Puppet theater set packs a punch worth $62,700


December 06, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Mel Birnkrant, a Hudson Valley, N.Y., toy designer and comic character collector, is as pleased as Punch with his latest purchase. He spent a whopping $62,700 at Mark Vail Auction Co. in Pine Bush, N.Y., for "Gus White's Punch and Comic Family Show," probably the finest high-quality surviving 19th-century American puppet theater.

In addition to Punch and his wife, Judy, the bounty includes 17 other 2-foot high puppet characters, a bigot's gallery of ethnic stereotypes. There's a painted wooden stage with golden proscenium, six scenic backdrops, a decorated sausage grinder with four links of sausage, and a host of other props. The loot all fits like a puzzle into two huge blue-painted packing cases. A collapsible ticket booth rounds out the set.

From 1878 to 1931, children of all ages flocked to Gus White's traveling extravaganza, a reincarnation of the centuries-old Punch and Judy tale, billed by the showman with no lack of modesty as "the finest entertainment of its kind anywhere."

Nothing primitive

"It's more wonderful now that I have it home," Mr. Birnkrant said. "The cloth drop curtain is painted in trompe l'oeil with a self-portrait of Gus White on a banner held aloft by Punch himself popping out of the letter 'P.' The ticket booth is a masterpiece of the sign painter's art. White's self-portrait on it is a beautiful painting. It's a mistake to call it folk art, there is nothing primitive or naive about it," Mr. Birnkrant said; he plans to spend the next year restoring his acquisition.

The puppet theater was consigned to auction by Harold White, 65, of Goshen, N.Y., who acquired it in 1936, just two years after his great-uncle, Gus, died. "It was in my aunt's garage and she asked if I wanted it," he recalled. He played with the puppets as a child and in recent years showed them to Boy Scout troops and school groups. In 1964 he spruced them up for a local historical society exhibit. The new owner has granted him visitation rights.

"It's lucky it survived. Uncle Gus was in two fires. . . . When his workshop and rooms at the old trolley station caught fire, he escaped by jumping out a second story window," Harold White noted. "His show survived because it was stored at the Masonic Hall -- I guess he was going to put on a performance there."

Mr. Birnkrant was prepared to pay any price at the Oct. 24 sale for the relic he couldn't live without. "After I saw it about two weeks before the auction, I became so infatuated with it I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep," he recalled. "I was like a man in late middle age who had fallen in love with a beautiful young girl. I worried someone richer than I would prevail, but folk art dealers, who might have broken it up and sold the puppets one by one, dropped out at $50,000." He said the underbidder congratulated him after the sale.

"No one has done Punch better than Gus White," said Mr. Birnkrant, who learned about Punch's origins while at art school in Paris about 35 years ago. Pulcinella, a character in 16th-century Italian commedia dell'arte traveling productions, evolved into a French puppet called Polichinelle and later Punchinello. Introduced to England in about 1662 by puppeteers among King Charles II's retinue returning from the Continent, the character's name ultimately was shortened to "Punch."

Gus White was a sign painter turned puppeteer, equally gifted as a wood-carver, inventor, ventriloquist and portrait painter. In their early 20s, he and a friend, Alexander Bonnell, saw a carnival Punch and Judy show which "wasn't much," according to a 1931 story in the Middletown, N.Y., Times Herald. Apparently the puppeteer wasn't very original and didn't have many characters. White thought he could do better.

He went to work carving and painting puppet heads and dressed them up. Punch, the cold-hearted scoundrel who beat his wife and children, turned his foes into sausage, and outsmarted even the devil, has a large rosy-tone dislocated nose, a lecherous grin with two snagged teeth, carved leather ears, and one brown glazed eye (the other is closed in a wicked wink). It's hard to imagine that Punch and Judy shows once were considered family entertainment.

White's first performance was in 1878 in the Kaisertown, N.Y., schoolhouse, as part of Bonnell's magic lantern show. The audience laughed and soon they had other engagements. White made more figures (eventually there were 32) and developed plots while traveling the countryside, sometimes earning $15 to $20 a performance. Soon he branched out on his own, initially calling his act "Prof. Gus White and His Family of Funny Folks." He constructed a special stage, bought a tent and played the Orange County, N.Y., Fair in the 1880s. When passing the hat wasn't enough, White built his ticket booth. After that, nobody attended his show without buying a 10-cent ticket.

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