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Puppets Of New York: Gallery Showcases History And Lasting Power Of Art Form

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The power of puppetry is on display at the Museum of the City of New York.

As CBS2's Dave Carlin reports, culture, politics and art combine in this exhibit featuring more than 100 puppets with strong ties to New York City.

Lamb Chop greets visitors to the Puppets of New York gallery. Perpetually six years old, the puppet star was created in the 1950s by Parkchester native Shari Lewis.

"She knew how to dance, she knew how to sing, she knew magic, it was like an incredible package of a woman," museum curator Monxo Lopez told Carlin. "And she knew business really, really well."

Lopez also pointed out the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons are upside down marionettes.

Some puppets, like Sesame Street's "Oscar the Grouch," need no introduction.

"Jim Henson tailored this character based on a very rude tavern waiter in Lower Manhattan," Lopez said.

The character's voice is based on a specific Bronx cab driver.

Some of New York City's first known puppets came packed in the luggage of European immigrants, like Punch and Judy.

"Punch is a rabble-rouser. He gets away with murder, literally ... Some of the first records we have here in New York City about puppets are basically arrest records. Cops arresting puppeteers because they were performing without permits and creating trouble," said Lopez. "Chinese shadow figures are probably the second oldest puppetry tradition in New York City."

Visitors can see how shadow puppets work, because on the other side of the exhibit is a look behind the scenes of the puppeteers.

Among the puppets are a mouse and cockroach from the imagination of storyteller and New York City librarian Pura Belpre. The offbeat story of Perez and Matilda was popular beginning in the 1930s.

"They get married, and then one day, she's cooking soup for him, and he goes to taste it and he drops into the soup and he dies," Lopez said.

"This is a story you liked growing up?" Carlin asked. "That's really dark."

Candid, even subversive, messaging is common.

"One of the ways that Shari spoke the truth, was she spoke the truth through me," Lewis's daughter, Mallory, explained through Lamb Chop.

The art form is thriving. Carlin saw a preview of "The Perfect Pig," an opera with 12 characters all performed by baritone Nicholas Davis.

"What can we use to tell stories now in ways to keep everybody safe, that don't require putting 12 people on the stage to do it?" said director Eric Einhorn, co-founding General Director of On Site Opera.

Puppets make us laugh, move us to tears, and speak truth to power. The bold creatures have and always will make up the fabric of New York City.

"The Perfect Pig" opera plays this weekend on Manhattan's Little Island.

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