He’ll have to pull a few strings
THE faces of global puppetry are tucked away in an old church hall off an alley in north Pasadena. There’s Punch and Judy, of course, but also rough-hewn wooden heads from Mali, finely detailed porcelain marionettes from China, a cartoonish La Cucaracha from Mexico and a pretty credible Phyllis Diller.
These are the playthings of Alan Cook, who has spent the last 70 years building this puppetry archive, which some believe is unrivaled in its breadth and depth. And like the old woman who lived in a shoe, Cook has so many puppets he doesn’t know what to do.
The collection long ago swamped Cook’s homes, first in North Hollywood and then in Altadena, where he moved two years ago. Puppets have overrun the house and spread into three sheds, a double garage and a line of temporary storage bins in his backyard. For Cook, it is not just a collection run amok. He sees himself as the private tender of a public trust.
There’s no room to spare at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, either, the third in a series of temporary headquarters for the Conservatory of Puppetry Arts, a nonprofit organization created in 1999 to promote puppetry in Southern California. The group’s first project: to give structure to a collection it has yet even to quantify.
That’s not for lack of effort. Volunteers began cataloging the collection about four years ago, says Executive Director Beth Fernandez. At the time, Cook thought he had about 3,000 pieces but the catalogers are already nearing that mark with scores more boxes and crates to go. Fernandez thinks they could hit 5,000 by the time they’re done, though she can’t predict when that might be.
Whatever the total, Cook’s collection far exceeds that of the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts, with about 1,300 puppets, and the Detroit Institute for the Arts’ 800-puppet collection, considered among the finest institutional archives in the country.
Cook’s collection surpasses even the 3,000 items held by the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut, one of only two colleges in the country that offer degrees in puppetry, says the program’s director, Bart P. Roccoberton Jr. Many of the institute’s puppets were created on site for teaching and performances, he says. Cook’s collection was built almost exclusively from the outside.
“Not only are they exemplary figures of the puppet arts in America, but Alan has the knowledge of their connections and their history,” Roccoberton says. “They’re rich alone, and invaluable because of him.”
Cook’s puppets come from many cultures, including Greek shadow puppets, two-dimensional figures that are manipulated on a small, backlighted stage; gourd-headed figures from Mali; and Malaysian stick puppets. Even many cultures without a stage-theater tradition have a puppet tradition, and Cook seems to have samples from most of them. American puppetry is heavily represented; Cook can trace the genealogy of each, citing which puppeteer influenced which others.
Cook, 74, figures his collection is worth millions, but he hasn’t seriously considered selling, even though his puppets have been flirting with homelessness. Puppetry doesn’t tend to draw the kind of high-donor attention that leads to permanent housing, and Cook’s collection has been as itinerant as the medieval Punch and Judy shows.
The conservatory moved into the church hall last November after the nearby building in which it had rented space for 2 1/2 years was sold. The conservatory had already been bounced from another building when the city of Pasadena needed space while City Hall was being renovated.
Cook, Fernandez and others dream of building a puppetry museum around the collection, but they sound more like people talking wistfully about that vacation retreat they’ll get some day. The conservatory is supported by about 250 members. Occasional fundraisers, donations and memberships that begin at $25 a year feed an annual budget of $25,000 to $28,000, “most of which goes to rent,” says Fernandez.
Fernandez speculates permanent space would cost more than $2 million, but that’s just a guess -- no studies have been done, and the conservatory has yet to even appoint a committee to look into the issue or find a way to raise funds.
“We want to, but we’re not doing anything actively to make it happen,” Fernandez says. “It just seems so overwhelming, frankly. We’re going day to day, trying to get the puppets cataloged and hoping for more exhibits and that kind of thing.”
Cook bought many of the puppets, but others were gifts from people who knew of his interest and bequests from fellow collectors who shared his passion.
John Bell, a puppetry historian at Boston’s Emerson College, sees Cook’s collection as a repository of world culture, drawn not only from Europe but also from the nooks and crannies of the world.
“It’s extremely valuable, not in an economic sense but in a cultural sense, as a resource that helps us to understand what puppet theater has meant around the world,” Bell says. “Every culture has some particular form of puppet theater. Not every culture has a form of acting theater.”
Bell, who knows Cook’s collection by reputation only, describes it as a “treasure trove of world knowledge.”
“It’s amazing,” says Nancy L. Staub, a New Orleans-based expert on Asian puppetry who has known Cook -- and his collection -- for several decades. “It’s very extensive, and frankly, because they’re only just getting it archived, they’re not 100% sure of everything that’s in it. But it’s probably the biggest private collection in the country.”
The cataloging is a slow process. Each Wednesday eight or nine volunteers make their way down the alley to the old social hall and form the nexus between puppet and computerized database.
The main room on the ground floor is split between the displays and a blocked-off storage area, with boxed puppets and paraphernalia stacked on shelves awaiting sorting. The volunteers do most of their work in a second-floor loft, where desks and tables are covered with puppets, papers and computers under the watchful eye of a remnant of a 1970s nightclub comedy act -- a Richard Nixon puppet dressed as Farmer MacGregor, the gardener in Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”
Cook’s collection has no paper trail to speak of; the provenance of the puppets resides mostly in his head. So the volunteers ask him about each item as they work, then research the puppet to verify Cook’s memory, which spills out in discursive details about puppeteers past and present, the cultural significance of items from other parts of the world, which puppeteer made what for whom, and where different shows reached different audiences.
“There’s something about the importance of preservation that’s just part of my makeup,” says Cook, who has the lanky build of a marionette. “I’m a pack rat.... There would be no museums today if there were not pack rats.”
Although the public is welcome at the conservatory on Wednesdays, when the volunteers are active, or through pre-arranged tours, Cook’s puppets get little public viewing because there’s so little space to display them. Cook mounts one or two exhibitions a year around the country -- a display of puppets from the Americas is currently at the Great Arizona Puppet Theater in Phoenix -- but otherwise the collection sits in boxes.
That so few people are able to access it frustrates Cook. “All my life I’ve been fighting just for people to know the collection is there,” he says. “This is to preserve the history of puppetry. One of the reasons I’ve done exhibits all these years is to acquaint the public with the richness of the field.”
His self-appointed role has been difficult. Puppeteers as a rule don’t make much money, and Cook is no exception.
He inherited the North Hollywood house in which he lived for 33 years. He sold it when his mother died two years ago and he moved into her Altadena home.
“I live very frugally,” Cook says. He gets by mostly on $800 a month in Social Security benefits.
How it began
Cook’s collection began humbly. The first puppet was a Christmas gift he received a few months before his 5th birthday, a little Dutch boy marionette that ignited his imagination.
By the time he was in high school he was putting on shows in the family living room, often using puppets he had made.
“I can still remember watching my mother sew the costume on my first marionette,” Cook says.
As with most entertainers, a puppeteer’s life is filled with uncertainty. Cook moved from gig to gig, including stints on the “Davey and Goliath” TV show in the 1960s, which used puppets for stop-action animation; traveling puppet troupes; and limited runs at regional theaters. He also has taught puppetry and mounted exhibits at puppetry festivals.
All the while he was adding puppets to the growing village in his house, finding new playmates for the first “little Dutch boy” which, because he “needed one for a hand puppet show in a hurry,” was turned into an angel sometime in the 1940s.
“I’m not sure where it is,” Cook says, taking a reflexive glance toward the storage shelves, “but I know I still have it.”