By Stanley Wlodyka
“Toby!” the gaggle of toddlers scream, some incessantly and with all their might pointing at the puppet stage, where the head of a pint-sized pup appears from behind the curtain. Toby snatches a feather from the cap of the master of ceremonies. Dressed as the pied piper in a frock pocked by patches, the actor turns too little too late: Toby disappears in a whirl of black fur, retreating behind the curtain with his plundered plumage. The children sitting on the floor in front of the set roar with laughter, and from behind the velveteen curtain, Penny Jones can’t help but to laugh along with them—silently of course.
Penny and Toby have been in business together for a very long time. Since the 1970’s, the Penny Jones Puppet Company has been a mainstay of children’s theater in New York City. Given that Penny sometimes handles several puppets at a time, switching seamlessly between voices and characterizations, rushing back and forth putting on live performances, it may come as a surprise to find out she is turning 90 years old in September. Along with staying physically active and therefore not allowing the aches and pains of aging to set in, she credits her exposure to children with her longevity.
What makes youth young? “They’re interested in everything. They’re curious about everything. They can be amazed and marvel at things and they are continually accomplishing things and that gives them a feeling of joy, when they manage to do something they’ve been trying to do,” Penny says.
Penny certainly doesn’t try to achieve praise and recognition for what she does, but so far this year has heaped honors upon Penny and her troupe. In April, she was crowned an Icon of Westbeth Artists Housing, a government subsidized affordable housing complex with more than 380 units, reserved exclusively for artists and their families in the West Village, where rents top $4000 for a one-bedroom apartment. Since 1970, Westbeth has been home to important artists, and, before that, during the building’s past life as the headquarters of Bell Laboratories, was home to important scientific and technological achievements—such as the radar, laser, microwave, an early prototype of the television, sound for film, and nobel-prize winning research.
During her Icon acceptance speech, Penny recalled how Westbeth became a lifeline for her when, even in the 1990’s, New York real estate began climbing to unaffordable levels. She was priced out of her studio apartment in Soho, and if an apartment at Westbeth hadn’t opened up, she would have had to return to her childhood home of Minnesota. Alas, just a few months after giving the Westbeth Icon speech, she would have to return to Minnesota, anyway, to accept another award, this time from the Puppeteers of America.
She was especially pleased to receive this award because it was for educational puppetry, a subgroup that she feels is often underappreciated if not altogether forgotten. It’s not as sexy as what comic Jeff Dunham does on his nationwide stand-up tours with Walter, his acerbic, sharp-tongued, straight, white, CIS-gender male, senior-citizen puppet. However, she feels that using puppetry for learning and development is important now more than ever.
“I think the best thing in the world is the parent and the child walking down the street hand in hand, and the parent pointing out the potholes, the this, the that, the flowers blooming, the noise making, the everything, and having a little chat with the child, so that it’s a wonderful togetherness as they are going down the street,” Penny posits. “Instead, the child is in a stroller, not getting exercise, he’s just lying there and the caregiver (the parent or the hired hand) is probably looking at a device and not relating to the child. The child is isolated, all by himself, alone in a world that is not being explained to him, not being shared with him.”
If neglect isn’t bad enough, wait till the child joins the vicious cycle. “Naturally he wants whatever that thing is the parent is talking into and looking at. If he’s given something like that, it means the two of them are in their separate solipsistic worlds. They’re not relating; this is an educational opportunity completely thrown out the window, a togetherness that is not happening. It’s just awful. He’s not going to have a warm relationship with either a person or with the world. It’s ghastly and it’s going to be deadly for the next generation.”
And so she marches on, steadfast in her determination to enrich children’s lives by providing the most beneficial experiences possible, while still delighting them to no end. More often than not, given that the bulk of her audiences are around six years of age and under, Penny’s productions are usually the very first theatrical experience any of them have ever had. Naturally, she hopes they’ll catch the bug and go on seeking more live entertainment experiences and beyond! Audiences have a chance to channel their inspiration into the puppet making workshops that follow each of her performances, which range from classic fables and fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Chicken Little, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) to experimental and abstract stories of Penny’s own invention (What Music Looks Like).
Kids, young and old, are invited to celebrate Penny’s 90th birthday on Sunday, September 15, when the new repertory season begins with interactive performances of an original work inspired by her travels in Italy: Peppi and the Pop-Up Dragon. You can catch an 11 am or a 2:30 pm show, and can count on performances each 3rd and 4th Sunday of every month in the Westbeth Community Room (155 Bank Street). Tickets are $10.
For more information, please visit: www.PennyPuppets.org