three puppeteers to operate each 17th-century Japanese bunraku puppet—not to mention the 10 years required to master operating each part.

Because nearly every culture has some form of puppetry, the collection allows visitors to connect with their ancestry in a unique way. “You get to see your origins, and that’s quite important,” Anthony says. “It’s an inherent part of human nature to want to connect to our roots. We all want to explore who we are and where we came from.”

This multicultural perspective was something Anthony and Henson shared. “I think Jim was very proud of the fact that we were focusing globally on puppetry and advancing the art form, because it was his vision to not only create this Muppet empire but to be a part of the global puppetry community,” says Anthony. The two remained close until Henson’s sudden death in 1990. “He was always there when I needed him,” Anthony says. “He would sign little toy Kermits to raffle off. He did two live shows for our 10th anniversary. People around the world paid attention to the art of puppetry because of Jim Henson,” Anthony says. “I think [the Center] is a tribute to Jim’s genius.”

In 2015, the Center underwent its biggest transformation yet
with a $14 million renovation that expanded the museum by 7,500 square feet. The annual budget is now close to $4 million, with major support from the Hensons, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Fulton County, foundations like the Gay and Erskine Love Foundation, and major corporations like Home Depot and Turner. The permanent collection is now split into two sections: one devoted to Henson and his Muppets, the other highlighting global puppetry traditions.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta

Photograph by Sara Hanna Photography

The Henson family donated a collection of more than 500 puppets, props, and costumes to the Center in 2007, but a monumental task accompanied the gift: The puppets built for Henson’s TV shows and movies were never designed to be on display, or even to last longer than the initial runs of their performances. As the puppets sat in storage for decades, the foam that shaped their bodies began to deteriorate and crumble.

Enter Russ Vick and Vito Leanza, who in the past four and a half years have painstakingly repaired creatures from The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, Labyrinth, and other Henson favorites.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta Russ Vick
Russ Vick examines urAc, a scribe from The Dark Crystal.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

On one Friday afternoon in June, Vick stands behind a cluttered workbench in his studio at the Center, examining one of the final Henson puppets in need of care. The tabletop in front of him is littered with paintbrushes, napkins, syringes, and plastic bottles with hand-scrawled labels (“Elixer of the DEAD,” one reads). A silicone mat holds what look like tiny, jagged pebbles but are actually pieces of foam that have crumbled from urAc, a scribe from The Dark Crystal. UrAc’s body parts are scattered around the room. Its massive hips, big enough to hold a human puppeteer, sit on a nearby table; a hand lies near the skull. The tail splays across a plastic shelf. The characters that Vick is preparing for the museum’s Dark Crystal special exhibition, which opened on Labor Day weekend, look startlingly real. UrAc’s expression is tired yet wise. Its eyes are sunken, cheeks sagging. Thin white hairs sprout out of tiny pores near its eyebrows and mouth. Near it on the other end of the table, a sinister, birdlike creature called a Skeksis snarls with sharp, curved, yellow teeth, its bloodshot blue eyes locked in a disarming stare.

As a conservationist, Vick uses as little new material as possible to plug cracks and holes. He gathers the crumbled foam latex that stuck to the bubble wrap securing the puppets, collected in the bottom of storage trunks, or even clung to a puppet’s clothing and tries to place the pieces, some as small as a pencil lead, back exactly where they belong. He even fills in some gaps with the degraded foam dust. He maps 3-D models to document the puppet’s inner workings, because, he says, “once this goes together, it’s not coming apart again.” For Vick, the tedious task is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save the very fantastical characters he worshipped at the movie theater when he was growing up in tiny Boston, Georgia. And while conservation of the Center’s Henson collection is nearly complete, he’s likely to keep his unique gig; both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum and the Smithsonian have expressed interest in having him repair their Henson relics.

Across the hall, resident puppet builder Jason Hines is painting a purple moose in watercolor on a large sketchpad, a design for the Center’s upcoming spring debut of Harold and the Purple Crayon. He’s trying to figure out how to turn the two-dimensional line art of the beloved 1955 children’s book into three-dimensional puppets. A sculpture of Harold sits on a shelf near the door, next to a sculpture of Pete the Cat, the Center’s hit adaptation of 2017. At another table, puppet shop manager Carole D’Agostino is resizing a vivid yellow-and-orange lion costume, worn in a production of The Tortoise, the Hare & Other Aesop’s Fables by a 5-foot woman, to fit a 6-foot-6 man. Everything for the Center’s original shows is built in-house. Each puppet is crafted in this shop. Elaborate sets are built in the large scene shop just a few steps over.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta Jason Hines
Jason Hines works on elf hands in the puppet shop.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

D’Agostino and Hines are both graduates of the University of Connecticut’s Puppet Arts program, one of the only schools in the country to offer degrees in puppetry. Founded in the 1960s, it teaches not only the fundamentals of performance but also theatrical components such as set design and costuming. Hines’s thesis, an original show titled The Tragic History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr. Faustus, was performed only once. Hines made Satan’s inferno appear as realistic as possible by torching the entire set at the end.

