By Susie Ward
As a young and very green children's librarian, I began working for Helga in 1973. She introduced me to the huge system of county libraries by driving me to at least three or more each week so I had a better understanding of how diverse SDCL was. After a year of learning and honing my career under Helga, she asked me if I'd like to become a puppeteer. I said yes without a second thought!
Helga had originally come from Latvia, and having lived there and in Poland and Germany, she was very familiar with the art of European puppetry. Puppet shows are still popular entertainment for children and adults throughout Europe due to the spontaneous and lively interaction between the puppets and their audiences. The puppeteers are behind the stage, so the audience only sees the hand puppets, and the script is voiced "live," instead of pre-recorded. This way the puppets come to life, and the audience is encouraged to interact with them.
Under Helga's guidance, puppet stages were designed and built. Every member of the Children's Department was trained to perform as were many of the branch staff. We learned how to write our own half-hour scripts, and design costumes for the puppets and scenic backdrops for the set. The only recorded aspects were the background music and sound effects. The puppeteers read from a script hanging inside the stage. Helga advised on every script and ensured that all shows were professionally produced and performed. We even received permission from beloved children's author Bill Peet to stage any of his picture books we chose. Peet's "The Whingdingdilly" and "Countdown to Christmas" became favorites. We created shows for holidays and each Summer Reading Program theme. The shows attracted huge audiences in the libraries, where we performed before standing-room-only crowds. It was an ingenious way to introduce the community to the wonders of the public library.
Children watching the shows would shout out encouragement, warn the puppets of impending danger, tell them which direction the "villain" was coming from ("Don't go that way! He's waiting for you over there!"), and often call out admonishments such as, "Didn't your mother tell you not to do that?" and "You know running away won't solve anything!" We puppeteers became masters of ad lib, and usually had to stifle laughter at the hilarious advice from the crowd. This was live theatre, and improvisation was the only way to go if, for instance, the hero puppet's head accidentally fell off, or if a puppet's hair became entangled in the curtain's velcro. The show must go on, as they say! One my most memorable moments was when a little boy came backstage following a show. Noticing the script clipped to the stage, he exclaimed, "I didn't know puppets could read!"
The puppetry experience was priceless and many of us still agree that being a puppeteer under Helga Remy's guidance was the most rewarding part of being a children's librarian. We still celebrate Helga's birthdays with her every year. She turned 91 in November.