As an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut, I had the good fortune of being around at the same time as graduate students such as Brad Williams, Richard Termine, Bart Roccoberton, Steve Kaplan, Spring Burrington, Barbara Pollitt and Lisa Sturz. I admired their artistry from afar – I was, after all, in the acting program, and except for certain departmental requirements that had me working in the Puppet Lab and performing in the puppet shows, I did not at the time have aspirations to be a puppeteer.
Nevertheless, the memory of those remarkable students stuck with me. I credit them with my forays into puppetry, as well as the guidance that eventually brought me back to UConn to study with Frank Ballard as a graduate student.
This kind of complex community of students and friends of students, as well as friends, family and neighbors of Frank Ballard is something akin to a quilt, as thick as it is broad and long.
The recent death of Frank Ballard, preceded by his wife Adah Ruth, brought many of the old ties together to reminisce about our experiences at UConn, the shows we were involved in, and Frank Ballard himself.
John Bell, director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, says that we are only beginning to understand the effect that Frank Ballard had on the world of puppetry. One aspect of that effect is the number of lives that were touched by the man. That he stayed in one place for so many years was a crucial piece of this dynamic. That place – Uconn, and the town of Storrs, Connecticut – shaped the Ballards perhaps as much or more than they shaped it.
Students form the bulk of the community of the University. Though they form a constant labor force, they also require training. It is why UConn – and all schools—exist. In 1956, Frank Ballard was hired as the Technical Director for the fledging Department of Dramatic Arts. For the better part of his first ten years at the University, he did not teach puppetry. He taught Scene Design, Technical Theatre and helped to produce the shows. In 1964, while the Chair of the Department was on sabbatical, he offered a course in puppetry.
UConn’s puppetry program grew very slowly, and certainly was helped by being part of the university system. Students studying to become teachers or engineers could take puppetry courses. Acting students such as myself could dip their toes into puppetry without taking the full plunge.
Frank Ballard learned to teach the students using puppetry as the medium. He often said that the best students were the puppetry students. They often came to puppetry knowing a great deal about many subjects, and many were multitalented. Most had design and drawing skills, some could play musical instruments, sing, act, dance…
Mr. Ballard would get to know the students, and create puppet projects that pushed them to extend their skills. I saw this in action both as an undergraduate (I performed in The Golden Cockerel) and as a graduate student. I watched rehearsals of Magic Flute, and volunteered to help build puppets. Later, as a full time graduate student, I participated in the design, construction and performance of H.M.S. Pinafore. The following year, Mr. Ballard’s last, I directed my “audition” piece for the M.F.A., Pierre Pathelin, under his tutelage. Two years later I would write, design and direct my M.F.A. project, Well Wishes, with advice from Mr. Ballard and Margo Rose.
The other alumni no doubt have as many memories as I have – good and bad. The time of life that is spent working toward a B.F.A. or an M.F.A. comes at a crucial period, when one is maturing, thinking independently, often at odds with authority. That Mr. Ballard became the authority figure for many students is obvious. Some students found him to be a teacher that could be relied on to care for and respect them. Others bristled under his tutelage.
Besides the students, Mr. Ballard had to get along with the other faculty and staff within the department – not always an easy task. Some were jealous: of the national or international attention that the puppetry program received; of the quality and number of students wanting to get into the program; of the opportunities afforded to Ballard. There was, and no doubt still is, politics. In the seventies, Mr. Ballard limited the number of puppetry students to twelve, the number that he could advise personally. He chose to keep the program small for many reasons – one of them no doubt being political. He needed to continue to work within the department, teaching courses that were not puppetry (set design, for example). He taught puppetry courses in the summer to future teachers and others from outside the University. He worked within the wider context of teaching at a University Department of Dramatic Arts.
In the middle of my undergraduate years, I remember hearing about Mr. Ballard’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s. I did not know exactly what that meant. Many of the students were stunned, wondering what would become of the program. As the disease continued to make inroads, the influx of students slowed. In response, Bart Roccoberton and others created the Institute of Professional Puppetry Arts at the O’Neill Center, to continue to offer training to puppeteers.
In 1988-9, Mr. Ballard was offered a “golden handshake” to retire. Because he knew he would need more and more health services, he took the offer. At the same time, the University was seeking to cut the programs that were too small. Being that Mr. Ballard was retiring, the puppet program was on the chopping block.
A grassroots campaign to save the program resulted in many people, from all over the world, writing letters to the University. Finally, it was determined that the program would continue, and a replacement for Mr. Ballard would be found. After a short but intensive search, former student Bart Roccoberton was chosen to take the reins.
Though retired from UConn, Frank Ballard was not to retire from puppetry. He continued tirelessly to work on developing a museum – and proper storage – for the puppets that had been created over the many years he was at UConn. Many former students, family and friends and colleagues helped him. In 1994, they mounted an exhibit at UConn’s Benton Museum on campus that brought in the highest-ever number of museumgoers. That record has still not been broken.
Finally, the University was persuaded to give the “Puppet Preservation Trust” buildings at the new “Depot Campus” to house the puppets. Again, with help from volunteers like retired departmental secretary Dotty White and her husband Ken, the former cottages for the disabled were re-made to house gallery and workshop space. Retired UConn professor Kay Janney worked on developing the library that now boasts her name.
