Often people come to Pike County, have a positive impact, and then seem to quietly walk away.
One of them was master puppeteer Gordon Bennett.
Just when Bennett arrived in Pike County, no one is sure. When did he leave? Again, no one is sure.
But, between the comings and goings, Gordon Bennett positively “pulled the strings” around the county.
Once he left Pike County, little was known about him until his death on September 24, 2021 at Bill Nichols State Veterans Home in Alexander City at the age of 83.
Keith and Shirley Blankenship, longtime friends of the puppeteer master, said the last years of Bennett’s life were somewhat “confusing”, but he fondly remembered the children in the Pike County area who gave him so much of joy in their joy of his puppet and his magic. puppet shows.
“Few children in the world today have the opportunity to experience the magic of puppets on a string,” said Keith Blankenship. “Gordon Bennett opened up this world to them. Gordon had been away from Pike County for a while, but I’m sure anyone who enjoyed his puppet shows at his home theater, the Pioneer Museum, various “stages” around the county, and on cable television will will remember the joy he brought to so many by bringing wooden puppets to life.
Bennett made a name for himself in the “puppet” world, first from Springfield, Massachusetts to Hollywood, California, then to Pike County, Alabama.
Keith Blankenship said Bennett became interested in puppets when, at just nine years old, he went to the “Rip Van Winkle” puppet show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The story he told was that he was halfway through the huge theater but, to him, the puppets seemed larger than life.
After the show, he went backstage to see the magical figures but was surprised to see that the puppets were only about a foot tall and made of wood. He was sure he could make wooden figures on strings.
“Jack and the Beanstalk” was his first show. He made the puppets and his mother made the costumes as she continued to do well into adulthood and until she was 97 years old. Young Gordon didn’t have a giant puppet for his ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ show, so he painted his legs green and acted as the hulking giant.
Bennett moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, and his Hollywood Puppet Theater attracted a host of celebrities. He did a home show for Barry Gordy of Motown fame with the Jackson Five in attendance. Lucille Ball and Arlene Dahl brought their children to Bennett’s theater.
He was vice president of the Puppeteers of America when Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets, was president.
Just why Gordon Bennett brought his puppet troupe to rural Pike County, he never really said. Only that he was ready to settle down and enjoy the quiet life.
Blankenship said Bennett set up a “theater” in his backyard near Monticello and another at the Pike Pioneer Museum.
“And it was in these ‘theaters’ that Gordon Bennett shared life lessons with children and generated memories for adults,” said Charlotte Gibson, then director of the Pike Pioneer Museum, now the Pioneer Museum of Alabama. “At the turn of the century, Gordon would come to the museum and set up a puppet theater at Christmas. He and his puppets would entertain children and adults alike with “The Night Before Christmas”.
Gibson said Bennett’s puppet shows were not limited to those with Christmas themes.
His “King Neptune’s Court” and “Circus on Strings” were very popular. He also took advantage of his puppet to better educate children about drug addiction, fire prevention, hospital care, and other issues affecting children.
Gibson, director of the Children’s Hands on Museum in Tuscaloosa, said Bennett’s educational Marionette shows present valuable information in a fun and entertaining way and the stage shows are primarily for entertainment.
“Gordon often brought his puppets to Tuscaloosa and performed at the museum here,” she said. His puppet shows were always well attended and enjoyed by adults and children alike.
“With his puppets, Gordon told stories through performance art. All ages have been fascinated by Gordon Bennett and his wooden puppets. With them and through them, Gordon created joy.
Gibson said she remembered Gordon Bennett often saying that seeing the joy children got from his puppet show, “Makes my life joyful”, so the joy in his life was doubled.