T he old Puppet House Theatre a.k.a. Stony Creek Puppet House, which has stood for over a century at 128 Thimble Islands Road in Branford, is set to get a deserved makeover when it’s transformed into The Legacy Theatre. The renovation (see an artist’s rendering of the exterior above) is a reversal of fortune for the historical institution, which in 2007 was condemned for code violations by the city and has been inactive ever since.
For decades the stage was home to a village of puppets—hand-carved and -painted in Sicily, fifty-two in number, four to five feet tall, weighing in at 80 pounds each, dangling from perches on the walls. They fought wars and bravely entered into battle under the direction of Salvatore Macri and Jim Weil, who manipulated the medieval figures through tales of the Crusades with rare expertise.
Dressed in costumes of regal purple and shiny gold, with painted faces and brandishing swords and shields, the Puppet House’s wooden players—portraying heroes like Charlemagne, Roland and Rinaldo, as well as fair maidens needing rescue—had metal rods for spines and strings to move their hands. It was not unusual for heads to roll and beet juice-blood to flow.
But the theater’s history dates back way before its puppet performance days began in 1963. Opened in 1903 as The Lyric Theater, a silent movie house, it’s gone through many renovations and reincarnations over the past 110 years. Perhaps most notably, it was once the home of the Parish Players, who—with Lee Shubert, the eldest of the famous theater-running Shubert clan—presented the world premiere of Death Takes a Holiday.
The romantic drama follows Death as he assumes human form for a few days to discover why he is so feared. When Death falls in love with a human woman, a moral dilemma develops—just like in the movie Meet Joe Black, which is adapted from Holiday. The drama was also adapted into an Off-Broadway musical by Maury Yeston (who used to live in Woodbridge) and Peter Stone, set in Italy in the Roaring Twenties.
Death has never finally, irretrievably touched the Stony Creek Puppet House. For a time it was a professional venue for summer stock, entertaining such luminaries as Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. In the 1940s, it was used as a parachute factory to aid the war effort, and later as a girdle-manufacturing plant.
The space embarked on a new adventure a little over 50 years ago when Grace Weil purchased the building, with plans to open an international puppet museum there. The Sicilian-style knights, wizards and clowns among the thousands of puppets in her personal collection were the creations of Sebastiano Zappala more than a hundred years before, vestiges of a lost art.
Weil initially brought over Sal Macri, a third-generation master puppeteer from Sicily, to restore the aging figures. After Grace’s son, Jim, expressed an interest, Macri began teaching him how to move the puppets for stage shows. Merely learning how to “walk” one of those 80-pounders took Weil two years to perfect. Making the knights fight battles with evincible spirit and courage was an even greater challenge.
Now the Stony Creek Puppet House is poised to take another dramatic turn under the leadership of Keely Baisden Knudsen, founder/artistic director of The Legacy Theatre. Knudsen juggles a busy life on and off the stage, performing, directing, teaching and being wife to Brian and mother to a quartet of young daughters, ages 1 to 7. She’s also been instrumental to her organization’s efforts to raise funds, first to purchase both the Puppet House building and the little yellow house next door, and now to renovate the facilities.
On Saturday, September 7, at 10:30 a.m., an old-fashioned neighborhood meeting will be held at the Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library (146 Thimble Islands Road, Branford) to recruit volunteers and handypersons; to form an advisory committee to help the board; to continue planning its upcoming dinner-and-cabaret gala (“Red and Gold: a Fall Celebration”) at the Woodwinds banquet hall in Branford to benefit the restoration of the theater; and to update the public on the progress of the non-profit project. A grant from the 1772 Foundation Trust for Historic Preservation has been secured to replace the roof, but the goal is to raise $1.4 million more to finish what Knudsen envisions as a “beautiful theatrical space” and a cultural and economic boon to the community.
The new building will be used to teach and train people in the dramatic arts and will be home to a repertory company staging theatrical productions. Realistically, Knudsen says, the whole Legacy Theatre dream could take up to five years to come to fruition, but she’s personal more optimistic than that.
That’s good. Positivity is essential in labors of love—especially when there’s a legacy of happy audiences to carry forward.
The Legacy Theatre
128 Thimble Islands Rd, Branford (map)
(203) 457-0138 | info@LegacyTheatreCT.org
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Image shows an artist’s rendering of the new Legacy Theatre by Vladimir Shpitalnik.