June 8, 2005

Need to Borrow a Big Puppet? Try Brooklyn

NEW YORK -- At the foot of a seven-story granite arch in the middle of a busy traffic circle, a scuffed yellow door opens once a week to a scene that's straight out of a children's storybook. Draped over dull gray boxes of electrical equipment is a Mother Earth puppet with a face the size of a manhole cover. A dragon made of blue garbage bags snakes down a circular staircase.

They peer from alcoves and hang from the ceiling; floor after floor of enormous puppets, from kid-size, grinning white carousel horses to a towering "Corporate Iceman" left over from a play about child labor and globalization.

These slightly worn veterans of years of parades and plays make up the collection of the New York Puppet Library, an unusual joint venture inside the landmark Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza.

The Puppeteers Cooperative, a self-described "loose affiliation of puppeteers," makes its creations available without charge for parties, performances and political demonstrations in exchange for rent-free real estate from the Prospect Park Alliance, which oversees the monument.

Anyone willing to dodge the cars whizzing through the plaza between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturdays can try on a puppet the size of Yao Ming or take one home for two weeks, no ID. required.

Formerly open by appointment only, the nearly windowless space has been drawing small but excited crowds since it opened to the public this year. Dozens have taken out puppets, mostly performers putting on a show. Others just come to look and play.

Eleven people clustered in a narrow room at the top of the arch on a recent Saturday to watch puppeteer Theresa Linnihan play Emily Dickinson in a shadow-puppet version of "The Belle of Amherst." Downstairs, volunteer puppeteer Arnie Lippin, a retired biochemist in sandals and baggy pants, helped 22-year-old Melanie Chopko into "Corporate Iceman," a "backpack puppet" in long black robes.

"It's certainly not restricted to people who know what they're doing," Lippin said.

Chopko staggered back and forth beneath the arch, waving the puppet's arms as people shopped at a farmer's market across the plaza. As she emerged from the puppet, the artist and teacher said she was elated.

"I think I'm going to try to come over every week, whenever I feel sad," Chopko said.

The memorial arch was unveiled at the entrance to Prospect Park in 1892 as a tribute to the Union dead. Architectural historian Henry Hope Reed called it "the greatest triumphal arch of modern times" after Paris' Arc de Triomphe.

The American Legion used the arch to store medals and hold meetings until the 1960s or 1970s, when it fell vacant, said Tupper Thomas, park administrator and president of the Prospect Park Alliance.

Two years ago The Puppeteers' Cooperative approached the alliance with a deal; space in exchange for three yearly performances in the 526-acre park.

"Here was this thing that nobody ever used at all," Thomas said. "There were these nice puppet people saying we'd like to donate our time and be part of parades."

The puppeteers say they're pleased by their growing popularity.

"It seems to be taking off," Linnihan said. "Everyone who comes and discovers it is thrilled."

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On the Net:

The Puppeteers' Cooperative: http://www.gis.net/puppetco/