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Iowa puppet troupe Eulenspiegel finds virtual audience during pandemic

West Liberty troupe taps into creativity, eager for return to live audiences

Eulenspiegel puppeteers Stephanie Vallez (left) and Monica Leo pose with the characters in #x201c;The Big Election.#x201
Eulenspiegel puppeteers Stephanie Vallez (left) and Monica Leo pose with the characters in “The Big Election.” It’s one of the shows their West Liberty-based puppet troupe has posted online, along with more activities, shows and study guides. (Michael Kreiser)

COVID-19 blew out the candles on Eulenspiegel’s 45th birthday bash planned for March 22, but the West Liberty puppet troupe still is wishing to reconnect with people in person later this summer.

Monica Leo, the troupe’s co-founder, lead puppeteer and managing director, is looking forward to marking the milestone next spring.

“I’m really hoping for the time when we can have live audiences again,” she said. “I appreciate the fact that there are other things we can do; I’m trying to suck as much creativity out of this as I possibly can.”

Leo, Outreach Director Stephanie Vallez and company have pulled their strings to create free virtual workshops, shows and study guides on Eulenspiegel’s website, owlglass.org.

Vallez also has a new show popping up, “Kate Shelley’s Train Rescue,” focusing on a chapter of 19th century Iowa history fueled by a teenager’s daring feat after a railroad bridge collapsed.

Born Sept. 25, 1865, in Ireland, Shelley and her family emigrated to America when she was 1½ years old, eventually settling in rural Boone County. Shelley’s father worked as a foreman for a crew building railroad tracks, and the family lived along Honey Creek, a tributary of the Des Moines River.

A flash flood on the afternoon of July 6, 1881, washed out the timbers beneath the Honey Creek railroad bridge, and around 11 p.m., a pusher locomotive sent to check on the bridge plunged into the water. Shelley heard the accident and raced to the scene, finding two of the four crew members still alive.

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Knowing a passenger train was coming later that night, she ran for help. