Playful puppeteer and activist Bernice Silver dies at 106

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This obituary is part of a series on people who died during the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Bernice Silver, a 4ft 8in female hummingbird, was a puppeteer whose performances were deceptively chaotic, subtly cerebral, and always slyly subversive. She made sure to slip in a history lesson, or a conservation or social justice card. She called them happenings, for the political theater in which she was educated.

His fellow puppeteers called him the queen of the potpourri, for the fast and furious form of storytelling she excelled at. (Potpourris, as these shows are known because they contain a bit of everything, are a beloved feature of puppet festivals.)

Ms Silver died of respiratory failure on April 18 at Englewood Health, a hospital in Englewood, New Jersey, said Dean Freedman, her nephew. She was 106 years old. She had tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Ms. Silver was a member of the sprawling tribe of troubadours and activists who inhabit the interwoven worlds of folk music, social justice, puppetry and political theater. Pete Seeger had been a friend and a fan. (Mrs. Silver had long been involved in the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Mr. Seeger’s environmental organization.)

The Bread and puppet theater once stopped a show mid-performance to honor it. The tribute took place at an event in Manhattan a month after the 2016 election, about which she said, with typical good humor: “Where there is light, there is hope.” . Where there is dirt, there is soap. Bernice Money Appreciation Society on Facebook has been inundated with accolades since his death.

The world of puppetry, said John Bell, director of the Ballard Institute and Puppet Museum at the University of Connecticut, “is multifaceted, constantly evolving, and ranges from the well-known arts of children’s entertainment and education to serious drama and avant-garde shows and performances.”

Bernice embraced this whole range of work, ”he added. “She was a beloved central figure of American puppetry.”

Bernice Silver was born on October 7, 1913 in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to Sam and Frances (Resnikoff) Silver. Her father was a street vendor and owner of a candy store. The eldest of eight children, she was so sickly as a child that she couldn’t believe she outlived her siblings, Freedman said. The family was poor and moved often, eventually ending up in an apartment building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Ms. Silver trained as a kindergarten teacher. She also worked in factories making candy, Eskimo pies and radios; later, in the 1940s, she sold encyclopedias and door-to-door hair care products in California.

She learned activism and political theater in New York City in the 1930s, joining groups that were part of the labor theater movement of the time and giving performances of agitprop on street corners and in factories, sneaking around through the windows and singing for the strikers. She was always up for a good rally, and joins Occupy Wall Street protesters at Zuccotti Park in 2011.

It’s unclear exactly when she became a puppeteer, or why, her nephew said, but he did note that puppetry can be a form of activism, and maybe that’s what drew her to it, in the early 1960s.

For more than half a century, Ms. Silver lived in a studio on the corner of West 95th Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan, which Mr. Freedman described as a block of books, flyers, sheet music and puppets stuffed into drawers.

She had lived – and performed – since 2016 at the Lillian Booth Actor’s Home in Englewood and participated in the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University School of Medicine. In addition to her nephew Mr. Freedman, she is survived by several other nephews.

“At first glance, you might think of Bernice as just a little old lady with puppets,” Mr. Bell said. “But she was telling stories about history and democracy. They weren’t just fairy tales for children. She believed that the role of the arts was to support justice and equality.


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