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Daemen puppet festival brings art form to life

Puppets have transported Daemen College senior Cameron Garrity to far-off places for as long as he can remember.

It began – and in some ways, has never ended – with being enamored of Muppets Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Elmo and the other creatures who inhabit “Sesame Street.”

“Puppetry gives me an excuse to accept the fantasy that coexists in our real world. The characters come alive, and watching a live human interact with a ‘fake puppet’ is magic,” Garrity said.

Garrity, who hopes to make a career in puppetry, has organized “The Geppetto Festival: A Day of Puppetry” from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday as part of Daemen’s annual Academic Festival in the school’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts, 4380 Main St., Snyder.

Named for the fictional creator of Pinocchio, the free event will feature performances, lectures, workshops and presentations by puppeteers and other artists from across the country, concluding with a “Puppetry Slam” at 7:30 p.m. For a complete list of events, go to

The Muppets remained constant companions for Garrity, a Kenmore native and Canisius High School graduate, after he was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease at age 12. The disease, which damages cells and manifested itself in his sinuses and gastrointestinal system, sapped his energy and made it difficult to perform physical activities or play sports.

“The Muppets travel the world and go to all these far-off places, and it was something I was able to live vicariously through. I could go anywhere, from hot-air balloons to the Great Wall of China, by tuning in to those shows,” Garrity said.

He performed puppet shows at family parties as a boy, using puppets purchased from a toy store until his hands outgrew them. As he got older, he made puppets by gluing felt and pingpong balls onto milk cartons, and then moved on to upholstery foam, and later, fleece and fake fur.

Garrity describes his puppet creations as “the Muppets who visited Chernobyl” – a reference to the 1986 event in Ukraine widely regarded as the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.

Take the eyes, for instance. Where Muppets creator Jim Henson used only the standard two, Garrity puts on four or five, and sometimes as many as 10.

“I try to push it a little bit. They look very much like that Muppet style, but because of the number of eyes they are definitely not from that world,” he said.

Among Garrity’s characters are Scrap, a 10-year-old who is active in school and an overachiever; he calls the puppet “in a lot of ways my alter ego.” Another is Mr. Johnson, Scrap’s substitute teacher, who, Garrity said, “is an underachiever.”

Garrity studied last year at the National Puppetry Conference in the Eugene O’Neil Center in Waterford, Conn. A Daemen Think Tank grant for $7,000 paid for his expenses and is footing the bill for the puppet festival.

Garrity, who is getting a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design, said working with theater professors Robert Waterhouse and Christian Brandjes has been invaluable in helping him develop his craft.

“There is a lot of theatricality in puppetry. It’s an all-inclusive art form, where I work in graphic design and then transfer over to the theater realm to bring puppetry to life with song, dance and movement,” he said.

Waterhouse praised Garrity for his puppetry talents and terrific attitude.

“He’s an emerging young professional, and there is no doubt he has a future in entertainment. He’s extremely skilled and talented, and a pleasure to work with,” Waterhouse said.

Garrity, who will present a talk and perform in the Puppet Slam, said he hopes the festival will show another side of puppeteering largely obscured in the United States. He chose the fictitious puppeteer Geppetto to reflect the desire to pump new life into an ageless medium.

“Since Geppetto gave life to Pinocchio and put his heart and soul into building that puppet and that idea, I thought it was the perfect name for the festival,” he said.

Garrity said the festival is intended to remind audiences that puppetry has historically also been an art form for adults.

“Puppetry has been around forever, but in the last 100 years it has come to be a children’s medium. I love ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘The Muppet Show,’ but it’s not the be-all and end-all of puppetry. I think people forget how much history is attached to the medium, and that’s something the festival is trying to bring to public light,” Garrity said.

The “Geppetto Festival” will include a workshop by Matthew Laird, a fabricator at Animax Designs in Nashville, Tenn., where he works on puppets for theme parks; a lecture on Czech marionettes by Christine Dempsey, a puppeteer and educator from Cambridge, Mass.; a film screening and discussion by Chase Woolner, who worked on the 2011 film “The Muppets”; and performances by Leila Ghaznavi, winner of a 2012 Jim Henson Foundation grant.