Master puppeteer finds new home, welcoming audiences in Pike County

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 3, 2004

From the hills of Hollywood to the red clay fields of Pike County, Gordon Bennett has pulled the strings of little wooden heads and brought fun and laughter to tens of thousands along the way.

Bennett is a master puppeteer who has found a home for his puppets and marionettes in the Pike County countryside near Monticello.

How a renowned puppeteer like Bennett brought his show to the rural South was a question that many are asking and one that Bennett answers without hesitation.

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"Jesus was pulling the strings," he said.

A friend of Bennett's moved to Enterprise

and was impressed with the area and recommended it

to him. In working with a local real estate agent, Bennett found the perfect place and knows that someone was pulling the strings to make it happen.

"When I saw the place, I knew it was perfect," he said. "It's an ideal location out in the country. The house was nice and there were a couple of buildings that could easily be transformed into a puppet theater and

marionette museum with a little effort."

Bennett’s Puppet Picnic Park and Marionette Museum are now open by reservation, Thursday through Saturday. The Musical Marionette Theater presents a variety of shows and all seats are 99 cents.

"Ninety-nine cents, that's all that people will pay," Gordon said with a smile. "No, I'm not out here trying to make a lot of money. I just want people to come and enjoy the fun and laughter of the marionette theater.

I have enjoyed puppets all my life and I want to pass it on to others."

When Bennett was 5 years old he attended a puppet show and fell in love with the little woodenheads.

The show was like a big Broadway production with actors on strings.

Bennett went back to his home in Chicopee Falls, Mass., whipped out his Boy Scout knife and whittled himself a puppet.

"My first puppet show was 'Jack and the Bean Stalk' and it was performed in the cellar of my house. The puppet was Jack and I painted my legs green and I was the giant."

From that moment on, Bennett was hooked.

When he was about 12 years old, Bennett carved a set of Disney character puppets - Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Goofy and Pluto and performed with them

on his cellar stage. Admission was two pennies.

As a growing boy, Bennett's attention soon turned to other interests and then Uncle Sam sent him greetings. Bennett served near the end of World War II as a medic in Italy. Through it all, somewhere in the back of his mind, puppets still danced and sang.

After he was discharged from the Army, Bennett attended the New England School of Art and, there, he was bitten by the acting bug, turning his attention in that direction.

After college, he taught school - English, speech and dance - but soon he returned to his life love - puppets.

He took his show on the road and ended up in Hollywood where his puppets became the darlings of the stars.

"Many of the Hollywood stars brought their children to my shows," Bennett said. "Lucille Ball and Arlene Dahl came often with their children and they absolutely loved every show. I did a show at Barry Gordy's house for a huge group of children of the stars."

Bennett left Hollywood for an opportunity

in the other Sunshine State.

"I was asked to bring my Musical Marionette Theater to the Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota, Fla.," Bennett said.

"I performed there for four years until the circus closed. At that time I was building television shows and my show, The Struppets,

aired on TBS for three years. Jim Henson had the Muppets, which are hand puppets, so I called my puppets the Struppets - string puppets."

During his years in Florida, Bennett and his string puppets appeared at attraction parks throughout the state. Bennett wrote the scripts for all his shows and choreographed them.

When Jesus paved the way for Bennett to get out of the rat race

and back to simple things of life, he was more than ready. But he knew that his life would not be complete

unless his puppets were a part of it.

Today, Bennett

is continuing to promote and preserve that art of puppetry at his Puppet Picnic Park in rural Pike County. And he couldn't be happier.

He has six productions that run at different times of the year. In July and August, the show is "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp," which played at the Hollywood, Calif., Puppet Theater to the stars and their kids.

The September and October show will be "Jungle Safari," which has played in malls all across the United States. November and December will feature "The Night

Before Christmas," as played on Christmas Eve on Boston television.

In January and February, "Travels with Punch and Judy," with George, Martha and Uncle Sam as played at the old Sturbridge Village, Mass.

March and April will feature "Circus on Strings," as played at the

Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota, Fla. The May and June show will be "King Neptune's Court," as played on television and Miami Seaquarium.

And if the show is not enough, entrance to the Marionette Museum is free.

The museum features Bennett's retired marionettes, which he handmade and for which his mother designed and made the costumes.

Every puppet in Bennett's show is an original and handmade by the master puppeteer.

"The Marionette Museum is dedicated to Carl Rice, who was a puppeteer who owned a circus," Bennett said. "He designed the Uncle Sam costume and wore it at the circus. Rice was a small man so he walked on stilts to give Uncle Sam greater stature."

Bennett said it was President Abraham Lincoln who gave Uncle Sam his name.

"Lincoln liked the circus and he was fascinated by puppets," Bennett said. "He used Punch and Judy puppet shows in his campaign. Punch would also pop his opponent on the head and throw him out the window. When the opponent got thrown out the window, that was the cue for Lincoln to come out and make a speech. It was very effective."

Bennett hopes that his puppet park will help to revive the art of puppetry and bring fun and laughter to young and old alike in Pike County and surrounding areas.

For more information or to make

reservations, call 243-5300.

"I guarantee you'll have fun and where can you get a show like this for 99 cents?" Bennett said. "Come and you'll be glad you did."