Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Paris Puppet Show

A visit to the puppet show in the Luxembourg Gardens seemed perfect for an upcoming birthday. Guignol, the sassy irreverent main character of the show, just turned 200 so he makes me feel like a spring chicken. 

The original Guignol was created in Lyon, France but his fame soon spread far and wide. The theater in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris opened in 1933. Its creator was Robert Desarthis, whose own father was a toymaker specializing in Guignols. Desarthis died in 1993 and his son Françis-Claude is now the master puppeteer-in-charge.

Guignol is the French everyman, but he has no boundaries. He moves easily from country to country and from century to century depending on the play. His fellow characters are chosen from among the theater's 2,500 puppets, all made in the theater's workshop. It takes years of training to become a good puppeteer and requires not only imagination and dexterity, but also strength since each puppet weighs between six and eleven pounds. 

As show time draws near, the kids, parents and grandparents await the traditional ringing of the bell that signals the opening of the doors of the theater. Next to me in line is five-year-old Celine and her grandmother Marie-Claire, who as a child came to the theater with her grandmother. Marie-Claire seems just as enthused as Celine at the prospect of seeing Guignol triumph once again over evil foes. Today's show is La Chat Botté or Puss in Boots. 

Kids sit in front, parents in back. Guignol appears. The kids yell out to him and can hardly contain their glee. It goes on like this for 60 minutes, a pandemonium of shouting, squealing and general happiness. In the end, of course, Guignol triumphs and everyone is happy, including me. (Click here to see a short video of Guignol. It's in French, but you'll get it whether you speak French or not.) 

                  Children at Puppet Theatre, Paris, France, 1963 by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Time, Inc.     

At five years old, my own son took one look at the photos of Guignol outside the theater and refused to go in. Turns out it's all the fault of a Mexican Guignol-like puppet that I gave him when he was three. Many years later, he recounted: "I worried every night when I was little that that creepy puppet would get out of the closet where I put him and come after me." 

Of course, that's all in the past --- except that recently he went with friends to a highly-recommended Mexican restaurant, took one look at the walls covered with puppets resembling the evil nemesis of his childhood and said: "I can't eat here." 

The next time he's in Paris I'm going to invite him to see the happy, funny French Guignol. I think it will be good therapy. 

A bientôt,

Photos (unless otherwise noted) by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

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