With the opening of the Institute and Museum of Puppetry (the name would change later) Mr. Ballard had another job – that of exhibit designer. Each year he would design and direct the building of the exhibits. Sitting at the table with his friends – the volunteer board of directors – he would carefully describe his vision of how the exhibit would look, and how the spectators would be taken through the space. He chose the themes, puppets, and helped to construct the exhibit. David Bruce, father of UConn student Karen Bruce, designed the lighting for many exhibits according to Ballard’s specs. Ventriloquist and balloon-animal maker Deb Jones played the costumed Pierrot-like “Imp” at many exhibit openings.
Several students who had not had the opportunity to study in classes with Mr. Ballard, were able to learn from him by volunteering at the museum. They include David Regan, Joyce and Bob Ritz, Amy Weinstein, and Cheryl Gardner, among others.
While many of the puppetry students that studied with Mr. Ballard went on to become puppeteers in their own right, others became teachers, engineers, or business people. Some of the teachers that took Frank’s summer courses for teachers used puppetry in their classrooms. One of them, Tom Fogarty, served on the board of Puppeteers of America, and is President of the Connecticut Guild of Puppetry. John Mayer, having received his M.A. in puppetry (he performed in Babes in Toyland), went on to teach and administer at area schools – eventually hiring other UConn puppetry graduates. Steve Brezzo, who was the first M.F.A. in puppetry in 1974, worked for years as the director of the San Diego Museum, and is now on the Board of Directors for the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. Tom Keegan has started up a UConn Puppetry Alumni page on Facebook.
Eileen Packard, now a kindergarten teacher, was in the cast of The Mikado. She had her own production company, “Peanut Butter Jam”, which featured live music and puppetry. Michael Michanczyk, (performed with Frank in Samson and Delilah, developed a puppet theatre in Plantsville, Connecticut called “Puppets and Other Things”. Bonnie Hall and Jamie Keithline, who met at UConn, perform as “Crabgrass Puppet Theatre”.
Brad Williams and Bart Roccoberton began “Pandemonium Puppet Company” during their time as graduate students. Brad went on to work on projects both on the stage and in television. Bart Roccoberton, hired to teach puppetry when Frank retired in 1990, continues to do projects under Pandemonium’s banner.
Others that developed their own puppet theatres include Leslie Weinberg (Magic Flute’s Assistant Director) with “Puppetsweat”; Sandy (Bellock) Listorti (another Magic Flute alum) with “Merry Tales Puppet Theatre” and Valerie Scott (Fantasticks builder) with “Choices: An Educational Puppet Program,” hiring former student Elizabeth Wadsworth (Magic Flute). Spring Burrington Reiss developed her own “Spring’s Puppets”, becoming perhaps the only marionettist ever to perform on stilts doing walk-around marionettes (to the live music provided by husband Martin).
Deb and Tony Petzold, who worked with Frank on three of his last productions (The Magic Flute, Little Shop of Horrors and H.M.S. Pinafore), now live in Washington State, where Tony teaches at Centralia College.
Several students went on to work on various projects for other companies. Steve Kaplan worked with Bread and Puppet and now works with Great Small Works and Chinese Theatreworks. Barbara Pollitt has worked for directors George White and Julie Taymor, among others. Lisa Sturz’s resume looks like a varitable “who’s who” in puppetry.
Roger DuPen, who performed in H.M.S. Pinafore, ended up as Artistic Director for ill-fated “New England Puppet Opera”, based in Keene, NH. Norma Chartoff, who worked on Peer Gynt, continues to design for theatre in New York City.
Richard Termine, Jan (Rosenthal) Stefura, Pam Arciero, Heather Ashe, Tim LaGasse, among others, worked for Henson Associates after graduating from the program.
Other students returned to the University to help in the department. Janibeth Johnson, one of the first puppetry students, worked long after graduation developing overhead shadows for Ballard shows. She later spearheaded the movement (begun in the 1980’s) to create a museum of puppetry.
Susan (Doyle) Tolis, her freshman year being highlighted by her performance in H.M. S Pinafore, now supervises the Costume Shop at UConn.
As an undergraduate in technical theatre, Jack Nardi designed and built the bridge for Peer Gynt (1973). Later hired on as Technical Director for the Jorgensen Theater (Frank Ballard’s original post), he designed and built the double bridge for The Magic Flute (1986), also used for H.M.S. Pinafore, 1989).
The University, and the Department of Dramatic Arts, has grown since Frank was hired in 1956. The Department now has three theaters, a new library, and several buildings at the Depot Campus, where the Puppetry Complex and the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry are housed.
There are many more people who have put a great deal of energy, toil and sweat into making UConn a center of puppetry. I do not know them all. They are like stitches in a quilt – you cannot take count how many there are. But each participates in making it stay together.
B.F.A. UConn 1979.
M.F.A. UConn 1992.
Artistic Director, Purple Rock Productions.
Purple Rock performers include former UConn students Matt Leonard, Sandy Bellock Listorti, Elizabeth Wadsworth, Robert Laughlin and (director) Drew Scott.