Neither Toy Nor Food: The Bread and Puppet Museum

March 2, 2013 — We were driving through northern Vermont, skirting the Canadian border close enough that we were worried about wrong turns as we didn’t have our passports and our trunk was full of fruit.

The road seemed to be pushing through sheer wilderness, but as we crept around a blind curve we came across a red bus on the side of the road that looked like it had been rusting there for a quarter of a century. It was graffitied all over with a series of messages that averaged out to, “Cheap Art.” I parked the car beside it. If nowhere had GPS coordinates, they would lead here.

“So what is this place?” asked my wife, looking uncertainly at an old barn looming across the street. We were on a road trip with multiple destinations, and sometimes we play a game where I don’t tell her what the next stop is.

I, on the other hand, had done two hours of advance research on this particular oddity, about one hour and 45 minutes more than I usually do, so I was able to reply with the utmost confidence, “I have no idea.”

I mean, I knew the elevator pitch. It was a puppet museum. But when it comes to a place like the Bread and Puppet Museum, that description would have distorted her preconceptions, not informed them. It’s not a children’s museum. There were no interactive exhibits on how to make a puppet out of a paper bag. No retrospectives of Mr. Rogers or Captain Kangaroo or Shari Lewis or any of the other people who lucked into lives full of meaningful discourse with hands wrapped in socks. But it was, nevertheless, a puppet museum.

And I really had no idea what to expect.

We approached the barn cautiously. Nobody was around, and it looked somewhat abandoned. As with every abandoned-looking barn I see, I assumed there was a victim or two hanging from its rafters, slowly turning into jerky. So my pace slowed to a speed or two below “cautiously.” A small placard that was more of a label than a sign pointed us to a door.

Nobody was inside, and it was dark.

It felt like we were trespassing, but the few signs we saw disabused us of that fear. They directed us to turn the lights one during our visit (and to remember to turn them off), feel free to buy any of the cheap art (money goes in the box), and donations are welcome (admission is free).

I would say that the proprietors, whom I assume lived in the house on the property, were oddly trusting, but I’d seen all of Full Moon’s pre-DVD Puppet Master movies. I knew those guys could care take care of themselves when they need to.

Off the main room, which was full of playbills and posters from past shows—the cheap art adverted on the bus—were a few hallways, each with its own separate light switch.

We flicked them on in turn and were led down corridors that were somehow both lined and stuffed with handmade masks and puppets, the latter mostly human-sized and mostly of a humanoid design. Many had oversized faces. There were also a few animals, some demons, skeletons, other more abstract forms, all in every color registerable by the human retina. And all of a sort that I’m really going to have to lean on the included pictures to portray.

It was like stumbling into the attic playroom of some gigantic child.

According to the website, the Bread and Puppet Museum contains the characters from 50 years of productions at the Bread and Puppet Theater, a venue established in 1963 in New York City and which moved to its current Glover, Vermont, location in 1974. They style their particular brand of puppet theater, “political” and the puppets reflect that: Trod-upon peasants, rich politicos, those who deal out anguish and those who take it. But there were no labels, nothing to tell you about the past lives of these cloth creations. They were just what they were in that moment that you looked at them.

After each production runs its course, the soft players are retired here, in this 150-year-old barn. As the website aptly describes it:

“One would have to go far indeed to find anything comparable. And since this museum replaces the traditional museum’s ideal of preservation with acceptance of more or less graceful and inevitable deterioration, consider making your visit sooner rather than later.”

So old, large puppets rotting away in the darkness after a season or two of animation and audiences. Anything comparable, indeed.

As to the Bread part, the founder of the theater, a German expatriate named Peter Schumann, was a baker as well as a puppeteer, and originally distributed sourdough to the audience before each performance. I only learned that while writing this post, though. I had assumed it was a Biblical reference. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but also by puppets.” —Mathew 4:4.

But the real wonder-and-horrorland was upstairs. There, instead of low, individual hallways, was a single large loft. The roof and walls were draped in masks and puppets, and along the interior were corrals stuffed with the same manner of humanoid creations as downstairs. Except here, some towered to a story or two in height, massive puppets that could put strings on us and dance us around for fun. Pictures on the walls revealed outdoor puppets that were even larger than that. I didn’t feel so much like I was looking at exhibits as that these puppets were surrounding and pushing in on us.

Basically, these weren’t the type of puppets you’d want to stick your hand inside.

Depending on your mood, the place could douse your nightmares in Miracle-Gro or elevate you into the most beatific of fantasies. You could film a surreal horror movie in the environs or a gentle children’s fable. Like the Geppetto these puppets were made by had a Mr. Hyde inside.

Perhaps most strangely, the Bread and Puppet Theater isn’t a dusty old museum artifact itself. It still puts on new and old productions there on the grounds and across the world as a travelling troupe.

It was a unique experience, one that was impossible to fully grasp. Here was 50 years of history. Here was an obsessive dedication to a humble art form. Here was a set of beliefs and ideals that could be communicated by paper mache on a stick. The most prominent feeling I came away with, though, was that I had missed out on some strange and fascinating cultural movement and time. The decade and the events that birthed such a craft and such a mission as Bread and Puppet is one I wish I could’ve experienced.

And, in a way, it’s no wonder that the offspring was a 20-foot-tall red demon made out of sheets and lighted by paper lanterns.