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Puppeteer, historian named director of Ballard puppet museum

by Sherry Fisher - September 10, 2007

John Bell, an internationally renowned puppeteer, professor, and historian of puppet theater, has been appointed director of UConn’s Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry (BIMP).

He started his new job June 9.

BIMP, located on the Depot Campus, houses a collection of more than 3,000 puppets, many created by leaders in the field including Tony Sarg, Margo and Rufus Rose, Bil Baird, and Jim Henson.

It also maintains a collection of books, letters, musical scores, designs, and scripts of importance to researchers in the puppet arts.

The institute and museum, until now, has been run by volunteers. It was designated the state’s official museum of puppetry in 2003.

Bell’s duties include preserving and building the institute’s collections, organizing exhibits, and conducting archival work on puppets. His position is part-time.

Bell earned a Ph.D. in theater history from Columbia University in 1993. While there, he did extensive research in the Brander Matthews Collection of puppets and masks, one of the oldest collections in the United States.

He initiated preservation projects for the collection and mounted an exhibition of parts of the collection in the library.

After earning his doctorate, he became a founding member of the award-winning Great Small Works theater company.

He was a consultant and curator for the exhibits Revealing Roots: Uncovering Influences in Contemporary American Puppet Theater and Puppets and Performing Objects in the Twentieth Century, both at Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts.

These were part of the Jim Henson International Festivals of Puppet Theater.

Bell taught at Emerson College from 1999 to 2007. He has been involved with puppetry since the mid-1970s, when he became a member of the acclaimed Bread and Puppet Theater.

In addition to producing and performing with Bread and Puppet, he also played an active role in the creation of the Bread and Puppet Museum in Glover, Vt.

Bell has authored several books. His latest, American Puppet Modernism, is forthcoming from Palgrave/Macmillan publishers.

“John Bell is one of the best historians and researchers of puppetry in the United States. We’re delighted to have him,” says David Woods, dean of the School of Fine Arts.

“We have the largest collection of any museum in the nation, and now one of the most important archival collections in puppet history,” Woods adds.

“Because this is a research institution, we should be focusing on archival material, and we’ve started that. The appointment of John Bell as the first position line director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry takes us to another level of excellence in the puppet arts.”

Bart Roccoberton, director of UConn’s Puppet Arts Program, is excited to have Bell on board. “He is an internationally known puppeteer, researcher, and author,” says Roccoberton.

John Bell, right, wearing burlap, during a performance with members of the Bread and Puppet Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
John Bell, right, wearing burlap, during a performance with members of the Bread and Puppet Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
Photo provided by John Bell

“We have a well-known champion of puppet arts leading our museum.”

Bell says he’s excited about his new position.

“We’re the American center for puppetry education and training,” he says.

“People in puppetry from all over the globe know about us.

“Our collection has not only Frank Ballard’s work, but also important puppet collections of the early 20th century from many pivotal figures in puppetry,” he says.

Bell plans to continue the work of Frank Ballard in preserving puppets in the collection and continue to improve preservation and cataloging.

He hopes to augment the collection with other 20th-century materials and “let more people locally and internationally know that the Ballard Institute is an invaluable center for research and a resource for puppetry.”

Bell says he is impressed by the work done so far at BIMP.

“The Ballard Institute has benefited so clearly from a strong community of volunteers and supporters in the Storrs area.”

He and Roccoberton have been discussing the possibility of starting a monthly puppet event that would involve lectures, films, and performances.

He says the Ballard Institute has applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to improve storage and archival endeavors.

“We’re looking into becoming a home for even more examples of puppetry,” he says.

On Sept. 15 from 1 to 4 p.m., there will be a welcoming reception for Bell at the Ballard Institute, on Weaver Road at the Depot Campus.

At 1 p.m., Bell, his wife Trudi Cohen, and their son Isaac will perform two Great Small Works productions: The Short Entertaining History of Toy Theater and a toy theater spectacle about religious tolerance in medieval Spain, Three Books in the Garden.

A reception will follow.

Visitors will also have a chance to enjoy the Shadows and Substance exhibit in the museum, as well as the works featured in the new permanent collection galleries.

The Puppet Arts Complex on Bourn Place, also at the Depot Campus, will be open.

Roccoberton invites the community to see marionettes being built for upcoming productions.  

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