Puppetry is for kids – but not just for kids, according to Margo Lovelace. The puppeteer loved by generations of Pittsburghers was a pioneer of the arts in many ways. She died on May 7, aged 99.
Lovelace was best known for her Lovelace Marionette Theater Company, which operated on Shadyside’s Ellsworth Avenue from 1965 to 1978 and then at the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater until her retirement in 1985.
His work was “part of my childhood,” said a poster on the Facebook page of Ken Bolden, a local actor who worked for Lovelace at the theater.
“I loved it,” said Norman Beck, who first worked for Lovelace in 1966 as a 12-year-old apprentice. “She was like a second mother to me. I always wanted to be there.”
“She was a pioneer, a visionary and a very kind woman,” City Theater co-artistic director Marc Masterson wrote on Bolden’s Facebook page. “She gave me my first paid directing job many years ago.”
“She was the first person to [t]heater that I encountered when I first moved to Pittsburgh. [S]he hired me like her [h]As manager of the Carnegie Museum for the Lovelace Theatre, I remember feeling so grown up,” said actress Tracey D. Turner. “It hits hard.”
Also among Lovelace’s countless collaborators was internationally acclaimed theater director and opera director Peter Sellars, a Pittsburgh native who began working in theater at the age of 10 and has often cited his formative influence.
Lovelace was born in Edgewood in 1922, said David Visser, one of her three children. He said she started puppetry in the early 1950s while taking classes at the then new Arts & Crafts Center (later Pittsburgh Center for the Arts) in Shadyside and doing community theater at the Pittsburgh Playhouse (then still in Oakland). At the time, she was a single mother of three young children. His first puppet experience was in department stores, he said, as a member of a regional touring troupe and also alone in downtown Pittsburgh. (Visser cited his Christmas gigs at stores like Frank & Seder’s and Rosenbaum’s.)
Lovelace, whose married surname was Visser, was passionate about all aspects of puppetry, from costume design to performance. She also had an entrepreneurial flair and after years of performing in a warehouse in East Liberty, she opened a theater in a building she had constructed at 5888 ½ Ellsworth. (Shadyside real estate was quite affordable then.) “The puppet theater was a perfect synthesis of all his skills and interests,” Visser said.
Visser said he believes the venue was the first-ever American theater created expressly as a permanent showcase for puppet shows.
At first, the fare was family-oriented: “Rumplestilskin”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Winnie the Pooh”, “Peter Pan”. But in the 1960s, Lovelace was invited to spend a month in Moscow, studying with the famous Russian puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov. This inspired her to do adult shows.
“They were a crazy, wonderful, wild production of plays you’ve probably never heard of,” said Norman Beck. He said the first production for adults was “The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower” by French surrealist Jean Cocteau. Some of the puppets were silhouettes painted in outrageous colors, Beck said, while others were made from found objects like “pots and pans”.
According to Lovelace’s archives, housed at the University of Pittsburgh, she also staged experimental works by Jean Giraudoux, Molière, etc.
The theater was small, Visser said, seating about 100 people for children’s shows and fewer for adult programs. In 1977 the company moved to Carnegie, where it offered a full puppet theater subscription and collaborated with acclaimed New York company Mabou Mines, Pittsburgh’s Iconclad Agreement Theater Co., and the fledgling Pittsburgh Public Theater. Lovelace Marionettes also performed at the Three Rivers Arts Festival and Union Internationale de la Marionette Festival Mondial, in France, records show.
After Lovelace retired, she donated her puppets to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Beck, who remained a lifelong friend, said Lovelace spent her time doing arts and crafts, including crocheting, painting and designing clothes. She was also an avid reader and patron of the arts.
In 2012, she moved to the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, NJ, where she lived until her death.
Visser said a virtual memorial is planned for June.