Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Puppet Love

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Puppet Love

Article excerpt

Puppets these days are too cool for school.

That's the good and bad news for Teaneck's Diane Koszarski, puppeteer for 15 years and current president of the Garden State Puppetry Guild.

Good news first. Puppets have never had more cachet as cutting- edge show business.

"The Lion King," "Avenue Q," "On the Town," the Metropolitan Opera's "Magic Flute" are just some of the big New York productions that turned to puppets for an extra dose of dazzle. That's a sea change from a generation ago: Remember when the band in 1984's "This Is Spinal Tap" reached its lowest ebb opening for a puppet show? "If I told them once, I told them a hundred times," says their manager (June Chadwick). "Spinal Tap first, puppet show last."

The not-so-good news? This puppet renaissance has not necessarily trickled down to the suburbs -- where puppeteers like Koszarski used to be able to eke out a living staging "The Wizard of Oz" or "Aladdin" on the public school circuit.

"It's very difficult to persuade people they should pay a performance fee for this particular art form," says Koszarski, whose Pink Flamingo Puppets perform about seven or eight times a year (she'll be at Teaneck Public Library at 2 p.m. Sunday).

Her stock company, spread out for inspection on her dining room table in Teaneck, is a commedia dell'arte troupe in cloth, yarn and papier-mache: There's a wolf, a lion, an African hunter in Kente cloth, a farmer, a grandma, a young woman, a young man. "He can be a boyfriend, a little boy or a husband, depending on how I position him," Koszarski says.

With such characters -- plus a little ingenuity and a few costume changes -- she can stage hand-puppet versions of anything from "Peter Rabbit," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Three Little Pigs" to "Pirate Bob and His Buried Treasure." Though she's learned to be careful about the latter, she says.

"When the pirate is burying his gold again, he asks the kids to help him stamp down the dirt," she says. "I did it at a birthday party at someone's house, and we were shaking the dishes loose from the living room cabinet. The birthday boy's mom said, 'Could you please do something else?' "

Library shows, and the occasional birthday party, are the kinds of gigs Koszarski mostly gets these days. Puppets, once ubiquitous in children's entertainment ("Howdy Doody," Shari Lewis, The Muppets), are not on the radar of most 21st-century kids, engrossed in their electronic devices and computer games. Nor are educators, obsessed with their bottom line, likely to use them in their school programs -- unless puppeteers can somehow make them didactic, relevant to the core curriculum.

"To do shows for schools now, you need a special theme," Koszarski says. " 'Don't do drugs.' Environmental awareness. Anti- bullying. General fun? Entertainment? There's no time for that."

Such things don't much interest Koszarski. …

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