Today’s post will cover our conservation treatment of sixteen marionette puppets that will be featured in the Los Angeles Public Library’s (LAPL) upcoming exhibition Life On A String. The puppets are constructed from painted wood, textile, hair, fur, and some metal elements. The puppets resemble humans, animals, and even a troll. The marionettes range in age, the oldest being from the 1930’s and the later ones dating to the 1970’s.
The group that created the puppets are known as the Yale Puppeteers and consisted of Harry Burnett, Forman Brown, and Richard Brandon. Brown was the writer while Burnett was the designer. In the 1930’s they performed at their own theatre in New York City as well as at clubs and hotels all over the country. They also appeared in films, such as a scene in the movie, I Am Suzanne. The group moved to Los Angeles and bought the Turnabout Theatre where they performed shows from 1941-1960. The shows were satirical in nature and drew many crowds and it was a favorite among Hollywood stars of the time. After dwindling popularity, the theatre was closed in 1960. The puppets were at some point donated to the Los Angeles Public Library.
The puppets sat in storage for many years before it was decided that they would be featured in their own special exhibit. The puppets were in a deteriorated condition when they arrived to us at Art Preservation Associates 2 studio. The puppets therefore needed extensive conservation treatment to get them to display ready condition. The goal for the treatment was not to make them look like brand new but instead focused on cleaning and stabilization.
All of the puppets were dry cleaned using a vacuum and a soft brush followed by smoke sponge. A few of the older puppets from the 1930’s had extensive paint damage such as, powdering, chipping, and cracking. The paint needed to be consolidated to combat these issues. However, this was problematic because the paint was soluble in all solvents including water. Despite this, we decided that the most vulnerable areas needed to be consolidated because of the paint flaking. These areas were the legs, hands, and faces. These areas were carefully consolidated using a water based adhesive. The paint layer was not disturbed by this action. After completion of all cleaning and consolidating we attempted to untangle the puppet’s strings. For some, this was a simple feat but for others it took some time and strategy. In the end we successfully untangled all of the puppets from their strings! There were a few puppets that underwent more extensive repair work, these were the Opera Singer, the Angel, and the biggest Billy Goat.
The Opera Singer is dressed in an elegant velvet gown with lace detailing. The lace was badly damaged so it was painstakingly repaired by a textile conservator by backing the lace with a supporting fabric.
The Angel is not a puppet but a plaster figure. The Angel’s wing on the proper left side became unattached. There is only a small dowel attached to the wing that was securing it in place along with some plaster around the base of the wing. The entire break area was consolidated, the area was then joined using a structural adhesive. This left a gap between the wing and the break area, which was filled with a bulked conservation grade spackle and pigmented with dry pigments. Inpainting was completed using acrylic paints.
The biggest Billy Goat is part of a larger group with two other smaller billy goats and a troll dating back to the 1970’s. The problem with this particular puppet was that the arms are made from real animal fur and were badly damaged. Both arms had come apart from the area where the top of the arm meets the shoulder. There were areas of loss and overall the skin had become unattached and fragmented, leaving the arms barely connected. These areas were repaired by lining the inside of the arms with Japanese tissue paper stitches which were adhered using an appropriate conservation grade adhesive. Any torn fragments or areas that were unattached were adhered back together using Japanese tissue paper and adhesive. A gap inside the right arm near the shoulder was filled using Japanese tissue paper balls. After filling was completed the arm was joined back together by adhering Japanese tissue stitches. Filling areas of missing fur on the arms was done by using tinted Japanese tissue paper and polyester wadding tinted with acrylic paints. By the end of this treatment the Billy Goat’s arms were securely in place and display ready.
The exhibition opens June 7th at the Los Angeles Public Library, Central Branch located in downtown Los Angeles! Check it out! For more information go to https://www.lapl.org/events/exhibits