Molka Reich has spent most of her 85 years pulling strings. And it certainly got her what she wanted: the chance to be creative, meet all kinds of people and hold on to the wonders of childhood. But the best part, she says, was that it enabled her to entertain countless people, particularly children, with the marionettes she created.
"My shows provided some special things for children," Reich says. "Children will accept suggestions from a puppet that they wouldn't take from an adult. They look at these puppets as their friends."
Saturday mornings during the Depression, children came to the "Bimbo Club" to chat with her marionette clown named Bimbo. Reich doesn't know why she gave him that name -- it just came to her one day; it wasn't, she says, because Bimbo was a "bimbo" in the current slang sense. Of all the marionettes she created, she says she feels closest to this one, with his black-and-white outfit and big red smile. Probably because he is the most like her in temperament.
*"He's very opinionated and doesn't brook any interference," she says. "He's also a strong believer in people."
Once during a performance for some "billionaire" adults in Boca Raton, Fla., "Bimbo" invited the audience backstage. But when they saw Bimbo hanging there, they didn't want to accept that he wasn't real, Reich remembers.
"So Bimbo told them to go back out into the theater. Then he asked them why they couldn't accept the fact that the character backstage was the same as the one on stage. Imagine that. All these billionaires and Bimbo told them what to do," Reich says, her eyes sparkling with a youthful enthusiasm.
She is almost blind, and though that prevents her from performing on stage these days, she does manage to make frequent visits to George Mason University where Bimbo, Barnacle Bill and other marionettes are housed, part of the university's Federal Theater Project (FTP) collection. She's in Washington now to take part in "Looking Forward, Looking Back," the university's three-day puppet festival, beginning today, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the project.
Part of Roosevelt's Works Project Administration, the FTP guaranteed work for struggling theater people during the Depression. Many famous actors and directors like Orson Welles, Arlene Francis, Elia Kazan and John Huston got their starts in the FTP, which lasted from 1935 until 1939, when it came under attack by the Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities and was disbanded. Reich directed an FTP marionette unit in Florida during those years.
"It was fantastic," she says. "It was the first time in the history of the U.S. that it was recognized that artists have as much right to eat as a plumber. It's a shame that it ended. We had the beginnings of a national theater."
After it ended, Reich kept her marionettes, since she used most of her own money rather than FTP funds to make them.
"I'm not a patient person and I couldn't stand having to fill out 16 forms to get $1 from the government," she says.
Most of the other FTP puppets, scripts and sets, however, were put into storage at the Library of Congress, where they were almost forgotten. But in 1974, the FTP collection was put on permanent loan to George Mason University, where Reich also has donated all of her marionettes.
To Reich, they're like her children. She spent hours layering the papier ma che' heads, painting the faces, sewing the costumes and attaching the strings. She also created their individual personalities, writing the words they said and giving them different voices.
"My husband had to help me create my two real children. I am both mother and father to the marionettes. It's the nearest thing to playing God," she says.
For information about the puppetry festival schedule, call 323-3894