The best of puppet or marionette shows can make us forget that there is a human being behind the curtain or in the rafters bringing the narrative to life. Like being entranced by a good book, movie or play, we become unaware of the manipulator and even of ourselves. We are conscious only of compelling characters and a spellbinding story that we do not want to end.
Hunt Bushnell's characters, his puppets and marionettes, were retired to storage when he died in 1991. This weekend they return, refurbished, to greet the public. Will they speak?
Lindenwood University, with the help of St. Peters director of cultural affairs Rich Brooks, mounts an exhibit of Bushnell's menagerie of pretend companions this weekend. The display also includes memorabilia from the 1975 National Puppet Festival at the college, which attracted Jim Henson and other nascent Muppeteers.
Brooks, who cleaned and repaired Bushnell's puppets and marionettes, says he came to admire the small details that give them life and character, such as "the particular stitchery or the placement of a felt eyelash." Now the public can come close and see the puppetmaster's mind at work.
Bushnell, a Lindenwood student in the '70s, developed a traveling show with a puppet circus. He eventually brought his creations to life onstage in Las Vegas as an opener for Raquel Welch. Some of his marionettes are big -- an ostrich in the St. Peters show stands about 5 feet tall. Bushnell had to perch high on a supportive device to control these oversized creatures.
Marilyn Myers, former president of the St. Louis Puppet Guild, is serving as "honorary curator" of the exhibit. She will speak at Sunday's opening reception, providing an overview of puppeteering through the ages.
Puppeteer Doug Kincaid will present his own show at the reception, giving the audience a chance to compare moving puppets invested with personality with those retired from performance. Like a bat used by Mantle or a paintbrush of Mark Rothko's, they lie bereft of their master but somehow still flooded with life.
The Marionette Retro Exhibit: Hunt Bushnell begins Sun., Nov. 7, and runs through Nov. 19. The opening reception, featuring a performance by Doug Kincaid at 3 p.m., runs from 2-4 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Lindenwood University Cultural Center Gallery, 400 N. Kingshighway in St. Charles. Call 928-3338 for information.