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"Hope Dies Hard in the Artist’s Breast" – Toni Parisi and the Sicilian Puppet Tradition

Knights of the Opera dei Pupi

Knights of the Opera dei Pupi

Recently while researching the Sicilian Opera dei Pupi tradition, I came across a pair of century old articles in the New York Times archives that tell a touching and compelling story of the impact of emerging technology on established artistic traditions. The first article, “Moving Pictures Oust the Puppets” from December 12, 1909 announces that the Marionette Theater of Antonio (Toni) Parisi has been “forced at last to give way to the march of time”. The subtitle tells the story: “Signor Parisi will follow progress by turning his place into a picture show.”

From the article:

These are the last few lingering days of the Italian marionette theatre in Eleventh Street. Signor Toni Parisi is to shut up shop, stow away the heroes, Kings, knights, giants, Turks, the ladies in distress which have bobbed on his wires for more than twenty years and will run a moving-picture show instead. The reason is simple: The Sicilians in New York have become just enough Americanized to desert the little theatre where the old Italian romances were acted out by puppets. What are the classic heroes of long ago beside the latest prizefight! Signor Parisi doesn’t like moving pictures himself, but a man has to live!

The story goes on to tell how Toni, like his father and grandfather before him, had devoted his life to animating the legends of the Carolingian knights and how, at the height of its popularity, the theater at 258 Elizabeth Street was “the most splendid in New York”. Thanks to the remarkable Shorpy photo archive I found the photo below of Elizabeth Street taken a few years after the Parisi Family moved their theater to Eleventh Street. (The space is now occupied by a designer handbag shop called Token.)

250-268 Elizabeth Street New York

250-268 Elizabeth Street New York

Parisi knew the stories from Orlando Furioso by heart, having spent five years as an apprentice puppeteer in his father’s theatre in Palermo before joining in the great emigration to the New World, first to Boston, then to East Harlem and finally to the Bowery. According to a legend probably as reliable as the tales of Orlando, Toni Parisi’s great-grandfather learned to make puppets from a half-witted prisoner in a jail in Messina, and the Parisi clan had lived with and by marionettes thereafter.

To support his family, Antonio (Toni) Parisi worked as a plumber and mechanic, devoting all his profits into his beloved puppets, numbering over 300, a severe strain on the Parisi’s budget. According to a 1908 NY Times article, there was hope that The Drama Committee of the People’s Institute would help the Parisi theater to survive through promotional advertising to school children, though the outcome of the Committee’s actions is unclear from the article. Apparently it was insufficient in generating the income necessary to meet the theater’s weekly costs of $12.

While there had been several marionette theaters in the lower East Side in the last decades of the 19th century, the Parisi family’s was the only one remaining in 1909. After moving up to 11th Street, the Parisi’s had begun attracting more non-Italian audiences, especially children, drawn no doubt by the sign that Toni’s teenage son Nunzio had painted over the door advertising “Grand Romance of Orlando – Come! The Pope, the Moor, the Dragon’s Cave.” But what had become of his traditional Sicilian audience? As the 1909 article recounts “[o]ne night Signor Parisi watched, and saw crowds going into another place, with electric lights and a phonograph. The moving picture had invaded the Italian quarter. And so the seven volumes of old Italian romances, the hundreds of puppets had all been taken to the attic of the Parisi’s tenement.

The hiatus was brief though since, as a New York Times article from May 22, 1010 describes “hope dies hard in the artist’s breast, and by dint of much cogitation…the elder Parisi conceived a plan whereby the fickle Sicilians should be won back from the moving pictures.” The solution? Perform the noble old plays in English – at least some of time.  Parisi wasn’t able to present marionette plays every night like before, but only Sunday evenings. The new experiment was sadly short-lived and in the May 22, 1916 issue of the progressive weekly pamphlet “The Survey” (also short-lived!)  we read an elegiac description of the Parisi’s:

Roland holds the pass at Roncesvalles no more, and the black devil has ceased to wait, hanging up there in the painted shadows, for the soul of the dying mistress of the pope. Tony manufactures mechanical fronts for the movie shows now, and Nunzio, his son, who has genius, makes artificial flowers for a living. He does not even make whole flowers, but all day swings some heavy instrument for mashing paper-pulp into shape. At home, the Parisi walls are covered with drawings by Nunzio and with postcards, reproducing Tintoretto, Masaccio, Leonardo.

In his essay “Beyond Ethnicity”: Portraits of the Italian-American artist in Garibaldi Lapolla’s novels” Lawrence J. Oliver writes of Antonio (Toni) Parisi in a more academically reliable manner about the role of the puppet theater in the Itlaian immigrant culture of New York:

The marionette theatre, which has intrigued such writers as Goethe, Anatole France, George Bernard Shaw, and, most recently, Mario Puzo, was first introduced into this country by Antonio Parisi, a native of the Continis’ home province, Messina. Often called the “dean of puppeteers,” Parisi established the first marionette theatre in Boston in 1888, moving it to New York’s East Harlem in 1896, where young Garibaldi Lapolla might have attended its performances. Dramatizing the chivalric tales of Ariosto’s Renaissance epic, the Orlando Furioso (the Italian rendition of the Song of Roland), the puppet plays staged by Parisi and other immigrant puppeteers were sophisticated artistic productions that sometimes included a cast of several hundred hand-crafted and elaborately costumed marionettes; when performed from beginning to end, Ariosto’s epic required more than three years of daily performances. These puppet plays, vocalized in Italian, were as important to the newcomers as was Broadway theatre to “American” New Yorkers.

After the demise of the Sicilian puppet theaters of New York in the second decade of the 20th century there was a revival in the 20s. While the plays and the puppeteers were still Sicilian, the new audience was much more “American” and reached beyond Little Italy. Again from Oliver:

The popularity of the marionette extended beyond the boundaries of the ghetto in the 1920s when the schools, recognizing the educational value of puppet plays, began creating the forerunners of today’s Muppets and Sesame Street. So popular did marionette art become during this decade that Theatre Arts Monthly in 1928 devoted a special issue to puppetry, noting in it that the winter of that year saw publication of seven books on the subject and that no less than fifteen professional companies were then staging plays around the country. The most famous marionette theatre of the day was Agrippino Monteo’s, which he and his family opened on Mulberry Street in East Harlem in 1921.

Oliver goes on the explain that the revival was curtailed by restrictive immigration policies, which stemmed the influx of Itlaian immigrants and further encouraged those who had already made the journey to abandon the culture of the Old World. Manteo’s theater was the only one to survive the 20s. Agrippino Manteo died in 1947, but his puppet theatre was been kept alive by his descendants.

It was a performance Agrippino’s grandson Miguel that first sparked Stephen and Chris Carter’s interest in the Opera dei Pupi tradition that eventually led them to form the Carter Family Marionettes. I have been unable to find any references to the Parisi Family after 1916, but we are fortunate that the Manteos, and now the Carters, have continued and preserved this ancient tradition of puppetry and maintained it as a living art form.

UPDATE: I found a photo of the block of Elizabeth now at the blog (parenthetically).

258-268 Elizabeth Street New York ca. 2009

258-268 Elizabeth Street New York ca. 2009

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