"Puppeteers are always the weird ones on the block -- andthey like it that way," said Judy Brown in her suburban home off a quiet street in Alexandria--the house with the plastic horse hanging from the tree out front.
Inside, there are ringing phones, helpful children, a collie with a constantly wagging tail and a basement full of files of the Puppeteers of America. Brown is the national organization's official nanny, a job she assumed two years ago as president and continues this year as executive director of the 45-year-old group.
As such, she produces its bimonthly magazine; sends out catalogs from its bookstore and film library; directs hundreds of written inquiries to the appropriate person on its list of ventriloquists, shadow puppeteers and others; and coordinates its annual week-long meeting.
In her spare time, Brown raises three children and writes scripts for professional troupes like her husband's Arlington-based touring company, the Bob Brown Marionnettes.
It was that group which brought professional puppetry to Washington in the 1970s, said Alan Cook, the association's puppet preservationist and manager of its traveling exhibit. The Browns founded the Smithsonian Puppets (now called the Discovery Theatre) and played such places as the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap and the White House. "Then the next day, you go and do someone's birthday party," said Judy Brown. "It's a hand-to-mouth existence, but we need the freedom."
There have been other puppeteers in the Washington area, of course--a Maryland boy named Jim Henson and his frog, Kermit, spring to mind. "The Muppets started a tremendous boom in puppets," Cook said. "Our membership has expanded in direct relation to the growth of Sesame Street."
The organization's membership rolls, which include Henson along with Shari Lewis, Burr Tilstrom and other notables, have grown from "almost nothing during World War II" to 2,700 today, said Cook.
And now, puppeteers in Northern Virginia are fairly typical, said Brown. "You have a half-dozen professional groups, like the Vagabond People and Bob's troupe, and then another dozen or so semi-professionals who use puppets as a tool."
Puppets, it turns out, are good psychologists ("Some people will tell things to a puppet that they wouldn't say to a person," said Cook); teachers ("Speech therapists say they make the lessons palatable," he said; and preachers ("We have a lot of evangelists in our organization," said Brown).
Puppets also have been known to be in nightclub acts, to pose as stripteasers ("They advertise the puppets as topless!" said Brown), and to serve as political satirists, as in the Blue Sky Theatre in Maryland. Scout leaders join the group by the score ("Scouts can earn puppet badges," said Cook), and Brown added that "librarians in Alexandria and Fairfax are doing all kinds of interesting work."
The widely different puppeteer personalities seem to have in common a fierce sense of independence. "It's the last place in our society where you can do your own thing," Brown claims. "Where else can you write the script, direct the show, control the characters to the point of actually creating them, make the costumes, do the acting and collect the tickets yourself?"
In exchange, puppeteers have a social status "slightly lower than theater people, and just above gypsies, tramps and thieves," said Brown. They also tend to have recession-drained bank accounts that "can get pretty scary," she said. "That's what makes the tremendous camaraderie of this group, I think. It's so nice to know you're not the only one struggling."
Puppeteers share other problems--like where to find the unlikely tools of their trade. Brown points proudly to the information exchange column in their magazine, which offers advice on using different kinds of glues, producing colored smoke and faking foreign dialects.
The trips to the store to purchase such items are what make a puppeteer's life interesting, Brown says. "I once spent a half-hour at Dart Drug trying on her head plastic bowls," she explained. "We were making Japanese puppets, and I needed bowls as the base for the head parts." Finally, the store manager strolled over and said, casually, 'May I help you?' 'I'm just looking at your bowls,' " Brown said she replied, since she "hates to explain what I really need these things for."
The store manager then "had the nerve to hand me one of those green numbers you use for lettuce, saying 'Try this--it's a lovely color.' So I did. It fit perfectly and I told her, 'Fine, I'll take three.' "
Although many people seem charmed by her puppeteering tales, her own children are more sophisticated. "They've just accepted this as a way of life," Brown said. "I remember when our eldest son first visited a neighbor's house and asked his friend, 'Where do your parents keep their puppets?' "
All three children have attended shows and rehearsals "almost since the day they were born" and have learned to be discerning and vocal critics, to her dismay. "I took my youngest to a church service last Christmas because I wanted him to see the other side of Christmas--it's not all 'The Nutcracker,' " she explained. "And about halfway through the Mass he turned to me and said in a loud voice, 'This is the worst show I've ever seen!' "
Brown's children now are dedicated fans. "They won't watch TV--I can't bribe them to watch TV--because they're too interested in what's going on in our living room. And they're not scared of monsters or witches or ogres because they've seen them being created and listened to us doing spooky witch voices."
Although they live in "the weird house on the street" and have to eat peanut butter sandwiches during the weeks before a performance, "they seem to be able to cope with it," said Brown. "In fact, we love our life."
For more information on puppets, books or membership in the Puppeteers of America, call 642-1244.