It began in the Bronx in March 1950 when Lenny Gerwick, whose tenth birthday was coming up, saw a Punch and Judy theater in a small store on Castle Hill Avenue. He wanted it for his birthday and soon knew he would get it because he saw it tucked on the top shelf of the linen closet. It had a cardboard stage, two hand puppets, a bat and rolling pin, tickets and a script. In the fall of 1950 was the first performance, Punch and Judy, along with an original play. Refreshments kept the audience content. The show was followed by a performance for Lenny’s Cub Scout troop at St. Raymond’s Church.
Through 1951 Lenny created a number of shows with the addition of more puppets. He made scenery for each which still survives in tattered form. The shows were performed in Lenny and his brother, Peter’s bedroom. The puppet stage rested on a card table and audience sat between the beds or on them.
Christmas of 1951 Lenny’s father made a wooden puppet stage. It had a blue velvet curtain. His mother made five hand puppets from a McCall’s pattern. The puppets came with two scripts-The Naughty Reindeer and The Sad Clown. Lenny often worked on shows with his friend, Barry Michlin. They lived in the same apartment house, Barry on the sixth floor, Lenny on the third. Now after seventy-five years of friendship (they met in April 1945) they’re still in touch. Barry lives in Los Angeles and had a long career of acting and photography.
By 1953 when Lenny was thirteen his puppet collection was extensive enough to permit a number of shows. In April he did a show for his cousin’s sixth birthday. From there he did shows for friends of his cousin and then friends of friends. Soon he was doing shows within walking distance in Parkchester, the apartment complex where he lived. He charged $1.50. At the end of the year he did a show for another cousin who lived in Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. This led to other performances. It meant taking the subway-the Lexington Avenue Pelham Bay Line (now the 6 train). The price rose to $5.00.
Lenny did shows through the eighth grade and high school. Often he would take the bus from high school to the subway stop near his home where his mother would meet him with the puppet stage. He took the stage, she took his books, and off he went to do a show. He continued doing shows while he majored in Art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He performed over a thousand shows throughout New York City, Westchester, occasionally Long Island and New Jersey. He continued to perform after art school till 1968.
Debbie Costine grew up in Lancaster, New Hampshire in rural New England. She had been looking forward to fifth grade because “Mrs Chase’s” class always made puppets and put on a show. Debbie’s two older brothers both had Mrs Chase. Fifth grade came and Debbie got the other teacher – no puppets. Debbie’s mother suggested she could at least make a puppet, so, she did with absolutely no idea how to do it. She started with a paper bag bunched at both ends and stuffed with newspaper. She just added on newspaper strips with paste one little piece at a time and when it was dry she painted it with tempera.
Debbie and Lenny met at a life drawing class at the Copley Society in Boston, Massachusetts. They were married in June 1974. Lenny had all his old puppets and stage packed away from the years he performed in New York and in the first months after their marriage he performed one of the old shows, The Enchanted Princess, for Debbie. They decided to do shows together for friends, just for fun.
They were living in an apartment in Franklin, Massachusetts and Debbie mentioned to the Director of the Franklin Library that they were planning to do puppet shows. He was interested in finding a puppeteer for National Book Week in November. So Debbie and Lenny built a stage. He was an art teacher at Holliston High School; actually the shop class built the stage and the electrical class wired it. The librarian asked Debbie what shows she had. She replied, “Whatever you want!” This was not the right business response and he decided to hire Johnny Sisson, a well-known Boston, Massachusetts area puppeteer.
They had a stage and a lot of puppets, but no bookings. So they advertised in local papers and the woman taking ads booked them for a Christmas party in Charlestown, Masschusetts. They charged $50.00 and made up the show a couple of weeks before. They brought along a record player for background music, tied the stage on the top of their Ford Falcon and put everything else in the trunk.
This was their first show – December 8th, 1974. Through the next year and a half they did a dozen or so shows. They were put together quickly. Debbie made props and Lenny painted scenery. They chose appropriate records for background music. It was more play than work.
One of the shows was a series of musical vignettes. Debbie, in a clown costume, interacted with puppets on the stage. However, at this time their main interest was actually painting. In the summer of 1976 Debbie and Lenny went to Europe to go to museums. But in Germany and Austria they saw puppetry and decided that when they returned home, they would make puppetry a serious endeavor. Upon returning they chose the story of Rumpelstiltskin; wrote a script and began rehearsing.
The premier was at the Franklin Library during the National Book Week in November of 1976. Aladdin and the Magic Lamp – for which Debbie made her first set of papier mache puppets – quickly followed this. Debbie began making puppets out of clumps of newspaper and masking tape. Through more than forty years she experimented with many kinds of papers, cloth and glue. Eventually puppets and masks were sculpted in plastilene clay, then covered with two layers of boiled brown craft paper. Rumpelstiltskin was retired in 1980 but Aladdin remained, perhaps the most booked show in their forty-five year career. Everything was continually remade for Aladdin: new scenery, revised scripts, music and puppets – some into their fourth generation.
