ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – As a child, James Racioppi loved playing with dolls, but that wasn’t the most popular choice for a young boy in Newark. When he was 9 years old, Racioppi discovered puppets, and his new hobby seemed to be a little more socially acceptable.
“My best friend and I got books from the library that showed you how to make a marionette puppet from cloth,” he said. “We used to put on shows in the neighborhood.”
More than 40 years later, Racioppi is still putting on puppet shows. He has entertained countless children at the Paper Moon Puppet Theatre, where he has been artistic director since 1990. The theater is currently located inside the First Avenue Playhouse in Atlantic Highlands.
“When I work with these kids, I am that age again,” he said. “It’s like the years have never passed.”
After high school, Racioppi received a scholarship to The Cooper Union in New York City, where he majored in fine arts.
“I love to build, create and design,” he said. “I’m lucky I’ve been able to make a living doing this.”
Racioppi also did some acting, a skill that serves him well as a puppeteer.
“Working with puppets is a synthesis of all of that – creating costumes, painting sets and acting,” he said. “It’s everything that I’m interested in.”
He had a lot of unique experiences that helped him hone his skills. Racioppi has worked in film and television, even working as a puppeteer on the Captain Kangaroo children’s show in the early 1970s.
“I had never even watched the show, but it was quite an experience,” he said.
He put his skills to work designing and working puppets in an Off-Broadway satirical revue called “Kumquats,” starring Wayland Flowers and Madame. He also spent seven years building scenery and puppets, and also performing, at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater in Central Park.
“It’s been an amazing career,” he said.
After moving from New York City to Monmouth County, Racioppi opened the Paper Moon Puppet Theatre on Route 36, building a repertoire of shows that include Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Puss in Boots and The Wizard of Oz.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said.
The 40-minute shows, which are great for kids as young as 2 years old, are staged on weekends. The theater also hosts birthday parties and other private events, and the artists take some of their shows to schools. All of the performances include a preshow interactive session and a post-show demonstration and Q&A. The repertoire currently consists of 14 different shows, including three touring shows, which are hand or rod puppets. Racioppi is developing a literacy program and also creating shows for older kids and adults. He is currently building the sets and puppets for Shake speare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“Marionettes have not been an art form in the United States like they are in Europe,” Racioppi said. “That perception is changing.”
In 1995, Paper Moon and the First Avenue Playhouse decided to share space in the dessert theater’s First Avenue location. The two remained together for more than 15 years until Paper Moon moved to its own building nearby for five years. In February, the puppet theater returned to First Avenue Playhouse, where its puppet stage was still ready and waiting for the young crowds who flock to the shows.
“We realized that pooling our resources was a better deal for both of us,” Racioppi said.
Racioppi works with hand puppets and most recently has become a big fan of rod puppets, which are controlled from a rod below the figure, running up through the body and into the head.
“I’m just crazy about them,” he said. “They have a precision that marionettes can’t have. They can do high drama and high comedy. They’re much more eloquent. They can dance, touch things and pick up props.”
Still, the Neptune City resident finds a great deal of artistic fulfillment in working with marionettes. He designs and builds all the puppets himself.
“It takes a few weeks, working every day,” he said. “The balance and the jointing have to be just right.”
Of course, it takes more than one puppeteer to put on a show. Racioppi has taught several other creative people to work the marionettes for his shows, including singer/composer Branden Knowles, actress/director Donna Jeanne, and poet/comedian Hal Holst, who really channels the puppets when he is making them perform.
“Most puppets don’t have a mouth,” Holst said. “But when I work with them, I can see their mouths working.”
John McAllister, administrative director of Paper Moon, lives and works with Racioppi. He discovered he also has a natural ability to work the puppets at the theater.
“I get such joy from being creative,” he said.
Of course, not everyone has what it takes to be a successful marionette operator.
“I can teach someone to work a marionette in two weeks, but to perfect it takes a lifetime,” Racioppi said. “The life has to come down the strings and project into the audience. Actors understand how to do that. You can make anybody laugh with a puppet, but to make them feel – that’s what I love.”
For information, visit www.papermoonpuppettheatre.com.
Arts and entertainment writer Mary Ann Bourbeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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