Playing on The Job: The rare collections at the Northwest Puppet Center
by Esti Shay, MLIS Day

Books, puppets, toys and tea – a pleasant way to spend a Friday afternoon. My visit to the Northwest Puppet Center left the impression of a kaleidescope of colors, rows of grinning intricately carved faces, a collage of regional folkart traditions…and a sudden craving to check out the next show.

Located on the corner of 15th Ave NE & NE 91st St, this former church is the home of the Northwest Puppet Center (NWPC) and the Carter Family Marionettes. Purchased and renovated in 1993, it includes the auditorium, the library, a kitchen, an office, several workrooms, and display cases for their museum exhibits. In autumn of 2004, I interviewed Stephen Carter with two classmates for our 520 ‘Top Ten’ project. This month, I returned to speak with his son, Dmitri, about their archival library and puppet collections. These collections, the work of thirty-plus years of traveling and collecting, cover a wide range of theater traditions.

Puppetry is found in cultures around the world, and there are a variety of theories about its origins--whether it started in one placed and traveled or naturally evolved in many cultures. Four main types of puppetry are found worldwide: hand puppets, iron rod, shadow, and string marionettes. All four can be seen in various productions at the NWPC, and more can be learned through their various educational programs.

In addition to regularly working with local schools and community centers, the Carters have also previously given a basic puppet crafts workshop to iSchool students. The NWPC mission, according to their website, is to “Present top quality puppet theater from around the world, Teach puppetry skills and cultural knowledge to a new generation, Serve children and adults by providing entertainment and education, Preserve and promote international traditions of puppetry.” Their usual season includes one or two new shows, three stock shows, and three guest artists per year – and includes one opera.

That’s right. A marionette opera. NWPC is performs a classic form of puppetry called “Opera dei Pupi.” This Sicilian art form involves large-scale puppets manipulated with iron rods, either two and a half to three feet tall or five feet tall, depending on the specific style. But I digress.

Because you really want to hear about the books, don’t you? While their archival puppets date from the 1800s, their book collection goes back to the 1700s. Much of their archival items originated in Italy, both books and puppets, but they have materials from across the globe. English, French, Dutch, Italian, Greek, Czech, German, Russian, Japanese and Chinese are all represented in their literature. The rare and archival materials, focusing mainly on puppetry and related arts that have influenced puppetry over the centuries, are stored in the cabinet pictured (with a drawer below the shelves). They have a first edition of the first English book published about puppetry, “A Second Tale of a Tub” also known as “The History of Robert Powell the Puppet Show Man,” the biography of a Punch & Judy puppeteer. Originally published in 1715, this copy is rebound and in excellent shape for its age. With Powell’s tale sits copies of Pinocchio, Commedia dell'arte scripts and scenarios (1721), a film of another Opera dei Pupi company (now defunct), and more.

The rest of the library addresses the broader needs of a puppeteer – lighting, stagecraft, costuming, art, folk and fairy tales, regional puppet history, sheet music, videos, scripts and paintings. This library serves as a source of research and inspiration not only for the Carter family, but also for visiting artists, journalists, authors and directors who want to know more about puppetry. An information science student might wonder, how is it all organized? What system of classification do they use? The general library is organized by subject, and the rare books are organized by geographic region (America, Africa, Asia, and Europe). The library has no catalog.

The puppet center also has regular museum exhibits, selected from their holdings and those of other collectors. The current exhibit is of toy and model theaters – an area that straddles the line between printing, puppetry, models and toys. Model theaters are of actual theaters, some extending into the audience and including box seats, and these provide glimpses into historical theater design. Some were sold as souvenirs as people exited the theater after a show, so that reenactments could take place at home. Toy theater was a parlor entertainment as well as play for children, and since these paper theaters are so fragile it is rare that they survive intact. Many items found in good condition today are still on the sheet, never cut out. The museum is operated without a budget, but available for view before and after performances and by appointment. Puppet enthusiasts from other countries visiting the U.S. occasionally stop in Seattle to see these exhibits.

Okay, I know what you really want to hear about. It’s the puppets right?

The oldest puppet in the NWPC collection is from approximately 1820-1850. While his control strings are mostly gone and his costume is definitely showing its age, the face is shows its marvelous artistry, and the back of the head is removable to display the inner mechanisms. They also have a complete cast of twenty-three hand puppets from Bergama, a professional set, never used and in excellent condition, dating from approximately 1850. Most of them still have their feather quill nametags attached. The NWPC puppet collection, a mix of puppets from previous shows, gifts from fellow puppeteers, donations, and antique acquisitions from around the world, is a wonderful resource but, like many things that begin without a system of organization in place, the full range of the collection is unknown. As part of the project for the Museum Loan Network and with support from the Pew Charitable Trust and the Knight Foundation, one-thousand pieces from the NWPC collection, including puppets and a few model theaters, were surveyed, described and entered into an Excel file. Based on guidelines from the Getty modified by the MIT Office of the Arts, the Carters described those one-thousand based on dimensions, quantity, condition, approximate date, region of origin, etc. (For more info, see the MLN participant information guide.) Dmitri estimates there are more than one-thousand more items in the puppet center still uncataloged. As a result, the Carters often find surprises when they peruse their storage areas, finding items they had forgotten about, or items whose condition they had misremembered (for good or bad). Classification anyone? Database creation and management? Do I hear the big P word, portfolio? In case you’re wondering, the NWPC would love to get some iSchool help.

And how do they collect these items? Networking mainly, and also the internet helps too. They have a book dealer friend in England, there is a retired librarian in Olympia who donates to them, and luckily puppetry is unusual enough that items are not as costly as other antique books. Casper, a comic character from German countries (in this case is a hand puppet resembling a crocodile/dragon mix dating from the 1920s-30s), was donated by a widow of an East Coast professor who had been teaching with the puppet for years. Dmitri reported the donations account for a large portion of their incoming items, often people who just want the puppets to have a good home. NWPC is a member of Puppeteers of America, Puppeteers of Puget Sound, and Union Internationale de la Marionnette. He describes the global puppeteer community as fairly small, where everyone knows everyone else. While the Northwest Puppet Center is a far cry from Cheers, its colorful inhabitants create a sense of excitement, wonder and awe that brought back to this reporter childhood memories of Carter Family shows at the local public library and a renewed respect for the craft and history of this international art form.

For more information about the library and upcoming performances, please visit the NWPC website:

For more pictures from my visit, including backstage pictures from the most recent show, “Cinderella,” please visit my picture page.


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Page last updated: February 1, 2006