By Rick Hinton
When the ISM (Indiana State Museum) suddenly ended the residency of Melchior Marionettes/Peewinkle’s Puppets, it came as a shock. The thee-year era of workshops, day camps and performances had come to a grinding stop. It has become a process of picking up the pieces and moving forward into the next phase.
In the early 1950s, German immigrant Erica Melchior began The Melchior Marionettes in Lorain, OH. After a few years of small marionettes, she progressed to larger cabaret-style figures. She traveled extensively throughout the Midwest and later on cruise ships. In 1972 the business expanded to the Indianapolis area under the hands of her daughter Peggy. “My mother started the business and I was the only daughter. I grew up doing marionettes, building them and performing.”
Peggy Melchior – Artistic Director – is responsible for creating, building and marketing the business. Teaching is a passion for her. She is also a performer in her own right, working primarily with the marionettes. In 1983 Peggy opened The Melchior Marionette Theatre in downtown Nashville, IN, performing shows four months out of the year. “A lot of work went into getting it ready, but it found an audience,” Peggy stated. “The Halloween shows started in the early 1990s. It was a big hit for the kids down there. We had people coming from Chicago, Kentucky and Ohio. People planned their trips there. We had people that came there 20 years in a row!” While in Nashville Peggy decided they needed a “front man” for the venue. Peewinkle, a gnome hand puppet, was born.
After building a couple of Peewinkle productions for The Children’s Museum, Peggy hired Ball State graduate Debbi White as a second set of hands. She developed the PIP (Puppeteers in Progress) program for older kids to assist in productions, in addition to organizing day camps for younger kids where she also teaches. As executive director and youth program director, she manages most everything associated with numbers.
Daughter Heidi Shackleford, a BFA graduate of Columbus College of Art & Design, and IUPUI, has been involved in the business from a young age. She is an artist at heart, opening a silk painting business in Broad Ripple. She is a performer and a teacher by profession, teaching fiber arts at Center Grove High School. She manages the technology and is well known as Gertrude the Witch during the month of October. “I AM Gertrude the Witch!” she said with a laugh.
In 1997 they secured a location on the ground floor of the Madison Building, 25 E. Henry St. in Indianapolis, naming it Peewinkle’s Puppet Studio. They stayed for 19 years, building an audience and reputation. The building was sold. Their last year was under a new landlord, but they felt the need for a change. “We could seat about 48 people … it was a tight space,” Heidi remembered. “We were able to grow just enough to still be quaint. We didn’t want to go to a place where we were seating a hundred because the whole idea is entertaining children. You don’t want them to get lost in a large space.” In 2016 they moved into the Indiana State Museum. They didn’t know it would be short-lived.
PUPPETS AND MARIONETTES: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Puppets, performing in a very ancient form of theater, have been around for centuries. They have been found in the ruins and tombs of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. The first ones were most likely used in religious ceremonies. So, what is the difference between a puppet and a marionette? “They’re all puppets,” Peggy stated. “There are just different types.” There are finger puppets, sock puppets (remember Lamb Chop, created by the late puppeteer and ventriloquist Shari Lewis?), glove puppets (from the puppet show that goes back several centuries, Punch and Judy), hand puppets (from Sesame Street), shadow puppets, a type called the Muppet, best known by TV’s Jim Henson and ventriloquist dummies (Charlie McCarthy). Rod puppets are another variety, operated from below the stage with sticks and rods. A marionette is a much more complicated type of puppet, animated by strings or wires from above (Pinocchio, Howdy Doody). A puppeteer is the person animating and manipulating from either above or below. Peewinkle’s has quite the collection from years of performances. Peggy still retains several of the marionettes made by her mother.
Cabaret-style performances, opposed to the traditional stage setting, is where the puppeteer and marionette are on stage together. It usually encompasses vaudeville type numbers, in essence, becoming a variety show. “I’ve always liked the cabaret-style shows best,” Heidi admitted. “The puppeteer acts as the shadows of the puppet. The magic happens when you’re working with an audience of all ages. The younger kids don’t even know you’re there. The part of what the adults love about watching the show is not only watching the children watch the puppet, but then they watch the puppeteer and how it all works. It fulfills everybody’s interest!”
A TENURE NO MORE
The former gift shop at ISM in 2016 was converted to a theater seating 65, a definite improvement over their previous setting. Peggy closed the Nashville site in October of 2018. The logistics of running both would have been tremendous. A comfortable familiarity with the museum took root as they navigated between performances, workshops, lectures and puppet camps for the next three years. Then, in the summer of 2019, they were given 60 days to vacate the space. Their contract would not be renewed. The museum wanted the space and Peewinkles needed to be out by Aug. 31.
“We were caught off-guard,” Heidi stated. “If we had known this was going to happen, we would have been better prepared.”
“As they changed their executives, they changed the direction of what they wanted to do with the museum,” Peggy said. “They have a right to reclaim their space; we just did not assume they were going to do that.”
A NEW BEGINNING
That leaves questions concerning future productions, especially those about the holidays. “At the time this happened, we didn’t have time to secure a place for Halloween and one for Christmas,” Peggy stated. However, one date has been resolved. The Slightly Haunted Puppet Show will return to Nashville, IN, at the Brown County Playhouse, Oct. 17, 18 and 19 with a ghoulish cast of traditional Halloween characters. Peggy and Heidi are excited about the production and will be working on it together. “People just assume I perform with my mom. I don’t,” Heidi declared. “It’s so rare that my mom and I share the stage together.”
Several theaters have expressed an interest in hosting future productions, but Peggy admitted she will be “picky” about a decision proceeding forward. “We just got everything from the studio here after sorting, pitching and organizing.” Heidi added. “Do you just hurry up and make something work just to make it work or do you wait and make sure that whatever comes down the pike is what’s right for us and our patrons? Basically, we just moved a 20-year theater into two houses.”
They will take the time needed to regroup and catch their breath.
As of this writing, the Penrod Art Fair has come and gone for 2019. Peewinkle’s Puppets/Melchior Marionettes were once again a part, hosting a booth and as a fundraiser – selling a lot of puppets to a lot of children. A workshop and three to four stage shows rounded out Saturday’s festivities. The show continues on!
For more information, contact Peggy Melchior at (800) 849-4853, melchiorpearson@gmail or visit peewinklespuppets.org or melchiormarionettes.com.
Three Questions with Peggy Melchior and Heidi Shackleford
What’s your favorite childhood memory?
Peggy: “Well, I don’t know if it’s a favorite one, but I totally remember it! When I was 11 my mother was doing a show for my elementary school. I could help by handing her a marionette before she went out. I promptly dropped it, tangling everything up!”
Heidi: “Running around with my brothers right here in this backyard. (The home where the interview was conducted is where Peggy and her husband moved to when they were 29, and the home that Heidi grew up in.) Running through the woods and carrying into the house mud, frogs and crawdads.”
Who has been a big influence on you?
Peggy: My husband, even though he doesn’t perform, has been very supportive. I learned a lot about business and marketing from him.
Heidi: To my dad, no idea is too outlandish. Yet my biggest influence has been my mother … yeah, for sure.
What do you like to do on your time off?
Peggy: Making crazy quilts.
Heidi: When I’m by myself, I like to make art. When I’m not, I like to spend time with my husband.