A father’s passion creates magical childhood memories

Photo by Jerry Cvach

I have many cherished memories of the marionette theater that my father had built starting in the late 1930s for my older sister and me. We spent many wonderful years expanding the theatre by increasing our collection of marionettes and building new scenes and stage props.

A previous Kerby News article on the Festival of Animated Objects brought back so many memories for me. The stories delve into the world of puppets and marionettes here in Calgary, which reminded me of the beautiful marionette theater I grew up with.

There is a very strong history of puppetry in the Czech Republic going back to the 17th century. The travelling performing troupes were run by the same families for generations. Czech puppets Spejbl and Hurvinek conceived in 1920 by Josef Skupa are known in puppetry circles worldwide, even having their own television show, on a par with the popular English duo Punch and Judy.

Home size marionette theatres became all the rage in middleclass homes between the two world wars. There were several marionette-making companies in southern Bohemia. Some were commercially made, but many others were hand crafted. The puppet heads were exquisitely sculpted, then cast and painted. The costumes were made by skilled seamstresses from quality materials and are still beautiful 85 years later.

We were very lucky that our father, who albeit being in his late thirties, early forties when I and my siblings were born, was still young at heart. Playing with us, he involved me, particularly, in building the scenes and everything else we needed to stage plays that he wrote himself. I loved the marionettes. I learned to design the scenery, make the props and other skills that remained with me for the next 70 years and counting.

The theater was set up all winter and we played with it on weekends, changing the scenery, making our own little stories and playing them out just for each other. Our father, my brother and I performed for the cousins and friends’ children. We usually had one “gala” performance of my father’s plays and that required special props that we made, like diving helmets complete with air cylinders or weapons, furniture, even trick scenery.

I was born at the beginning of World War Two in  the then German Protectorate, now the Czech Republic. One must remember that the war, followed by an almost immediate onset of the communist regimes in Central Europe, isolated us from the ever expanding, commercialized western world. There were unpleasant consequences for our parents because of the ensuing shortages, but we learned to be self-sufficient in our play. Having an understanding parent was a real bonus!

Our father really liked to tinker with the theater and our mother recalled that she  dreaded the pay day when, directly from the office he headed to the marionette store to buy yet another character. I still have all the marionettes my father collected, and there are prices written in pencil on the controls, so I know that a marionette cost 30 “korunas” then, equivalent to ten loaves of bread. I have no idea whether that was a lot of money, but mother sounded as if she would have preferred to spend the money more prudently.

Marionettes plays are usually fairy tales, with firmly set characters. Being inanimate persons, however, we, the puppeteers, are allowed to take liberty with them and add our own type of whimsy.

Many of the characters recur in different stories. In any culture the devil is bad, of course, but in Czech puppet stories, he is also gullible and easily outfoxed by the folk hero “Kasparek”. Kasparek is a cheerful, innocent young man who succeeds by tricking his rivals with his cleverness and honesty.

One of my favourite stories is about the devil’s partner in crime, the water devil. He is also evil and famous for drowning careless swimmers, and then holding their souls in pots under lids, so that they can’t go to heaven where they belong.

The water devil lives in the lake above a mill that is powered by a wheel. He is in love with the miller’s daughter and being very ugly, dresses in fancy clothes to attract her. His evil powers depend on proximity to water and if he has to go on dry land he keeps a wet sponge in the pocket of his coat tail. All Kasparek has to do is to wring the sponge dry and the water devil is defeated. Kasparek then lifts the pot lids and the souls escape.

Then there are the other characters such as the kings and queens, the princes and princesses, the castle staff, the village craftsmen and the village idiot, a whole little world of characters to be placed into the stories. Eventually in our home, our inventory of marionettes was 30 different puppets.

In time, my father’s plays became politicized, such as Kasparek fighting off the Nazis and the Gestapo, then later having issues with the communists. It is wonderful the way marionettes can get away with saying things that real people can’t.

When I moved to Canada in 1968, this magical world was left behind. However, over time, we began to travel and I wanted to bring back from Europe a nice old marionette as a souvenir. Well, at that time, as it turned out, there weren’t any available.

Being determined, I decided to make one myself. Surprisingly, there was quite a bit of literature on how to make them in the local library, so I embarked on the wonderful journey of marionette making.

It requires an idea, some modelling, casting and woodcarving skills, and most notably having to make the costumes. I’m not going to deny that having to tailor a tail coat for a 20” tall water devil was a challenge! Not having any patterns, I kept sewing and sewing until finally, the fifth one fit.

The first marionette I made wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t good either. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one who loved marionettes as I sold it at the Centennial Gallery downtown. I kept making more pieces, selling them and improving with each one. After the first 28 or so, I kept the last few, the best ones I think, for myself.

I discovered that both marionette makers and buyers become attached to the little puppets, as if they were their babies. It was hard for me to sell some of them, and there are two or three I would still like to get back.

One day I got a call from the gallery in Banff, where the buyer of my Grim Reaper named ‘Freddie’ called me, and promised that she would take a good care of him and offered that I’m welcome to come to her house anytime and visit with him. Right away she understood the attachment.

Puppets have been around for centuries and predate even the Christian era. One time I was notified that one of my three devils was finally sold. The gallery owner told me that the eventual buyer kept coming back, playing with it, but always putting him back on the shelf and left undecided. Then, one day he came in, went straight to the counter and bought it.

The buyer explained that he really had wanted the marionette from the beginning, but that being a priest, he had to think hard about whether he should purchase it. ‘So what changed’, the clerk asked. ‘Well,’ the priest said, ‘As I looked around my apartment I realised that all my décor is related to the Bible, and I thought, that the devil is part of the Bible as well, so here I am.’

If you go out and seek a puppet of your own, remember, having marionettes is akin to having pets, you will get very attached to them. As I write this, all 30 of my father’s marionettes are with me in my office, spirited out of the Czech Republic 20 years or so ago. They were restored and are lovingly cared for by me, reminding me every day of the great father I had.

The two of the last four of the marionettes I made are also here. The knight keeps me safe and the Hagar the Horrible makes me smile. The other two, the devil and the water devil guard me during the night, sitting on top of my bookcase in the bedroom.

Puppets have entertained us and given us joy in good times, and in bad times, hope. Even in the era of electronic entertainment, television and the computer animated films, I believe that the more traditional, hands-on and creative art forms like live theatre, opera and, yes, the puppets will survive.