The new theater has all the latest features, including a roomy stage with ample space overhead for raising and lowering scenery and space below for trapdoors and creating special effects. Gleaming new computerized controls ensure professional lighting and sound effects, and there's a large, well-equipped workshop for building props.
The one thing this sparkling theater doesn't have, however, is human actors.
In fact, you might say actors here are kept on short leashes -- because they are all puppets, and this is the new Puppet Company Playhouse at Glen Echo Park.
The theater was officially opened this spring with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that featured Jane Henson, widow of Muppets' creator Jim Henson and a woman described as "the ambassador of puppetry" by Christopher Piper, the Puppet Company's vice president and associate director.
"I shed tears walking in here because it's been a labor of love from the very beginning to help us preserve the art of puppetry in Montgomery County, and, really, this is a national treasure we have here," said Theresa Cameron, executive director of the Montgomery County Arts and Humanities Council. "There's no other puppet company like this in the world."
The playhouse, in the new Arcade building, is the latest facility to be completed in Glen Echo Park's $19 million, multiyear restoration project. For 20 years, the Puppet Company had been in a makeshift studio in the old Spanish Ballroom, itself newly renovated and reopened.
The Puppet Company raised $500,000 in grants, donations and loans for the project and soon will start a capital campaign to raise an additional $250,000 to complete the facility.
"If we didn't bring the community together, if we didn't step forward as a county, with the state and federal government, and with the private partners, these buildings literally would have collapsed into themselves eventually, so I'm delighted to be here, and I want to congratulate the Puppet Company for being there every step of the way to make sure we're celebrating their opening as the latest in a series of reopenings here at Glen Echo," said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
The 6,000-square-foot theater complex includes an area for exhibiting the work of puppetmakers from the region, a reference library and media center for students and puppeteers, and a birthday party room for young theatergoers. The theater, which can accommodate 250, is designed to allow puppets to fly out over the heads of children in the audience.
The Puppet Company describes the new facility as the first year-round theater in the country devoted exclusively to puppet theater and education. That suits 9-year-old Jake Simpson of Olney, who saved money from his allowance and pet sitting for friends to donate $11.90 for the construction project last year.
"Well, I like puppetry, and I'm actually a puppeteer myself, and I make my own puppets and do my own shows and stuff," said Jake, who attended the opening ceremony.
"Yeah, we're the main audience for his shows, you know, in the living room and wherever," added his father, Stephen. "He makes his puppets out of bits of pipes from Home Depot, Styrofoam balls, cardboard tubes, anything he can find."
It was the joy of puppetry that also attracted Ida Jervis, 86, of Falls Church, to the ceremony and for a tour of the theater. The longtime puppeteer appeared on television in the 1940s with her star puppet, a clown named Happy Joe.
"I still have Happy Joe," she said. "Just repainted his face, although he only comes out now for family reunions."
As children scampered about after the ceremony, Jane Henson, who now lives in Greenwich, Conn., sat in the theater and reminisced about her early-married life with her late husband. They lived near Glen Echo Park, she said, and often took walks through the grounds.
Jim Henson started on a CBS station 50 years ago just as he was entering the University of Maryland. He later moved to WRC-TV, where the twice-daily, five-minute puppet show "Sam and Friends" led eventually to the cultural phenomenon known as "The Muppets."
"This is a wonderful milestone for puppetry, with this beautiful gem of a theater," Jane Henson said. "There's a great deal of interest. Young people are quite interested. But what there is a lack of opportunities for them to be able to make a living at it."
Hoping to change that, Jane Henson has established several foundations to support new works and emerging artists in the field, and she serves on various arts boards.
Kermit and Miss Piggy, perhaps the two most famous Muppets, were not able to accompany her to the opening, as they are busy preparing for the next step in their careers, as new employees of the Walt Disney Co.
"Hopefully, because of working with such a nice, large company, Miss Piggy, Kermit and all the Muppets will be seen more, especially at the Disney parks," she said. "They're becoming part of the Disney family."
The 2004 schedule of the Puppet Company includes "The Wizard of Oz" (through July 18) and Dreamosaurus" (July 21-Sept. 5). Performances are held at 10 and 11:30 a.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Reservations are recommended. Tickets are $6 (younger than 2, free) and are available by calling 301-320-6668. More information is available at www.thepuppetco.org.
Jane Henson tours the theater with Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.