It was crucial to advertise Gerwick Puppets, and beginning in 1976 a flyer was printed and mailed out every year. This became the backbone for all bookings. Initially Debbie and Lenny silk-screened the first flyers themselves. By 1979 they were having brochures printed in two colors. Since the early 1990’s brochures were printed in full color. Mailings were twice a year and sent throughout New England. Between 1995 and 2007 Gerwick Puppets mailed a newsletter in the winter – The Gerwick Puppets Gazette, and a color brochure in the fall.
Adventures from Thornton W. Burgess was added to the repertoire in 1977. Debbie grew up with these books of the Massachusetts naturalist author. The idea of transforming some of his stories into a puppet show was suggested by Cynthia Thomas, the Director of Stony Brook, an Audubon Sanctuary in Norfolk, Massachusetts. In the summer of 1977, Debbie and Lenny bought a pickup truck and with a friend, Andy Perlmutter, built a six foot high aluminum back on it which functioned as an outdoor stage. It could be rigged with lights for evening shows. A sound system became imperative. From then on all performances were amplified. But acting remained live to keep a spontaneity to the show; only the music was prerecorded.
1977 saw the creation of Inside the Haunted House, an original story and a popular show; the zaniest production of Gerwick Puppets. Bookings continued to increase while shows were being built. In 1979 Uncle Remus Stories, later changed to Brer Rabbit Trickster Tales, brought the repertoire to six. However Debbie and Lenny’s marriage disintegrated. They separated in the fall of 1979 and were divorced by the middle of the next year. They decided to keep the company going. In 1980 Lenny quit his teaching job and went into puppetry full time. That year they mounted their biggest show yet, Midwinter Magic. The brochure of 1979 said “Coming soon; a new holiday show with many surprises including a giant puppet.” That was all they knew about the show when they started except it was going to use the music of Debussy.
The show was built through the year; in early December it was a frantic race to have everything ready. Debbie got sick. Marcia Estabrook filled in for Debbie at the first performance. Then she got sick! In mid-month, Debbie was carrying one of the big boxes of puppets, stumbled, fell and broke her foot. The production was to be presented again the next morning and although Debbie insisted she would be able to perform, she couldn’t. So Lenny did the entire show himself. For the rest of the winter, Debbie performed with a plaster cast on her leg from her knee to her toes.
The following year, in 1981, Gerwick Puppets commissioned Jon Klein, a jazz composer and instructor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, to write a score for a new summer show, The Case of the Missing Woodpile. The story was written by Ron McAdow. He and Debbie were married in 1982 and had a daughter Molly, in 1984. During the latter part of Debbie’s pregnancy and the first months with the new baby, Lenny performed with Barbara Fay Wiese, former exhibits director at the Ballard Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut. Lenny also remarried in 1982 to Irene Boyle Mazmanian and had a daughter, Emily, the following year. By the time Emily and Molly were five and six they were dancing as snow sprites in Midwinter Magic. During other shows they were backstage with their miniature horses and Barbie dolls creating their own stories.
Outdoor shows continued in the summer from the puppet truck and Adventures from Thornton W. Burgess renamed to New England Animal Stories, Brer Rabbit Trickster Tales and the Case of the Missing Woodpile were performed indoors or out. In 1982 an entirely new dimension was added to outdoor performances. Debbie and Lenny, along with Marcia Estabrook (a friend who worked with Gerwick Puppets for five years) created the Festival of Fun. It could be a two or four hour festival that included singing songs with children, half hour puppet shows, skits and dances of masked actors, a costumed parade with children and games. For the parade, banners and rhythm sticks were handed out to the children.
Exhaustion (of the performers) ended the Festival in 1985. Marcia went on to build her own business, Characters Educational Theater. Since the 1970’s Gerwick Puppets performed regularly at the Children’s Museum in Boston, Massachusetts and from 1980 to 1983 they did two or three shows a week on Puppet Sundays.
The puppet stage has been rebuilt many times from the first one made of plywood in 1974. In all, six stages were built for indoor use. The final stage was enlarged a number of times to allow scenery to slide off into the winged sides and to have greater depth on stage for layers of scenery and lighting. The size of the stage had to stay within the limits of what could be transported in an “extended” van. Performers had to be able to carry the whole thing into schools (occasionally up a flight of stairs) and set up in a reasonable time. The setup usually took an hour and a half.
Marcia Estabrook, Debbie and Lenny produced Pilgrim Adventure to America in 1983. This was an historical production compromised of eleven scenes. It demanded a large cast of characters in period costumes, a model of the Mayflower, a map of Cape Cod and a redesign of the entire puppet stage. Debbie also created masks, which she and Lenny wore in scenes performed in front of the puppet stage.
