MARIONETTES COME BACK TO LIFE

A present from the past

Recently discovered video of theater’s final performance before 1999 fire will be shown in Hancock

  • Marionettes of the three kings and the lame boy Amahl were featured in the New England Marionette Opera's Christmas productions. A recent video of "Amahl and the Night Vistors," made just before the theater was destroyed in a 1999 fire, will be shown next week at the Hancock Town Library.

    Marionettes of the three kings and the lame boy Amahl were featured in the New England Marionette Opera's Christmas productions. A recent video of "Amahl and the Night Vistors," made just before the theater was destroyed in a 1999 fire, will be shown next week at the Hancock Town Library.

  • Amahl's mother.

    Amahl's mother.

  • King Melchoir

    King Melchoir

  • peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

    peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

  • peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

    peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

  • peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

    peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

  • An image from the New England Marionette Opera's production of 'Porgy and Bess.'

    An image from the New England Marionette Opera's production of 'Porgy and Bess.'

  • peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

    peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

  • peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

    peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

  • peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

    peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

  • Marionettes of the three kings and the lame boy Amahl were featured in the New England Marionette Opera's Christmas productions. A recent video of "Amahl and the Night Vistors," made just before the theater was destroyed in a 1999 fire, will be shown next week at the Hancock Town Library.
  • Amahl's mother.
  • King Melchoir
  • peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street
  • peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street
  • peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street
  • An image from the New England Marionette Opera's production of 'Porgy and Bess.'
  • peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street
  • peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street
  • peterborough, new england Marionette opera, main street

When Ted Leach opened up a batch of storage tubs in the basement of his Hancock home last spring, memories came flowing back, along with the smell of smoke. The containers were full of marionettes salvaged after a New Year’s Day fire in 1999 destroyed Leach’s New England Marionette Opera theater on Main Street. Only the frame of the building, which now houses the Mariposa Museum, was left standing. Leach’s equipment and more than 200 marionettes were unusable. Although he had been planning to expand into Boston, Leach ultimately chose to permanently close the theater. Everything that had been saved after the fire went into his basement.

“For 20 years, I never revisited anything,” Leach said on Tuesday. “Finally, this spring, I decided it was time to deal with it. I opened it all up, took everything outside. I rearranged the marionettes and props. Some just needed a good cleaning. Some were badly damaged.”

Leach then contacted many of the marionette manipulators — people who had controlled the puppets during performances of operas such as “Porgy and Bess,” “La Bohème” and the Christmas classic “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Many of them came to his home and he gave away the marionettes to those who had grown to love them.

“A lot of people became very attached to the marionettes,” Leach said. “There was still that intimacy. It was neat to see those connections.”

Then Leach sat down to look through 51 videos, which he described as “a hodgepodge of stuff.” Many of them broke when he put them into his video cassette recorder. He said he had nothing that really told the story of the theater.

But then he looked at the last tape.

“I popped it in, turned it on, saw it was ‘Amahl.’ The case was inside a cardboard box. The box was scorched, but the tape was probably OK.”

As he watched, Leach realized that the tape had not been made with a fixed camera, like most of the others. Instead, a camera person had followed the action around the stage. And when he saw the end of the tape, where the marionettes led the audience in two Christmas carols, he decided he was probably watching the company’s final performance of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” given just days before the fire.

Worried that the tape might break if watched again, Leach immediately made arrangements to send it to a Boston company to be converted to digital format.

“A week later, I had four DVDs of the tape,” Leach said.

Now Leach plans to share this one-of-a-kind record of a unique performance. On Dec. 20, the new DVD will be shown at 7 p.m. at the Hancock Town Library. The event is free, but seating is limited.

“We are thrilled to be the venue for the first viewing of this unique piece of the New England cultural tapestry,” said Library Director Amy Markus in an announcement of the showing. “I only wish we had more seats available. We only have 60.” She suggested people should plan to arrive early.

In the announcement, Leach described the discovery as bittersweet.

“It’s fabulous that we have this vibrant record of what we were all about, but one can’t watch it without a mega-feeling of remorse,” he said.

“Amahl and the Night Visitors,” written in 1951 by Gian Carlo Menotti as an opera for the NBC television network, was regularly shown on television for years. It’s the story of a poor disabled boy who meets the three kings on their way to find the Christ Child. At the end, Amahl is miraculously healed when he offers his crutch as the only gift he could give, and he travels with the kings to Bethlehem.

“It’s tightly focused on the main character, the little boy Amahl, who’s on stage the whole time,” Leach said. “Menotti was very interested in puppetry. I think he may have written it with puppets in mind.”

The opera became the New England Marionette Opera company’s standard Christmas production, a big moneymaker that supported the group’s other productions, according to Leach.

Leach said he has been in touch with the estate of Menotti, who died in 2007, about getting the rights to show the video regularly. He sent one of the DVDs to the Menotti heirs for review, but hasn’t heard back from them yet.

“Where we go next, I have no idea,” Leach said.

So for now, the only chance to see the DVD is at the Hancock showing on Dec. 22. For information, call the library at 525-4411.

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