Seattle Now & Then: puppeteer Aurora Valentinetti – late 1940s/early 1950s

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: Much as Aurora Valentinetti asked children to do in her puppet shows, transport yourself to a different realm – in this case the drama department in the basement of Denny Hall at the University of Washington where, in this view from the late 1940s/early 1950s, the new professor coaxes the personality of her handmade Pip marionette for a production of “The Shoemaker and the Elves.” (James O. Sneddon, Aurora Valentinetti collection)
NOW: In a vestibule of Meany Hall, Valentinetti poses with the same seat prop and Pip marionette prior to her June 13, 2019, receipt of the University of Washington Distinguished Teaching Legacy Award. To see more of her and her students’ original creations and puppets of all kinds, from tiny to life-size, visit the Valentinetti Puppet Museum in downtown Bremerton. (Clay Eals)

(Published in Seattle Times online on Aug. 1, 2019,
and in print on Aug. 4, 2019)

A distinguished lifetime of bringing puppets to moppets
By Clay Eals

It all might seem rather simple, maybe childlike. But concocting, constructing and bringing to life an inanimate object to stir emotions and imagination is complex, profound business.

Just ask Aurora Valentinetti, winner of the University of Washington’s 2019 Distinguished Teaching Legacy Award, who as this column appears has reached her 98th birthday.

Propelling a walker as she strode across the Meany Hall stage June 13 to receive the award medal, the pint-sized honoree drew a roaring ovation while mirroring the fortitude that she carried from her West Seattle upbringing to the UW in the fall of 1939 and that helped her forge a lifetime persona – that of puppeteer.

From the early 1940s to her retirement in 1992 and beyond, this puppetry professor and promoter took her hand, rod and string creations seemingly everywhere – from the Showboat Theatre to the Metropolitan Theatre (both long gone), from St. Mark’s Cathedral to First African Episcopal Church, from Bainbridge to Bumbershoot, from Fremont to Federal Way, from statewide tours to national festivals, from the beloved Christmas windows of the old Frederick & Nelson department store downtown to her own “Puppet Playhouse” show on KCTS-TV, Channel 9.

Though her productions sometimes targeted adults by exploring themes from operatic to existentialist, Valentinetti’s deepest impact – and love – lay in her shows for children, tapping into worldwide cultures and using puppets that each took 200 hours to build.

She wasn’t a recognizable kids’ TV icon like Wunda Wunda or Brakeman Bill because her work, by definition, was behind the scenes. “You have to become the soul of that figure, and you don’t count,” she says.

Nonetheless, she mesmerized moppets, no doubt because most of the time, their eyes wide open, mouths agape and minds “still in touch with fantasy and magic,” they were reacting to the escapades of her puppets in person and in real time.

Such engagement, she says, validates a universal, desperate need for artistic endeavor.

“Without the arts, we are going to be robots or back to the level of animals,” she says. “Real learning happens through all of the arts, particularly for young children. That’s where they grow and expand. That also is where children can be individuals.”

Since college days, she lived in Wallingford to be close to her classes. She never married or drove a car, instead bidding rides from students. “They knew that if they drove me home, I’d feed them.”

To live closer to a niece, Joanne Bratton, she moved in 2016 to Wenatchee. There, she keeps several of her puppets close by. “They have a power all their own,” she says. “I just treat them like human beings.”

Perhaps she’s imparting a deeper lesson to us all.

WEB EXTRAS

This week, instead of a 360-degree video, we are providing links to several video interviews of Aurora Valentinetti from which quotes were drawn for this column.

Aurora Valentinetti, one month shy of 98, receives the University of Washington Distinguished Teaching Legacy Award June 13, 2019, at Meany Hall. This award presentation is at the end of this video, preceded by a “now” photo shoot for the Seattle Times “Now & Then” column and an interview of Aurora by Clay Eals.
Aurora Valentinetti,, 97, the legendary puppetry professor at the University of Washington for 50 years, received the Distinguished Teaching Legacy Award from the University of Washington Alumni Association on April 12, 2019, in a ceremony at her home in Wenatchee, Washington. This video depicts the ceremony only. It was emceed by Grant Kollett, UW assistant vice president for alumni and stakeholder engagement. Speakers were nieces Katy Larson and Joanne Bratton.
This is the same video as above but includes an interview at the end, starting at 37:10. Aurora Valentinetti,, 97, the legendary puppetry professor at the University of Washington for 50 years, received the Distinguished Teaching Legacy Award from the University of Washington Alumni Association on April 12, 2019, in a ceremony at her home in Wenatchee, Washington. This video depicts the ceremony, as well as displays and greetings beforehand from well-wishers and Aurora describing some of her favorite puppets afterward. The ceremony was emceed by Grant Kollett, UW assistant vice president for alumni and stakeholder engagement. Speakers were nieces Katy Larson and Joanne Bratton.
In this 1992 interview, “Upon Reflection” host Marcia Alvar speaks with Aurora “The Puppet Lady” Valentinetti, puppeteer and professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Drama. Valentinetti examines the history of puppetry around the world. While Americans have regarded puppets as little more than a childish amusement, she highlights the importance of puppets in other cultures and recognizes the efforts of Jim Henson in gaining a wider acceptance for puppets as a viable form of theater.

Also, below are two additional photos, plus, in chronological order, several clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and one from the Mercer Island Reporter that were helpful in the preparation of this column.

In the early 1950s, Aurora Valentinetti displays seven of her marionettes at the University of Washington. (Aurora Valentinetti collection)
Aurora Valentinetti displays her University of Washington Distinguished Teaching Legacy Award medal minutes after she received it on June 13, 2019. (Clay Eals)
Oct. 19, 1947, Seattle Times, page 63
July 20, 1948, Seattle Times, page 9
Dec. 18, 1950, Seattle Times, page 21
Dec. 31, 1950, Seattle Times, page 54
Dec. 13, 1951, Seattle Times, page 62
Dec. 17, 1951, Seattle Times, page 27
June 20, 1952, Seattle Times, page 20
Jan. 25, 1959, Seattle Times, page 69
March 29, 1959, Seattle Times, page 109
April 14, 1959, Seattle Times, page 39
Feb. 4, 1962, Seattle Times, page 144
June 24, 1962, Seattle Times, page 62
Jan. 24, 1963, Mercer Island Reporter
April 3, 1963, Seattle Times, page 21
April 7, 1963, Seattle Times, page 16
Nov. 10, 1963, Seattle Times, page 16
March 16, 1964, Seattle Times, page 141
March 29, 1964, Seattle Times, page 130
July 5, 1964, Seattle Times, page 41
Aug. 18, 1965, Seattle Times, page 21
Oct. 27, 1968, Seattle Times, page 206
Oct. 27, 1968, Seattle Times, page 211
Dec. 8, 1968, Seattle Times, page 53

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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