Four years later in 1987, Gerwick Puppets celebrated its two thousandth performance with an exhibit at the Arts Center at Southborough, Massachusetts. On display were all of their puppets, props and scenery. Gerwick Puppets hired Roberta Lasnik, a former dancer and costumer for Revels, Inc., to perform and make puppets. Roberta helped redesign and rebuild Aladdin, Pilgrim Adventure, Midwinter Magic, Haunted House, and Thornton Burgess. She continued with Gerwick Puppets until the mid 1990’s. In 1987 she and Debbie helped Lenny mount a new solo show, Aesop’s Fables. This show required a new configuration of the puppet stage as Lenny was mainly visible working with the puppets. The large,
soft moving mouth hand puppets, a departure from his usual style, were made by Karen Larsen. She was a puppet maker and quilter and former Artistic Director of The Puppet Showplace Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts.
In the 1980’s, Gerwick Puppets produced miniature toy theaters. They consisted of all the characters, scenery and a stage (which Lenny drew) as well as Lenny’s and Debbie’s story line for each show. Much of their repertoire was reproduced in this miniature style. In 1994, Bob Garrett and Bob Mack of Cambridge, Massachusetts asked about doing a video of puppetry. The result was two videos: Fun with Puppets and Debbie Makes a Puppet. These were produced by Two Bobs Productions and are sold here on-line in a DVD format. Excerpts from Aladdin, Gerwick Puppets’ oldest show, is seen in “Fun”. In both videos, one sees the years of experience of Debbie’s puppet making.
In the early 1990’s Gerwick Puppets performed at two regional puppetry festivals of Puppeteers of America in Pennsylvania. They did Pilgrim as an example of educational content in a puppet production. At a later festival they performed their largest show, Rip Van Winkle that premiered in 1992. In 1993, Debbie taught a course in puppetry at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Lenny reworked the jazzy Case of the Missing Woodpile into a solo production that could be performed inside or outside in the summer.
Rip van Winkle was the last production that Lenny and Debbie designed together. Through the mid 1990’s Debbie began a whole new direction of puppetry for pre-school and kindergarten children. Her first endeavor was the creation of a shadow puppet production, The Three Pigs and Other Tales. This was followed by The Twig Family in the Oak Tree, her own original story about a family of imaginary twig people who live in an oak tree in harmony with nature. She built the entire puppet stage, a six foot high oak tree, out of sturdy papier mache and she tells the gentle story as she moves the puppets around in the tree.
January 2000 Gerwick Puppets went on line with a website – gerwickpuppets.com. From the beginning of 2001 there was a drop in puppetry bookings as grants dried up and schools grappled with state-wide testing and accountability to the curriculum. Nevertheless Debbie produced a third show, A Woodland Cinderella, her own version of the classic fairy tale. For this she created another tree puppet stage. The show was selected for the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic Regional Festival of Puppeteers of America in 2008.
In 2008 Gerwick Puppets received the Northeast Region of Puppeteers of America’s award for Artistic Excellence. In October of that year it celebrated its 5000th performance at a gala weekend at the Puppet Showplace Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts.
In the summer of 2009 at a National Puppetry Festival in Atlanta, Debbie was presented with the prestigious UNIMA Citation for Excellence for A Woodland Cinderella. The citation recognizes and rewards outstanding achievement in puppetry arts.
In 2010 with the help of Lenny’s friend, Conrad Schnopp, the music tracks for all of Gerwick Puppets six current shows were digitized. These shows performed by Lenny and Debbie were Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, New England Animal Stories, Inside the Haunted House, Midwinter Magic, Pilgrim Adventure to America, and Rip Van Winkle. Conrad also digitized Lenny’s two solo shows, Aesop’s Fables and The Case of the Missing Woodpile. Music for the shows, always of much importance, was originally played on an LP record player. Later it was transferred to cassettes and then onto a laptop computer.
In 2011 Debbie created her fourth solo show, Turtle’s Wetland Quest, a show based on the endangered Blandings turtle. As with all her other shows she built a special stage for this production. Following Conrad’s advice, Lenny changed the Woodpile show to Puppet Play, a name much suited for internet search engines. The show was completely reworked in 2012 where, like Aesop’s Fables, Lenny was on stage and worked in and around the three dimensional set.
Gerwick Puppets enjoyed a second gala evening at the Puppet Showplace Theater in October 2014 with a performance of Inside the Haunted House. Debbie and Lenny continued to perform until November 2018 when retirement of their six two person shows seemed right. The set ups, climbing up and down to hang lights and wires and performing on their knees beneath the sets was becoming downright painful. Debbie continued to perform her shows and Lenny did his solo shows and puppet making workshops. 2020 stopped everything. Lenny spends a great deal of time painting and Debbie’s deep interest and concern for nature and the environment is a primary inspiration for her work as an artist and puppeteer.