If you’re like me, you probably didn’t know that the largest collection of puppets in the country is right here in Southern California, in a nondescript back building of a church on Fair Oaks avenue in Pasadena, where it shares space with the church’s weekly AA meeting. And if you didn’t know that then you also wouldn’t know that it’s probably not going to be there for much longer. That is unless something is done soon…
Its very easy to miss the International Puppetry Museum since being that its in the back building of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church its not visible from the street, and there’s no signage to speak of. I credit the fact that I was on foot (having just gotten off the bus) to my noticing it at all.
Once inside, at first you may be disappointed. The space is small, and with already so little room to spare, its equally split between a makeshift display area, and an area devoted to storage with boxes upon boxes waiting to be sorted in a process that’s been ongoing now for almost four years.
Though there is no permanent exhibition space, pieces from the collection are regularly sent (about twice a year) across country to institutions doing shows about puppetry or puppets as reflections of culture. So it was that when I visited (as part of the Modern Committee of the Los Angeles’ monthly meeting) a couple hundred puppets, including many usually on regular display, had been shipped to the Cannon Art Gallery in Carlsbad. (To be part of the exhibit, ‘The World on a String’, which culminated at the end of 2011.)
The secret is to have Alan Cook give you a tour (he’s more than happy to) – he knows the story of each and every piece; its significance, who made it and why. He’ll take you up to the loft area, every inch of which is covered with puppets. He’ll tell you about the collection; his life’s work, now in its third in a series of temporary homes in its long search to be a museum. (Though this space is not nearly enough and it additionally takes up two garages at Cook’s home as well as storage bins both in his backyard and at the church.)
Consisting of over 5,000 puppets (of practically every type and spanning all five continents), more than 1,000 books and hundreds of videos, the collection was amassed from gifts, bequests from other collectors as well as Cook’s own purchases. Its books related to puppetry can be used on site and includes many first editions as well as signed copies, collectors’ items in their own right. Such books as, Helen Haiman Joseph’s 1920, A Book of Marionettes, the first definitive history on puppetry written in English.
The actual number of items in the collection is unknown since they’ve only recently begun to be catalogued, though the volunteers doing the work reached the 3,000 puppets mark after having gone through only approximately half. This number puts the IPM collection ahead of the Detroit Institute for the Arts (about 800), the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts (about 1,300), and the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry (which has around 3,000), making it the largest, by far, collection of puppets in the US.
Puppets were a big part of entertainment in early 20th century Los Angeles. There was even a Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry consisting of world class puppeteers, which put out the publication Puppet Life. But as an entertainment center Los Angeles has had a horrible track record when it comes to preserving its history and unfortunately if this collection doesn’t find a home in Los Angeles it will elsewhere. And yet another Los Angeles treasure will have been lost, like Debbie Reynolds’ collection of movie costumes (which included Marilyn Monroe’s iconic dress, and Dorothy’s dress and ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz) or Forrest J. Akerman’s collection of science fiction and horror memorabilia.
In its effort to find a home for the collection, the IPM has found the Northwest Puppet Center in Seattle to be a good fit. So far only a few puppets have been sent but if nothing materializes locally the entire collection will be heading north and out of Southern California for one last time.
Visiting the museum: The IPM is located at 1062 N. Fair Oaks Avenue – Pasadena, CA 91103. Since its volunteer run, you can either make an appointment by calling 626-296-1536, or go on Wednesdays between 10a and 4p, which is when the volunteers are there.