Vince Anthony’s choice of careers sounds simple enough, the way he tells it now. Decades ago, when he was in college, he set off for New York to make his fortune as an actor. While looking for an onstage job, he found something else. He found puppets.
He’d made puppets for school projects when he was a kid growing up in Florida, he said, “but it didn’t occur to me that I would want to pursue puppets as a career.” Then he saw an ad for a job with a touring puppet company. He went to see what that was about and ending up work a marionette, a stringed puppet he found to be elegant. “I made a career decision as I was auditioning,” he said. “I fell in love with it.”
Lucky thing. That marionette led Anthony to a career in puppetry. And his career path led Anthony, who now lives in Buckhead, to found and operate one of Atlanta’s most original museums and performance venues, the Center for Puppetry Arts, which opened in 1978. It now operates in a former elementary school building at 1404 Spring Street.
The center recently expanded its facilities. It added 7,500 square feet of exhibition space to its museum and an extensive Jim Henson collection that the center says is the most comprehensive exhibit of Henson artifacts in the country.
Just what was it about puppetry that caught Anthony’s attention all those decades ago? What about puppets stirs his affection? “I don’t know,” Anthony admitted one recent morning as he sat and chatted quietly in his cluttered office at the puppetry center. “The fact that you are creating something, taking something inanimate in nature and making it live and breathe. It was fascinating to me. … I was working a marionette. I was just fascinated.”
He joined the company and hit the road with a three-puppeteer company. They toured “across the whole Midwest, as far as Texas” playing “Pinocchio.” “We would travel in a truck. We would put up this puppet theater and perform and then move on. I did that for three years.”
After a while, he decided he wanted to return to the South from New York. He subscribed to an Atlanta newspaper to get a feel for the town, he said. This was in the 1960s. There seemed to be a lot going on in Atlanta’s arts scene, he said, so he set up his own touring company, The Vagabond Marionettes, based in Atlanta. His company performed around the Southeast. Soon, he and other puppeteers started talking about creating a national base for puppetry.
The Center for Puppetry Arts once shared the old school building with other arts organizations. But at 38 years old, it now fills the building completely and has spilled out into additions. It hosts puppet shows, provides puppetry-based education programs, and houses a museum that is home to a collection of more than 170 puppets and puppetry artifacts from five continents. “We’re unique in what we do,” Anthony said. “There are some other puppet centers, but they’re very small.”
The Atlanta center, he said with a slight smile, has turned out “bigger than we thought.”
Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, helped launch the center in the 1970s, Anthony said, and now 75 of Henson’s creations and artifacts – including many familiar Muppets – anchor a major portion of the recently expanded puppetry museum. The museum displays Muppets from throughout Henson’s career, including Big Bird, and Bert and Ernie from the TV show “Sesame Street,” Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy from “The Muppet Show” TV program, and characters from other Henson creations such as the TV show “Fraggle Rock” and the movie “The Dark Crystal.”
The Henson portion of the museum also includes mockups of his office and a TV studio. “I think the Henson puppets are a great way to attract people to what we do,” Anthony said. Anthony hopes the crowds that come to meet the Muppets will then discover the rest of the collection, too. The museum, after all, is a place to see the long, artful history of all sorts of puppets.
“Puppetry can be a touchstone to so many kinds of things,” he said. “It’s a unique art form. … It has touched lives for many, many years.”
Center for Puppetry Arts
1404 Springs Street
Museum hours: Tuesday-Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday: noon-5 p.m.; closed on Mondays and major holidays
For more: 404-873-3391 or puppet.org