‘Ottawa’ Puppets Up! Down for the Count: Almonte Festival Cuts the Cord After 12 Years
Nearly 100 puppets formed a solemn gathering in an Almonte basement Monday, perhaps still speechless from the news that the Puppets Up! festival, which has entertained families for the past dozen years, has been cancelled.
Even Don Cherry was silent, if you can imagine.
Jacob Bluejay and Gloria the gopher, fixtures on CBC’s Under the Umbrella Tree in the 1980s and ’90s, who both had taken part in every festival parade since the inaugural one in 2005, sat disconsolately.
Granni, who starred in Hi Diddle Day, a popular children’s puppet TV show from the 1960s and ’70s, silently pondered her uncertain future, while another Hi Diddle Day alumni, Basil the beagle (“with an eye like an eagle, and a nose that’s ever so keen”), reacted to the news with the sort of optimism one might expect of a beagle puppet.
“Well, itth thad, you know,” he said in his familiar lisp — brought to life for the afternoon by the long arm and rubbery vocal cords of puppeteer and Puppets Up! co-founder Noreen Young.
“We’re just hanging around here feeling thad,” Basil lamented.
“But itth hopeful in a way, too, becauth you’ve got to be optimithtic about thingth, and you’ve got to put a bright thpin on thingth, and we’re going to do a whole lot more thtuff, like a whole lot of new thtuff.”
And indeed, while the three-day summer festival is down for the foreseeable future, Young, who’s had a hand — quite literally — in these and thousands of other puppets — leading her to being named to the Order of Canada in 1995 — promises that many among her stable will continue their stage work.
On May 4, for example, the likenesses of Sir John A. Macdonald and Queen Victoria, along with a bespectacled beaver named Buckminster, will appear at a Scotch whisky tasting fundraiser for Almonte’s hospital. A week or so later, Puppets Up! will conduct puppetry workshops as part of the Ottawa International Children’s Festival’s programming. A fundraiser for the Kemptville public library is also in the works, while Sir John A. and Queen Victoria will also officially open Almonte’s Canada Day ceremonies at Gemmill Park on July 1.
Additionally, Young said she hopes to still be able to bring an Indonesian puppet troupe, which had been scheduled to appear at this year’s now-scuppered festival, to town.
The decision to cancel the festival, scheduled for Aug. 11 to 13, came a week ago following a board meeting of the not-for-profit registered charity. Despite increased attendance year after year, last summer’s festival suffered a deficit, overspending its $150,000 budget by about $12,000.
“The festival includes the opportunity for people to come and enjoy free street entertainment and the parade,” said Young. “So a family could come and buy a hot dog and a drink and have a really good day of entertainment, and people kind of caught on to that more than we expected.”
At last year’s festival, she said, more than half of the estimated 15,000 people who attended didn’t buy tickets to any of the 10 tented shows that required admission, and that, coupled with the lack of a title sponsor for the past three years and a decline in grant revenue, sounded the festival’s death knell.
Private local support and a two-night fundraiser this past Christmas, meanwhile, wiped out the festival’s debt, but the board decided there just wasn’t enough time or money to organize this year’s event.
“We kind of got knocked out by having to cover the shortfall,” said Young, who is also Puppet Up!’s artistic director, a volunteer position. “And it really takes a year to put the festival together.
“Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to (last Tuesday’s) meeting, but you have to be prudent, rather than reckless. But the fundraiser was incredible — we sold out for two nights and everybody loved it — and it gave us the idea that we could do it again. And maybe rather than doing one great big expensive event, we might spread things over the year and put puppet troupes in the theatre of our old town hall.
“This is not the end of Puppets Up!” she insisted. “I think that we will reinvent ourselves.”