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Carved out of a legacy and all grown up, the puppets take Atlanta

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After nearly a decade of performing puppet shows in Atlanta and around the South, Anthony expanded his vision. While helping to organize the 1980 World Puppetry Festival in Washington, D.C., Anthony began to work with Jim Henson and saw the possibilities of opening a permanent space with both national and international scope. A space that combined playhouse, museum and classroom, the Center for Puppetry Arts opened its permanent space in the former Spring Street Elementary School Sept. 23, 1978, with an official ribbon-cutting by Kermit the Frog and Henson, who helped underwrite the venture.

Since then, the Center has entertained generations of children, including a young Michael Haverty, whose grandmother, Lu Algood, was a board member. Haverty recalls building paper puppets in postshow workshops as a youngster, but says his most vivid early memory involves the international troupe Hugo and Ines. "They'd put clown noses on their feet or knee and do a whole piece lying on their backs, twisting around, and their body would become the puppet!" As a teenager, Haverty saw the show two or three times in a row.

But the Center was never meant to be a Pee-Wee Playhouse. The Center's adults-only "New Directions" puppetry – such as the Xperimental Puppetry Theatre program founded in 1980 and currently coordinated by Haverty – was part of Anthony's mandate from the beginning. Anthony says that despite having such family-friendly alter egos as Kermit and Rowlf, Henson also loved "puppetry on the edge," and created the Henson Foundation to support it.

But what would the edge be?

Some of the artists who shaped the Center's groundbreaking sensibility were right under Anthony's nose. Jon Ludwig joined the still-touring Vagabond Marionettes in 1978 by answering an ad that said, he recalls, "Puppeteer needed. Will train."

"When I got here, I could drive the van, and I tried to keep the puppets from getting all tangled," Ludwig says.

In the mid-1980s, he began to push the envelope at the Center. "I was shocked to find someone with his talent on our staff," Anthony recalls. Despite Anthony's years of exposure to adult puppetry, he was agog at some of Ludwig's innovations. "With Jon's shows, I've walked into my own theater and been taken completely by surprise," Anthony says. "Once, I went in and saw that Jon had put the audience onto the stage, and put the performance in the seats. Wow! Even I'm shocked!"

Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Center came with 1996's Frankenstein, which imagined Mary Shelley's tale as the ritualized induction of the latest member of the "Church of Frankenstein" by ominous figures in white lab coats. The show featured the massive monster singing along to "Love Potion Number 9," along with jokes worthy of Young Frankenstein, but kept the gothic horrors of the work intact. Newsweek magazine called the Center "one of the most exciting theater companies in the country" in its coverage of Frankenstein as part of Atlanta's Cultural Olympiad. (See online sidebar.)

Anthony is semiretired from doing puppetry, saying he finds the creativity of raising money more rewarding. At the moment, he's exercising those talents to the utmost: The Henson family has offered a gift of between 500 and 700 puppets, props and other artifacts for a proposed Jim Henson's Wing for the Center's new museum, tentatively scheduled to open in 2012. A stipulation requires that the Center raise the money to house and exhibit the collection, and one of the Center's options is to relocate to the Woodruff Arts Center.

While Atlanta may have had no history of puppetry before Anthony's arrival, the Center now inspires artists to create edgy alternatives to its philosophy of puppetry. Many other Atlanta theater companies have incorporated the genre into their programming over the past decade, and those within the Center's community, including Yates and Haverty, are branching out.

Since 2000, for example, Lucky Yates has hosted midnight "Puppet Slams" to provide artists a chance to display the art form in as fresh and spontaneous a venue as possible.

"Because of the Center, Atlanta is full of puppeteers chomping at the bit to do their work," Yates says. "Before, [Xperimental Puppetry Theatre] was the only place that new people could do new stuff, and the Center has a procedure for entering that: You have to make an application and go through this whole process. I decided to offer a way they could create art and throw it in front of the audience."

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