Fred A. Bernstein

World on a String

A puppeteer copes with Parkinson's disease

Published in The New York Times, November 19, 2003

IN a cramped museum on the outskirts of the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs, Frank Ballard offered to show me a marionette he built in 1956. It was hanging about 20 feet away from the blue aluminum walker on which Mr. Ballard, 73, was resting his emaciated frame.

''You need to kick my feet to get me started,'' Mr. Ballard said.

Twenty-eight years after he was told he had Parkinson's disease, Mr. Ballard, creator of the country's only graduate program in puppetry, no longer has control of his legs. But he can still drag himself from room to room, ''if someone gets me going,'' he said.

And so, a slow and bizarre procession moves across the museum: Mr. Ballard's walker, Mr. Ballard, and a visitor kicking his heels from behind. ''You don't have to be gentle,'' he said.

He had become, for a moment, a puppet.

Last summer, the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry was designated an official state museum, the only one of its kind in the country. And if Frank Gehry's design for a new fine arts complex at UConn is realized, Mr. Ballard's brainchild will occupy the most visible section of the most dramatic new building on campus. (Most of the structure will be unpainted metal, but Mr. Gehry created a brightly colored facade for the puppetry section.)

On Nov. 24, work by dozens of past and present puppetry students will be put on display at the museum. The exhibition, which will run until April 3, is called ''You Can Major in That?''

''It's a perfect title, because that's what everyone said when you told them you were a puppetry major,'' said Jan Stefura, a toy designer who studied with Mr. Ballard in the 1970's. ''But it wasn't an easy program. We worked incredibly long hours.'' Mr. Ballard, she said, ''was a talented, generous, disciplined professor, and he gave puppetry everything he had.''

Soon after Mr. Ballard came to UConn in 1956 as the technical director of the new Harriet S. Jorgensen Theater, the school decided to add a master's degree program in drama. ''We were told to put every course that we could think of in the catalog,'' Mr. Ballard said. So he invented a course that drew on the hobby of puppetry, which he had pursued since he was a child in Illinois in the 1930's. ''I never thought they'd let me teach it,'' he said.

But they did, beginning in 1964. Since then, the school has granted hundreds of degrees in puppetry.

Mr. Ballard also directed annual puppet shows at the Jorgensen Theater. Among his innovations: a Delilah who attracted Samson with ''a heaving bosom.'' The bosom, Mr. Ballard said, was operated by a single string.

''We got bigger audiences than some of the shows with live performers,'' he said.

Mr. Ballard found out that he had Parkinson's in 1975. It began, he said, as a ''quiver'' in two fingers of his right hand, then spread through his body.

Still, he says, he has been fortunate. ''Some people who have Parkinson's lose their balance,'' he said. ''My head is fine. What I miss most is the ability to control the puppets.''

According to Mr. Ballard, operating a puppet takes emotion. ''You've really got to feel what you're doing,'' he said. ''You transmit your feelings to the puppet, through the strings.''

And strength. A puppet may weight 10 pounds, but ''it feels like 100 after an hour of operating it with your arms outstretched,'' he said. ''We always start out with half an hour of calisthenics,'' added Mr. Ballard, who hasn't been able to perform exercises like that in nearly 20 years.

Having reached the next room, Mr. Ballard shows off one of his marionettes, an 18-inch-high Macbeth wearing a chain-mail suit (Mr. Ballard made the mail from hardware store grommets). Surrounding Macbeth are three witches. ''We couldn't find the actual witches when we were putting the exhibition together,'' Mr. Ballard said. ''So we used the monks from my 'Peer Gynt.'''

Mr. Ballard, who grew up in Alton, Ill., has been married for 50 years to Adah Ruth Ballard, whom he met when he was directing puppet shows in high school. ''I needed someone to do Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz,''' he said of the couple's first meeting. ''That was the beginning of the end for her.'' In those days, Mr. Ballard said, ''we did all the singing live.''

At UConn, Mr. Ballard's shows, usually set to recorded music, had as many as 26 puppeteers working the marionettes from above. (Of the many varieties of puppets, marionettes have the greatest range of motion, said Mr. Ballard, and are also the most difficult to work with.) Some of the productions were re-creations of musicals and operas; others were original works by Mr. Ballard, including an adaptation of Pushkin's ''Tale of the Golden Cockerel.''

Even with his passion for his work, Mr. Ballard said he was not Connecticut's most fanatical puppeteer. Sydney Chrysler, a librarian in nearby Chaplin, performed full-length operas with three-inch-high characters that he moved with tiny tabs. Working alone, and on a limited budget -- he was not part of the auto-making family -- Mr. Chrysler produced thousands of figures from pipe cleaners and crepe paper. His ''Aida'' featured a cast of 400, plus 92 musicians, each with a miniature instrument.

When he was ready to put on a show, Mr. Chrysler would invite precisely 24 people to his home. ''You got to the door, and he handed you a pair of opera glasses,'' Mr. Ballard said. ''Then he would tell you that if you made even the slightest sound -- a cough or a sneeze -- you would never be invited back.''

And he meant it; Mr. Chrysler's blacklist is now in the Ballard Institute's collection.

So are dozens of puppets built by Mr. Ballard. He pushed his walker into a storeroom, and there, hanging from a coat rack, in canvas bags, were his Samson and Delilah -- built in one-sixth scale for a production in the 1960's.

Mr. Ballard tried to open Delilah's bag, but the strings were tangled ''This is not the way I teach my students to tie them,'' he said. ''You always use a slipknot, so if you're performing on the road, and you're delayed for some reason, you can get the puppet out of the bag quickly.''

It took almost 15 minutes for Mr. Ballard -- whose hands shake -- to untie Delilah, who looks a little bit like Eartha Kitt, if Eartha Kitt were carved of wood.

Another struggle and Mr. Ballard released Samson, who was dressed in sackcloth. Mr. Ballard hadn't seen the puppet in years.

''Samson was my favorite,'' Mr. Ballard said. ''He suffered so much.'' The marionette was particularly effective, Mr. Ballard said, ''in the scene where he prayed to God to give him his strength back.''
And then Mr. Ballard, raising himself up against his walker, began to demonstrate. Manipulating half a dozen black springs, he brought Samson to his knees, then raised the character's hands to his face, as if in prayer.

Mr. Ballard's marionette was praying for the strength he once had.

Minutes later, Samson was back in his bag -- this time with a slipknot -- and Mr. Ballard was back at his walker.