Masters of Puppets

MANSFIELD, Conn.-The puppet won’t wiggle.

Four days before the debut of “A Christmas Carol,” there’s a big problem inside the puppet workshop at the University of Connecticut. One of the show’s stringed stars is as stiff as a doornail.

It stares with eerie eyes but moves in stilted, sharp sweeps. So _ just a few sleepless nights away from opening night _ program director Bart Roccoberton and the puppet designers are back to the drawing board to create a new creepy character.

Inside the Puppet Arts Complex on the university’s Depot Campus, that’s easier than it once was. There’s a room for costuming, a room for painting. There’s a room for rehearsing, a room for props.

It is a puppeteer’s dream, for Roccoberton and his students, and for the man who founded the program _ now the only one in the nation to offer three degrees in puppetry.

The program moved a year ago to a revamped building on the Mansfield satellite campus. It’s still two miles from the university’s main site at Storrs, but for the first time it has its own building and adequate space to work.

“Sometimes, we look around and say, `Yup, we’re still here,”’ laughs Roccoberton, walking through the building in paint-spattered pants.

The program may see a move to the main campus in the future, when the new Fine Arts Building is built. Because of its ability to integrate music, acting and drama, the puppetry program is the centerpiece of architect Frank Gehry’s plans. Surrounded by a metal building, the puppets have a colorful, centrally located display.

But the road to center stage was a long one.

The program was the brainchild of Frank Ballard, who came to UConn in 1956 to be the technical director of the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theater. Ballard had considered himself a puppeteer ever since his childhood in Alton, Ill., when he would perform on a stage his father built.

When his family got tired of seeing “The Three Little Pigs” for the umpteenth time, Ballard would perform for a stuffed penguin, he said.

It was 1964 before Ballard was able to teach a class in puppetry _ fighting all the way against administrators who didn’t believe it to be an art form. When the school was creating a fine arts curriculum, he put puppetry on the list, but “it was on the books for a few years,” he said.

The first place he worked with students when he began teaching was a paint room off the balcony of the Jorgensen Theater, creating stages and workbenches by running boards across paint cans, he said.

“The acetone was not the best thing to keep breathing,” said Ballard.

But there was enormous creativity born in the small room, he said. “In spite of everything, we got a production going each time.”

The productions, he said, sold out every time, and often would provide quick cash for the department when it was in the red. He still smiles proudly when he recalls one production of Kismet that helped the Fine Arts Department out of a $25,000 hole.

“Puppetry saved the department several times,” he said. “Anyone and everyone would come. We always tried to do a production with different kinds of puppets, different kinds of situations. We wanted it to be educational.”

Unable to keep teaching because of worsening Parkinson’s disease, Ballard retired from the department in the late 1980s. The last time he was able to manipulate the strings for performance was 1989; he hasn’t been able to move them at all since 2000.

Roccoberton, a former student of Ballard, became the director in 1990. When the state budget troubles of the early 1990s hit, the tiny program _ with just one professor and 15 students, and puppetry still considered by many to be “kid’s stuff” _ was endangered.

Roccoberton told lawmakers the easiest way to save the program was to tell of its accomplishments: Two UConn alumni working on Barbara Bush’s childhood literacy campaign. Several graduates working on “Sesame Street.” Commercials. Broadway shows. And the list went on.

“I said, `Tell them that a whole generation of children learned to read because of this program,”’ Roccoberton said. “It worked. We haven’t had to look back since.”

Ballard’s legacy continues to grow. During the last legislative session, the museum that bears his name on the Mansfield campus was designated an official state museum, enabling it to apply for grant money.

On Monday the museum will open a student-run exhibit featuring the work of past and present students. The display, which includes a workbench of a UConn puppetry student, is titled, “You Can Major in That?”

“We hear it so much, all the time, it always becomes a running joke with us,” said Lindsey “Z” Briggs, the graduate student coordinating the exhibit.

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