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Sicilian Marionettes Have a Story to Tell

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web Marionette

By Emily J Weitz

As long as there has been language, there have been stories. Passed down from generation to generation, these stories are the legacy of our ancestors. One family, which came from Sicily and thrived in New York, became remarkably good at telling stories in a unique way, and therefore, they kept their heritage alive.

Since 1918, the Manteo family has told and retold their stories through meticulously constructed marionettes. These nearly-life-sized puppets, some of which stand five feet tall and weigh 125 pounds, come to life under the guidance of a skilled puppeteer.

The stories they tell are the universal tales of good and evil.

The values that the marionettes demonstrate are about “fighting the demons of the world, fighting for love or honor, the triumph of good over evil,” says Tony DeNonno, award-winning TV producer-writer-director and historian who has studied and worked with the Manteo family extensively. “The elements in these stories are timeless.”

DeNonno points out that the puppeteers who created these marionettes and who told these stories again and again were “Not only great actors; these marionettes are also works of art. The puppeteers could carve and paint faces, they could draw scenery and bring characters to life. Audiences were enchanted with the characters and the believability and the drama.”

The stories were told again and again by several generations of the Manteo family in Little Italy, from 1918 until the late 1990s. The family has since dispersed to Florida and other locales, but historians at the Italian American Museum and devoted folklorists and filmmakers like DeNonno have committed themselves to keeping the tradition alive.

“The marionettes are part of the Italian American Museum now, and we are in the process of preserving the tradition,” says DeNonno. “We’re preserving the librettos, and translating these timeless priceless stories. These are the only librettos in the world of this amazing Sicilian marionette tradition, and we are working with folklorists and historians to learn to translate these librettos and re-present them.”

In the meantime, DeNonno devotes himself to making the Manteo story known. His award-winning documentary, “It’s One Family: Knock On Wood,” was nationally broadcast on PBS and captures the story of five generations of the Manteo family making marionettes and performing together in New York City. He travels to museums and other venues around the country sharing the story.

Even though the Manteos started performing in New York in the early 20th century, the tradition reaches back centuries earlier.

“The origins are from Charlemagne,” explains DeNonno. “He was a legendary emperor known for his benevolence, and the legends of Charlemagne (Carlo Magno in Italian) became part of Sicilian tradition. The stories were told by troubadours in rhyme and verse, and they captivated people. The troubadours brought these stories to life up until the emergence of Sicilian marionettes in the 18th century.”

DeNonno will be coming to the Parrish Art Museum on Saturday, September 24 at 3 p.m. to share his film, “It’s One Family: Knock on Wood,” to do a short marionette presentation, and to speak about the subject. His presentation is made possible by the Speakers in Humanities Program of the New York Council for the Humanities.

“It’s not a lecture,” he explains. “It’s geared towards young children. I engage them in the process by bringing the marionette to life.”

The marionette he’ll bring with him on Saturday is one that was made by the Manteos in the 1980s, although some of the marionettes in the Italian American Museum are up to  120 years old.

“If there are young people in the audience, I bring little marionettes for them to manipulate and work on,” he said. “I engage the audience to make them a part of the story.”

The goal is really to make people aware of this precious form of storytelling that has carried stories through generations.

“The European Union just designated marionettes as a priceless art form and treasure and they are preserving them,” says DeNonno. “I am trying to get this preserved in America too. To bring these sagas to life because they are timeless stories that tell aspects of great works: the stories are eternal. The marionettes are captivating.”