Of course, very few puppeteers have written a thesis, much less had formal training. Ludwig, the Emmy-nominated mastermind behind dozens of the Center’s original shows, started with the Center only a couple of weeks after it opened, responding to a newspaper ad that said, “puppeteer wanted; will train.” Although he had studied theater at Chicago’s Columbia College, he was never motivated by classic playwrights like Shakespeare or Neil Simon. “It’s already been done, so why do it?” he says. He was more interested in building his own original universe, something puppetry uniquely allows you to do. As Anthony puts it, “You can create an entire world that’s an inch tall or 18 feet tall.”

“That’s the wonderful thing about puppetry,” Ludwig says. “You can do everything. Nobody’s gonna tell you no.”

Back at Puppet Camp
, the kids have moved to a production room, where they’re gathered around square tables to sculpt details onto their characters’ Styrofoam heads with paper clay. Baumgartner nods at the pieces in one camper’s hands. “Is that part of your show?”

“It’s a penguin,” he says.

“Wait, are you serious?” Baumgartner gasps. “Don’t tease me; I love penguins.”

“It’s a penguin. An evil penguin,” he says, giggling. “An evil, man-eating penguin.”

“I could not be more excited,” she exclaims, and you get the sense that, while any adult hams it up around young children, she really is.

Puppets can be especially therapeutic in today’s world of sensory overload, she explains. For children and adults, especially those with focus issues, a puppet can be a “magnet that allows you to breathe.”

Oddly, technology has changed how children react to puppetry. Young kids, accustomed to interacting with screens, don’t always realize performers are physically present. Accustomed to jabbing touchscreens, they sometimes get “accidentally aggressive” with puppets, Baumgartner says. Tech-savvy children are stunned when a show magically comes to life. Ask anyone who’s ever read The Velveteen Rabbit—it’s powerful when toys become real.

“If you go to another art form, theater or dance, you’re looking at a person representing a thing,” Anthony says. “The puppet is the thing.”

Spontaneity is also part of the formula. Midway through day one of camp, kids are handed markers and name tags and told to write down whatever name they want to be called. One camper decided to go by “Car.” Another put a lone question mark on his name tag. When Baumgartner asked him why, he replied, “I’m a man of mystery.”

This playful thread flows into adult workshops, too. Last year, puppeteer Qate Bean hosted one called “Making Things Out of Stuff with Bean & Bear” where she and her puppetry partner, Michael Butler (who indeed performs in a bear costume), demonstrated how to build puppets out of trash collected from around the Center. Says 33-year-old Bean, “I’ve learned it’s invaluable to be able to step into a safe place where you can leave grown-up stuff at the door and just be present in the moment.”

“I don’t think we as adults give ourselves quite enough permission to play,” Baumgartner adds. Psychologists have long recognized the value of play to children’s development, but Baumgartner insists adults need it, too. It’s critical in puppetry, of course—“They’re called ‘plays’ for a reason,” she says—and a sense of fearlessness allows for greater creativity. But it also extends to work and personal relationships.

“To work with others, you have to make yourself humble and take chances,” she says. “We have to express ourselves. We have to say, ‘I’m just gonna put it out there.’ That’s a sense of play, and that’s really critical.”

“I don’t know that we ever lose that childlike wonder, but we mask it,” Anthony says. “When we can reunite with that part of us, it’s wonderful. ‘Oh, I still have that. I can do that still.’”

♦ ♦ ♦

The Center for Puppetry Arts through the years

The Center for Puppetry Arts opens at the Spring Street School. Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog host the ribbon-cutting.

Xperimental Puppetry Theater, an annual showcase of avant-garde puppetry
for adults, begins.

Jon Ludwig pens and directs his first show for the center, Brer Rabbit. He would go on to write dozens of the Center’s award-winning original shows.

The Center celebrates its 10th anniversary with The Muppets Take Atlanta, performed by Jim Henson.

The Downstairs Theater, the Center’s second stage, opens.

The Center becomes the headquarters for UNIMA-USA, the U.S. branch of the largest international puppetry organization.

22,000 people (roughly the population of Acworth) descend upon the Center during the Olympic Arts Festival.

The Center’s research library opens to the public. In 2009, it is rededicated as the Nancy Lohman Staub Puppetry Research Library in honor of the museum collection’s founder.

The Center begins offering its distance learning program, which in the 2016–2017 school year reached more than 11,000 children in 29 states and four countries.

The Ford Foundation awards the Center a $1.25 million grant.

The Center develops a relationship with Camp Kudzu, which serves children with Type 1 diabetes.

Jane Fonda attends the annual String Fling Gala and is given a custom Barbarella marionette built by Jason Hines.

Ludwig is nominated for an Emmy for directing Disney Channel’s The Book of Pooh.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta Ghastly Dreadfuls
The Ghastly Dreadfuls

Photograph by Clay Walker

The Ghastly Dreadfuls, written by Ludwig and Hines, is staged for the first time.

The Henson family announces they will donate more than 500 Muppet artifacts to the Center, the world’s largest collection.

During the recession, the Center provides more than 80,000 free or reduced-price tickets to students.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Photograph by Clay Walker

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer premieres.

The Center hosts its first National Puppet Slam.

Sockly, the Center’s giant sock puppet mascot, makes its debut.

The Worlds of Puppetry Museum opens in November after a $14 million renovation and expansion.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta
The Tiny Door at the Center for Puppetry Arts

Photograph by Myrydd Wells

The Center gets its very own Tiny Door.

The Spring Street School building turns 100 as the Center turns 40.

This article appears in our September 2018 issue.