In the small venue space shared by Barnes & Noble and The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, a small buffet with ice cream cake, cookies and assorted soft and hot beverages were all laid out as the two speakers set up the stage with a small table and a few microphones for this evening’s talk. This might seem like unusual refreshments to be served at a small talk about puppeteer performance, but this date, Dec. 7th, was in part a birthday celebration of the late Frank Ballard, as the evening was to commemorate his unique and artistic contribution to the University of Connecticut.
The event was also broadcasted live on Facebook as well as digitally recorded for the institute’s records.
The two guest speakers were Steven Brezzo and Steve Abrams, both colleagues of Ballard at one point in their careers. The talk was set to a timeline narrated by Steve Abrams and accompanied by photos of famous works of puppeteers throughout history that ultimately influenced Ballard as well as much of modern puppetry today.
Starting in the early-1920s, Abrams went through all the major pioneers on record of puppet work in Europe and then gradually into America where they had found a hub in the Midwest particularly in Chicago, Illinois. There were mentions of puppeteers like Paul McFarlin of the 1930s all the way through to the better known Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets in the early 60s with Kermit the Frog making his debut in drag singing a rendition of “I’ve grown accustomed to your face” that was broadcasted on television.
This helped provide context to when Frank Ballard came onto the scene at UConn. The microphone was then passed to a close friend of Ballard, Steve Brezzo, one of the first graduate students of UConn’s puppetry department. Brezzo went on to tell his story of how he came to know and work with Ballard to ultimately found the school of puppetry.
The two were not both puppeteers; Ballard was a scene designer and used his skills to make the sets, and many of the puppets with “incredible detail that, ultimately, were not appreciated given the size of the Jorgensen and how far most of the audience was from the puppets,” Brezzo said. This aspect was one that was highlighted many times in reference to Ballard.
The fact that he had such an admiration for the little details as well as all the fine mechanics that went into his puppet shows, really expressed his love of all the arts. Brezzo went on to explain that Ballard was the one who showed him that puppetry is the only form of art that combines nearly all major art forms into one performance. It involves choreography, set design, painting, character design, music, acting, poetry, sculpture and dance.
“I never thought of puppetry as a huge culmination of art before,” third-semester painting major Isabella Saraceni said, “after the talk, I am definitely more inclined to take a puppetry class just for the challenge and experience.”
One of the highlights of the talk was from Brezzo about “The Miracle of the Fjord” when while performing the first major puppet show on campus, Brezzo dropped his puppet controller down a distance of three stories during a set change and it managed to completely tangle around the puppet impossible.
With only two minutes to change the set, all hope was lost that that show would continue. Then when they brought the problem to Ballard, with one hand he maneuvered it through the impossible mass of fishing wire and untangled the mass in seconds. “That was the moment I knew we were dealing with someone special, that this guy was on a totally different level of artistry than the rest of us,” Brezzo said. “He was a genius.”
Dan Wood is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.