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December 1995

Suspended Animation: The Münchener Marionettentheater, A Place Where Fairy Tales Come Alive

Munich's Marionette theater proves to still be a big attraction for children and adults alike.

There's a small, green island of a city block in the middle of town between two streets which share the name Blumenstraße. On this lovely block are also a park,a lot of trees, a fountain with a statue of St. Florian pouring water into it, and a tiny church called the Altkatholische Kirche. Other than the constant traffic on the larger Blumenstraße, it is a quiet part of town-except, that is, at 15:00 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, when crowds of expectant children tow their parents up to the two large doors that allow them entrance into the sacred temple of childhood fantasy known as the Münchener Marionettentheater. Inside, they experience the adventures of one Kasperl Larifari, a German Everyman and all-around Good Guy who somehow finds himself mixed up in the adventures of world-famous fairy-tale characters. Decked out in old Bavarian Trachten, sprouting a coal-black beard from a humorous head topped by a comical (and conical) mountain man's hat, he represents the child in all with his timely sense of humor and good-heartedness. Through his strong sense of right and wrong and well-honed natural instincts, he saves many a damsel in distress or king in the midst of a catastrophe from the clutches of evil green dwarfs, giant no-goods, talking snakes, and even the devil himself. Blumenstraße 29a near Sendlinger Tor has greeted the theater-going public of Munich since the turn of the century. Most of the plays performed are based on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Many of these are familiar to English-speaking readers, such as "Hansel and Gretel," "Cinderella" (Aschenputtel in German), "Snow White" (Schneewittchen) and "Rumpelstiltskin." Others are more famous in Germany, such as Goldmarie und Pechmarie (also known as "Frau Holle-Old Mother Frost"), or Vom Fischer und seiner Frau ("The Fisher and His Wife"). Even two of the evening operas by Carl Orff are based on Grimm tales: Der Mond ("The Moon") and Die Kluge ("The Peasant's Wise Daughter"). Works by authors other than the "Black Forest" Brothers are Däumelinchen ("Thumbelina") by Hans Christian Andersen, Der Kleine Muck ("Little Muck") by Wilhelm Hauff, and several by Elga Blumhoff-Schadt, the deceased wife of the theater's present director. During the month of December, only Christmas plays are shown at matinee performances. Kasperl is the hero of a special holiday puppet show called "The Ringing Christmas Ball" (Die klingende Weihnachtskugel). In it, Kasperl is so tired of the Christmas runaround that he escapes to the moon, where, of course, he finds that the situation is even worse. Only a timely visit by St. Nicholas saves him from becoming a permanent captive of the moon men. The small theater was built in 1900 to accommodate the soon-to-be-homeless Puppenspiel of Josef Schmid, who, together with the artist Franz Graf von Pocci, had started a puppet theater in 1858. They performed for 42 years at various locations around Munich. Papa Schmid, as he came to be called, is a beloved character in the history of the city, having won the hearts and minds of many generations of Münchner Kindl with his whimsical figures. The one-block-long street which leads up to the theater even carries his name, Papa-Schmid-Straße. The theater is now in the hands of Franz Leonhard Schadt, who has managed it for almost 40 years. Today, at the age of 85, he still plays the Kasperl figure, aided by his two grandchildren, Shrandra and Alvin, who work the feature marionettes. Hidden away in the storage attic of the theater are props for over 20 children's plays and seven operas. More than 300 marionettes, some dating back to pre-war times, hang there from their strings, waiting for their chance to perform. There are cows with dangling udders, violin-playing crickets, big-nosed bewarted witches, sour-faced sultans and beautiful princesses, who always seem to find themselves in need of being saved. Suspended from their hooks in their lonely room they are lifeless, but when activated by human hands and feelings, they come alive, capturing the attention of anyone with a bent towards the imaginative. It is a mistake, however, to think that the performances are for children alone. The humor and lightness of the pieces delight grown-up children as well. The Marionettentheater's stage is small, as it should be when the performers are only 30 centimeters tall. Behind the curtain, however, one finds a full-fledged backstage area with countless spotlights, electrical devices and special-effect machines. A computer automatically controls the lighting that gives tone to emotional and dramatic instances in the plays, which in earlier days were all done by hand. Four or five actors used to simulate the puppets' voices live; now this is done by a sound system using reel-to-reel tapes. As many as 13 people work behind the stage during a play, especially when an opera is being performed. The puppet performers lean over a railing on two bridges that overlook the stage. One bridge is fixed in position while the other is on rollers and can be pushed forwards or backwards according to the position of the marionettes on the stage. The stage itself is actually composed of several metal wagons measuring between one and three meters in length on which stand the props. At the end of each act, the wagons are rolled in or out and the props changed according to script. This must be done quickly in the short pause between curtain drops. The audience is entirely unaware of the hustle and bustle going on behind the stage during the pauses. In a town where one's wallet is quickly emptied on entertainment, the Münchener Marionettentheater remains an old-fashioned bargain. Children's matinees cost only DM 6 for children and DM 8 for adults. All seats for the Saturday operas, which are held at 20:00, cost DM 15, for which one is getting a live performance for the price of a movie ticket. A minimum of 25 people is needed in order for a show to run. Special showings for groups cost DM 500. All plays and operas are in German, except "Prometheus," which is in ancient Greek. Overviews for the operas in English are available upon request at the box office. For English-speaking groups that want a special showing, English explanations of the scenes could be prepared or the scenes explained in English between acts. During December, only Christmas plays are shown in the afternoon; operas will continue to be shown on Saturday nights. "The Ringing Christmas Ball" can be presented with a taped English explanation between scenes if there is sufficient demand (call ahead). As of January 10, the Marionettentheater will resume its regular schedule of fairy tale plays.

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