Meet Puppets

In a roundabout way, the Great Arizona Puppet Theater has the state's foot-dragging bureaucracy to thank for its new home.

Some history: The troupe has stuck together through five moves since it was founded in 1983 and home was a central Phoenix firehouse. Back then, the troupe poured much of its energy, not to mention a lot of its money, into fixing up its physical space. Eventually -- and, you might say, ironically -- the landlord wanted the new and improved building back, and the troupe learned a valuable lesson: that it needed to purchase its own space. This has, of course, proved easier said than done.

By 1996, Nancy Smith, co-founder and director of the Great Arizona Puppet Theater, already had been waiting four years on the Arizona Department of Transportation, which owned a building that the puppet theater was interested in purchasing for its permanent home. Committed to finding a centrally located space that would serve the entire Valley, Smith spotted the building in 1992 on one of her drive-by scoutings of Phoenix. She expressed interest in it, but the state would take four years to declare the building "excess property" so that it could be appraised and sold. When that finally happened, the troupe was, at long last, on its way.

The building, the former Second Ward Chapel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was built in 1932. The state bought it in 1972, intending to bulldoze it to make room for I-10. But it took too long: The building had become historic, a designation that prevents federal funds from being used to raze it. Today, I-10 gracefully curves around it.

GAPT's road to the former church on the corner of Third Avenue and Latham was a long and winding one, too -- it finally took possession of the building on Latham in 1996 and moved into it (from its temporary home at Town & Country Shopping Center) last July, after three years -- and counting -- of renovations.

With an original architect's plan acquired from Salt Lake City, the theater troupe and a gaggle of supporters have painstakingly repaired and restored much of the building, an impressive Spanish colonial revival. During the years that the state owned the building, a mélange of arts groups were good tenants, using it for storage and rehearsal space. But the final occupants were transients, and the building was nearly gutted.

"Basically, we've bought a really nice shell," says Ken Bonar, a co-founder of the theater who is also the puppet designer. Nancy Smith agrees, gesturing around the former social hall, where scene painter/muralist Holly Vesely is restoring the decorative ceiling panels, many of which, along with a maple floor, were ruined from years under a leaky roof. The social hall, complete with stage, will eventually be the main performance space. For now, the troupe performs in the beautifully appointed and almost fully restored chapel.

Smith says the plan is to turn the old chapel into a puppeteering museum when the troupe moves to its bigger space in the social hall.

Preservation is important to Smith, who is well aware that, while preserving the art and history of puppeteering, the troupe has also preserved an important historic building and made it accessible to the public -- with help, in the form of matching grants, from many agencies, including COMPAS, ConAgra, Arizona Heritage Fund (part of the state parks department funded by lottery monies) and Phoenix's Historic Preservation office, which, Smith notes, helped repair and rebuild that leaky roof. The remodel has cost $500,000 -- "so far," Smith stresses.

A grand opening will be held Thanksgiving weekend.

In the small assembly room, which is used for birthday parties and rehearsal space for other theater groups, Smith announces, "We're here to stay. . . . We want to establish a place in Phoenix that will outlive all of us. When we stop being puppeteers, we'll pass it on to other puppeteers." That's a good thing, because upstairs in an old LDS Sunday school space, a roomful of puppets awaits its legacy.

Great Arizona Puppet Theater, in addition to its many traveling performances, performs in its new home, located at 302 West Latham (off Third Avenue [northbound one-way] just north of Roosevelt), Wednesdays through Fridays at 10 a.m.; Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m. Cost is $5 per person. Two Bad Mice kicks off GAPT's fall schedule. Visit www.azpuppets.org for a complete schedule and more information. Call 602-262-2050 for reservations.

 
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