Puppetry Journal – Fall 2010 Volume 62, No. 1
Complimentary Online Expanded Article
It is an honor to be in your company and in the company of all of you, Frank’s friends, neighbors, students, and colleagues.
I think we are just beginning to understand what Frank Ballard’s life and work were, and I look forward to understanding more. Since starting three years ago as director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry (BIMP), I have been challenged to think a lot about Frank’s work and his life, and what his efforts have meant for puppetry here and around the world. The situation now is, that if you go amongst puppeteers almost anywhere in the world and mention the University of Connecticut, people immediately know what you’re talking about: an unusual, one-of-a-kind university-level puppet theater program whose graduates are uniformly known for their mastery of the forms of puppetry, and for their devotion to and confidence in puppetry as a serious 21st-century art form.
This in itself is an amazing achievement—Frank Ballard’s achievement—that let the world of puppetry (including the great puppet schools of Germany, France, Russia, Japan, and China) know that, well, right here in the raw and recent culture of the United States, attention is being paid to that oldest, most classic, and most intercultural of art forms, here in Connecticut, here in Storrs.
But the closer one gets to the heart of this place, where Frank lived and worked with and amongst you, one realizes his achievement was even greater than one thought. Because unlike the puppet academies of eastern and western Europe, with large budgets and staffs, the Puppet Arts Program for all of Frank’s career was… Frank. No team of puppet historians, dramaturgs, puppet designers, puppet builders, and teachers of puppet performance. Just Frank (who did all these jobs), and you, the students, colleagues, and neighbors who, I think because of something Frank showed you, came to believe, as Frank did, that puppets can do incredible things for our lives, for the way we see and understand life, for the way we re-present life.
How did this happen? Growing up in Alton, Illinois, next to the Mississippi River, right across from Missouri, not too far from St. Louis, Frank started making puppets at the age of five, with the encouragement, he said, of his Aunt Margaret (and the assistance, according to some newspaper articles, of his brother Irwin and his sister Alice). In the Frank Ballard papers at our Institute—which were lovingly curated by the Institute’s librarian, Kay Janney (thank you, Kay)—there is a small hand-written note to Frank, signed by two puppeteers: Romaine and Ellen Proctor. It just says “best regards” from them both, but Frank kept this in his scrapbook, to commemorate that meeting, which could well have taken place after one of Frank’s marionette shows in the early 1940s, during the war, when Frank was a young teenager, but had already created his own marionette company.
Who were Romaine and Ellen Proctor? They were from Springfield, not too far from Alton, and they toured all across the Midwest in the 1930s and 40s, with marionette shows like Jack and the Beanstalk. They had converted a Springfield movie house into a puppet theater. They were successful; they made a living at puppetry; they were good examples for a young puppeteer. The Proctors were an important part of the birth of modern American puppetry, which started in the Midwest in the first decade of the last century at the Chicago Little Theatre, and then spread to Cleveland, Detroit, and other Midwest cities and towns large and small where young artists had just started to understand the wide array of possibilities that puppets could offer American audiences caught in a time of economic trouble and war.
If the Proctors saw one of Frank’s performances, which one was it? The one covered in an Alton newspaper as “Puppet Show Given At Little Theater”? Or was it the one described in an article titled “Young Puppeteer Shows the Ropes To Rotary Club” (in this article, Frank is 18, and he’s already doing Aida!). I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but I think there was a moment of connection—marked by the note that Frank saved all his life—when he saw that his puppet shows, which were already enthralling his family, friends, teachers, and neighbors, were part of a larger world of performance, including not just the Proctors, but Martin and Olga Stevens from Indiana, and Marjorie Batchelder from Ohio, and Paul McPharlin of Detroit, and oh, the movies from Hollywood, and some very unusual performances in Java, Japan, China and beyond. The “beyond” brought Frank out of Alton, and to higher studies, acting and directing, teaching positions, and television work, and set design, and then finally it lead him here to UConn, where the idea occurred to him sometime in 1961 or so—“oh, I’ll bet I could start a puppet program here.” And he did, and he brought all of you here along with him, for production after production, class after class, always hard work, year after year, always with Adah Ruth’s help, and then their sons Michael and David, their sons’ wives, their grandchildren, and all of us now fully believing that, yes, puppets are capable of communicating the saddest moments, the deepest truths and the hardest laughter.
