Sunday, August 8, 2010

San Diego Revisited, Part 3: The Puppet Theatre

Here is the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, in San Diego (official tourism slogan: "28 Days Without a Commercial Airliner Landing on Someone's Head"). Specifically, the theatre is located in the heart of Balboa Park, which is near the spleen of Balboa Park, which is just around the corner from the pancreas of Balboa Park, which is where they keep the Spreckels organ.* The theatre has an interesting story behind it, which I almost never found out because I almost never went in. This was a direct result of the music playing outside, a perky canned rendition of "Sing a Song of Sixpence," sung with such ooey-gooey jollity as to make Barney the Dinosaur look like Darth Vader.

Now don't mistake me (SEGUE XING); technically, I'm all for children's entertainment. It and I go way back, in fact: I have fond memories of taking a car trip, at age two, from Nebraska to Connecticut, while listening to an audiocassette of the cheery vocal stylings of Disney singer Larry Groce, as aided by the Disneyland Children's Chorus, delivering such numbers as "It's A Small World After All."** This is all very well and good,*** until you consider that when you are two years old, your natural tendency is to listen to such tapes over and over and over and over and over and over and OVER AND OVER AND OVER, until the others in the car (because, you see, there are others in the car) are moved to turn to Satan-worship. Chances are everything will turn out okay, though, and eventually everyone will remember that car trip fondly, due to having finally been able to purge the songs from their psyches somewhere around your sophomore year of college.

But there comes a point (your sophomore year of college) when you begin to put aside such juvenile affinities and acknowledge, with affection yet maturity, that they cause you to barf. So that's why (END OF SEGUE XING) I almost didn't go into the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre, but I'm so glad I ultimately did. First of all, I noticed there were puppets for sale. This was extremely dangerous for me because I would go into pretty much anywhere there were puppets for sale, including places with names like Uncle Nick's House of Unanesthetized Open-Heart Surgery and Deep-Dish Pizza.

While I was geeking out over puppets I struck up a conversation with a nice guy who turned out to be one of the theatre puppeteers, preparing for that afternoon's show. Although unfortunately I now can't recall his name, we chatted for quite some time - he was eager to introduce adult puppet theatre to the company repertoire, which I admired - and he showed me around the theatre. I had explained that I was a scholar of the puppet arts, having written a research project in France entitled L'art de la marionnette dans les années 1930 et regards sur aujourd'hui (literally, "DUDE!! There are PUPPETS FOR SALE here!!!")

The Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre, I learned, is the oldest continuously operating puppet theatre in the United States (they put the emphasis on "continuously"; some of the other puppet theatres have occasionally gotten up to go to the bathroom). I was shown photographs of Marie Hitchcock, who must have been a memorable figure given that she was six-foot-five ("You can tell because all her string puppets have incredibly long strings," noted the puppeteer). She died in 1994, aged in her 90s, but not before bringing the California condor back from extinction using a condor puppet. I am dead serious (no, sorry, I mean back-from-extinction serious) about this. In the 1940s, the California condor was at the brink of extinction. The condor chicks needed to be fed but couldn't be fed by a human hand, lest they become habituated to it -- at which point they couldn't be introduced to the wild. That was where Marie Hitchcock came in. She built a condor puppet with which she not only fed the chicks, but, ultimately, brought the species' numbers back up to somewhere in the two-hundreds today (which means they're off the endangered list).

The whole thing was astounding to me -- there's a beautiful photo in the theatre hallway of the puppet feeding little baby condors. The only thing that could have made this story better, as far as I'm concerned, would have been if we could have seen the Big Scary Raptors of Tomorrow being fed by:

Which brings me to another point: you never see celebrity puppets doing this sort of thing, now, do you? When was the last time Miss Piggy brought a species back to life? Meanwhile, the true puppet heroes of our society, like the condor, remain totally unsung. It's like how, at a conservative estimate, 103% of American magazine covers feature Entertainment Personalities with names like "Kortnee" who are famous for nothing except rubbing key regions of themselves on yet other Entertainment Personalities. This means that all 103% of these magazine covers feature headlines like "KORTNEE'S BABY JOY!" while, in the meantime, the people of real distinction remain ignored. You never see, for example, Bill Nye the Science Guy on these kinds of covers. This calls for a serious and thorough examination on our part of our deplorable national celebrity culture, which, as a scholar of the arts, I am totally willing to leave to somebody else.

*Ha ha! Organ! See what I did there? Never mind.
** In later years, I would invent a Forbidden Version of this song, but that is to be dwelt on another time.
*** Not really.

©2010 Nicola McEldowney


Eric Klein said...

Interesting post, and strange coincidence. Soon after reading it I found this article about an event starting today:

Master manipulators
08/08/2010 20:28

This year’s International Festival of Puppet Theater in Jerusalem includes a host of giant puppets that will stroll through the streets of Nahlaot.

Article at:

Nicola said...

Whoa! How very cool, thanks for passing that along! Reminds me a bit of the Royal de Luxe company in France. Same sort of concept but clearly two very different styles.