Rediscovering Everett’s puppet master

A staggering assortment of puppets from all over the world, from Bali to Rio and points in between, are on view for free at Seattle Center.

And in the midst of this internationally acclaimed collection of 200 wooden characters is one very special puppet.

That puppet is a bellboy juggler. It’s the puppet Len Ayres once used to introduce his show.

Ayres created that puppet here in Everett, back in the early 1900s in the prop shop of the old Central Opera House at 2919 Wetmore Ave.

The bellboy was among 30 puppets Ayres and his friend Will Lamb assembled into an act that was eventually called “Mantell’s Manikins.”

Those puppets went on to become one of the most successful and well-known vaudeville headliner acts in the country in the 1920s and ’30s. The act toured internationally and helped carve out a reputation for Ayres as a puppet master.

Local historian David Dilgard said Ayres was “definitely one of the biggest names in puppetry.”

Alan Cook called Ayres and the Mantell Manikins “one of the most important American vaudeville companies in the world.”

Cook should know.

Cook is the other half-owner of the Cook/Marks collection of puppets, which consists of about 5,000 stringed figures. At least 20 of the puppets in this collection were created by Ayres.

A portion of the Cook/Marks collection — about 200 puppets — is what visitors will see for free at the Seattle Center through Aug. 1 in the exhibit “The World of Puppetry: Treasures from the Cook/Marks Collection.”

But then the entire Cook/Marks collection will be shipped from California to be permanently housed at Seattle’s Northwest Puppet Center, where the Everett native’s puppets will remain closer to home.

“It’s an impressive collection and, in the future, we hope to build this organization into a world-class museum,” said Northwest Puppet Center director Dmitri Carter, a second-generation puppeteer.

Cook’s part of the collection began when he was 5 years old and received his first marionette. Cook continued collecting while making his own puppets out of broken wooden orange crates he bought for a nickel.

In 1962, Cook said, he bought at least 20 of Ayres puppets for about $10 apiece. He said they are worth about $1,000 apiece today.

“They had a real folk-art quality to them because these were not made by people who went to art school, they taught themselves,” said Cook, who spoke from the International Puppetry Museum in Pasadena, Calif.

Ayres arrived in Everett with his parents in 1901, when he was in his mid-teens. They lived in a cottage on Colby Avenue.

The young Ayres started out wanting to a magician. While working as an usher in the Central Opera House as a teenager, he was convinced by a stage manager to make a puppet act instead.

Even though Ayres switched to stringed characters, Cook said Ayres maintained a magical quality in his acts.

Ayres rigged up a skeleton puppet’s eyes so that they lit up red. And a tent was set up around the puppet stage so the stage hands couldn’t see how the puppets were being manipulated, Cook said.

“This was closer to a magic trick,” Cook said.

Another popular Ayres skit was the horse race, which included a jockey riding on a horse in front of a background — made of a big piece of fabric — that moved to indicate motion. The horse was named Sparkplug.

“It was all very hair-raising to see who was going to win,” Cook said.

Other puppets in Ayres’ wooden troupe included a kid in a baseball cap, a ballerina and a Russian cossack.

After vaudeville faded and he stopped touring, Ayres settled in Lake Stevens with his wife, Esther Van Valey, daughter of a prominent Everett businessman.

He died in 1967.

Cook said it’s important to future generations to keep Ayres’ puppets and the rest of the Cook/Marks collection intact.

“Keeping the collection together is so that kids can have a similar experience as to what I and others have had,” Cook said. “People need to connect more to the past and our history and culture, and puppets can cross that barrier.”

Theresa Goffredo: 425-339-3424, goffredo@heraldnet.com.

See the puppets

“The World of Puppetry: Treasures from the Cook/Marks Collection” is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Pavilion B at Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., Seattle.

The collection includes puppets from Bucharesti, Palermo, Bali, Athens, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Bamako and Bursa, along with examples of Sicilian opera dei pupi, Indonesian wayang and Japanese bunraku and vaudeville marionettes.

Admission is free, but donations can be made to the Northwest Puppet Center.

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