Frank Ballard made all this happen, I think, because back in Alton in the 1940s he had had a glimpse of what the puppet possibilities were; he experienced first-hand that first wave of the American puppet renaissance, and, drawing strength, ran with the idea, all the way here, to Storrs; where, with the help and support of his family, neighbors, friends and colleagues, he changed the history of performing arts in the United States.
- John Bell, Director, Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry
Mr. Ballard. It was always "Mr. Ballard". That’s who he was to me. Not that our relationship was distant or formal, but he was my teacher both in the art of the puppet and I think more importantly, in life - and my respect for him would not allow me to be too familiar. In later years this talented man and his equally special wife insisted that I call them by their first names, which I did, but always rather self-consciously.
Where do I start? I first met Mr. Ballard when I was a teenager (however, this was really not my first encounter with his work). I was a junior in high school - the winter of 1970 - I had met one of his former students, Carol Thompson, and she arranged for me to visit UConn with Jim Ingalls as my tour guide of the Department of Dramatic Arts. As part of my visit I sat in on a rehearsal of The Love for Three Oranges and was introduced to Mr. Ballard. Significant events stay with you and I knew then that this was a momentous one. I remember it like it was yesterday, the rehearsal room, even the characters he was rehearsing. I knew I had visited the “Land of Oz” and I had met the wizard in person! However there was no smoke and mirrors here…he was the real thing.
That summer of 1970, Mr. Ballard was co-host with Carol Spinney of the Puppeteers of America National Festival at UConn. His amazing production of The Love for Three Oranges opened the festival. A few college students were unable to return for the festival’s performance and Mr. Ballard invited me to join the cast as a puppeteer. His mentorship had begun!
Regardless how talented Mr. Ballard was, he had obstacles to overcome to practice his chosen art form. He was originally hired as the technical director and scenic designer for UConn’s new Harriet S, Jorgenson theatre in 1956. It was only when the head of the Dramatic Arts Department went on sabbatical that Mr. Ballard was able to schedule his first main stage puppet production, The Mikado in 1968. When the Department Head returned from sabbatical the publicity for the new season had gone out and it was too late to cancel it from the season.
Of course. things have changed in regards to puppetry from those early days, but he was truly a pioneer. The study of puppetry at the college level? Nearly unheard of in the 1960’s and 1970’s. But he was undeterred. It didn’t matter to him that the his puppet lab/classroom was in the basement of a dormitory and far from main fine arts building and theaters…or that the facilities were less than ideal…no ceiling height for large puppet stages or marionette bridges, etc. - but I think this physical distance gave him the artistic and academic freedom to charter his own course as he created his puppetry major and degree programs.
I can remember Mr. Ballard and his great friend and colleague Valerie Schor, the vocal coach, huddled each night in their winter coats during rehearsals of Peer Gynt, which were held in a metal quonset hut adjacent to the Student Union. Regardless of these conditions Mr. Ballard persevered. He knew the power and beauty of his art form, and he was dedicated to it with his entire being. So many puppeteers think they can do it all but the amazing thing about Mr. Ballard is that he was able to do it all. From theatrical conception, script adaptation, to design renderings, to fabrication and the actual staging and choreography, he was truly a renaissance man of the theater. His talent was prodigious.
To meet him he was very modest and unassuming in manner and appearance. In the puppet lab, rehearsal rooms and in the theater was where his magic and brilliance took flight. He always dreamed big - his productions were not for the scale of the traditional puppet theater. He had a vision that his puppet theater be an equal partner to the human actor on stage. Masked actors sharing scenes with actors: marionettes, rod puppets and shadows all on the same stage. Hundreds of puppets in a single production: color, spectacle, drama and movement. He worked tirelessly, putting in the long hours to making his puppet productions a reality. One of my favorite images was seeing him each night wearing his work apron and sitting at his old Singer sewing machine meticulously building exquisite costumes from his beautiful renderings. I can also remember as opening night approached and construction was coming down to the wire…there was always intense last minute meetings to discuss what puppets were to be completed and what was going to be cut…Sometimes puppets were still drying or the stage light levels were set a little lower to hide the lack of detail…this was the exception of course!
However, dedicated he was to mounting his productions, first and foremost, he was our teacher, and it was incredible to be a part of his program and the community of students he drew to him. We were challenged as much by him as the amazingly talented students who wanted to be a part of his vision. And he generously delegated production responsibilities to his students. It was so exciting to collaborate with him …he allowed for real dialogue…we were all very invested in his projects. We lived at the puppet lab; if we were in production then that is where we were expected to be and where we wanted to be. It was our second home. We were truly part of a community of “student artists” a very special group.
But it wasn’t all work. We became a part of Mr. & Mrs. Ballard’s extended family. We would frequently go with Mr. Ballard for coffee and he would satisfy his sweet tooth with apple turnovers, pies or to Kathy John’s for ice cream sundaes and we would see Mr. Ballard’s son David working behind the counter. They would generously have us for Sunday dinner at their house. Also, Mr. Ballard would frequently do lecture demos in the community and we would be there to assist and illustrate with puppets he was showcasing; no event was beneath him and his desire to spread the word, his gospel about puppetry.
In short his artistic brilliance was matched by his ability to teach and mentor his students. You knew he cared; however, he was not easy with praise, because he demanded the very best from his students. And when you received an encouraging word…you knew you had met or at least approached his gold standard. Now I am not saying I was his "golden student". I was sometimes off doing experimental "environmental theater" instead of puppetry. He would look over his glasses at me, raise an eyebrow and just shake his head. And I was usually the victim of his cynical jabs, but I knew this was a “cover” for his genuine care and regard. And when he did give his approval, you knew he believed in you and it spurred you on. And as a student with his support anything was possible and so I learned thru his eyes to believe in my self.
The most remarkable thing is the breadth of his accomplishments as you’ve heard. At UConn he established 3-degree programs in puppetry, a BFA, MA & MFA in Puppetry. The only institution of higher education to offer 3 such degrees. All of this while being a one-man program. While teaching and creating his productions each year, he was president of the Puppeteers of America and then involved with UNIMA, the international puppet organization. Without the support of Mrs. Ballard and his 2 sons: Michael and David, I don't think any of this would have been possible. And today Bart Roccoberton continues his legacy with equal commitment and achievement. On Mr. Ballard’s shoulders we all stand tall and reach higher than we ever thought was possible!
When we studied the history of American puppetry with Mr. Ballard we learned of Tony Sarg’s touring marionette productions and how Sarg initiated a resurgence of puppetry in America during the teen’s and 20’s. Frank Ballard’s legacy is similar and just as impactful. He legitimized the study of puppetry as an art form. He authenticated the study of its ancient lineage while creating exciting productions thus securing puppetry's rightful place on the contemporary legitimate stage. I remember working with Jim Henson on a workshop he was teaching and he shared with me that he wished he had the opportunity to study the history of puppetry as many of us had in Mr. Ballard’s program.
Equally amazing is how Mr. Ballard dealt with his illness. For anyone else to be afflicted with Parkinson’s they would have packed up their crayons and gone home, but not Ballard. As we all know, he brought the same perseverance in dealing with his affliction, to his commitment to creating in spite of it. In all the years I saw him, he never, ever complained about his health. He just kept going, kept creating and kept doing. Making his vision for the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry a reality! He was a creator; a positive force in this world and nothing was going to stand in his way. I was so lucky to have studied with him. But seeing how he lived with Parkinson’s and continued to create in spite of it, that was truly the greatest lesson I could learn from him.
Several years ago I was visiting with him and we were just talking…I had recalled how he began doing puppetry as a child and how his parents and Aunt Margaret were such a supportive influence in his pursuit of that. And so I shared with him “my childhood story” - my first encounter with puppets: An elementary school assembly in Middletown, CT - it was a touring marionette production of Rigoletto presented by the Connecticut Opera Guild. I had never shared this with him. But this production for me was when the light bulb had turned on…the Ah Ha moment…It was, “OH My God I have to do this, make my own puppet shows.” I ran to the library, etc. He listened to my story quietly and then informed me that he knew this production. He was the consulting director on it. I was dumbfounded…all the years I had known him…I had never realized that his hand was in my life from that very early formative moment!
And for all of us here today…why we are here, is because this gentle, loving man touched our lives…as artist, as creator, as teacher, as father, as grandfather, as uncle and most importantly as a human being endowed with so many extraordinary gifts that he shared thru his art and throughout his life and how he lived it.
His legacy is as prodigious as was his talent…he lives on in us as we carry his torch. As for his journey - he is now at peace…a peace free of pain, finally, which is so well deserved. He is reunited with his partner thru life, Ada Ruth, as he takes up his rightful place in heaven...and heaven will be much more colorful and spectacular because he is there! Let's also take a moment to remember some of his talented students who have preceded him: Brad Williams, Spring Burrington-Reiss, Norma Bigler, Bill Mack and Jan Rosenthal Stefura. They are all sorely missed.
And so I say a final farewell to my “Mr. Ballard” I thank you for your gentle hand of encouragement and support that has been there for me these many years. You have made a difference for me and so many of us here today and for generations to come who will study the art of puppetry here in America and throughout the world.
Thank you…thank you…thank you…Mr. Ballard.
- Richard Termine, Puppet Arts Alumnus; Director of Emerging Artists, National Puppetry Conference
It is a challenge to speak of Frank Ballard without talking about Puppetry. As has been observed by John and Richard, Frank Ballard helped to delineate the Puppet Arts throughout his artistic career. The name of Frank Ballard and the Art of Puppetry are synonymous. To speak of Frank and not speak of puppetry is, perhaps, a fool’s challenge. But I would like to try:
We are here today to commemorate a man who has affected all of us. Whether you are a family member, a colleague, a former student, a friend or a member of his audiences, Frank Ballard has inspired us through his example and intent.
He was a brother, a husband, a father and a grandfather - a family man. He was a designer, a craftsman, a writer, a performer and a director - a creator. He was an educator and a leader - a visionary. All of these roles define Frank Ballard as a man who passed through this life understanding his obligation to share his love, talents, intelligence and passion to illuminate and brighten the lives of those surrounding him and to make this world a better place.
As I have thought about the many gifts that Frank Ballard gave us, I have considered what defines his legacy. What of Frank Ballard’s efforts will continue to live and grow?
Throughout his career in the Theatre, Frank Ballard created many wondrous opportunities, events and institutions. Much of his genius remains with us in tangible forms through his designs and the artifacts of his productions. They inspired us in their creation and will continue to influence generations yet to come. But they can no longer be more than what they already are. What we physically create with our hands stops increasing with our passing. These tangible objects will serve as a monument for Frank Ballard.
Joyfully, Frank Ballard was not content with his undeniably successful work within the Theatre. He was also responsible for the creation of a unique educational program and served as the inspiration for the establishment of a research institute and museum. What we cause to be done through example, intent and inspiration can continue to grow through those whom we have influenced.
Therefore, I believe that we, his colleagues, his students, his family, his friends and his audiences, are Frank Ballard’s Legacy. It is our responsibility to take what he has shared with us and cause it to grow, bringing it to new heights, beyond it’s original inspiration.
Many thanks, Frank. We’ll do our best!
- Bart. P. Roccoberton, Jr., Puppet Arts Alumnus; Director of the Puppet Arts Program, University of Connecticut; Director of Production, National Puppetry Conference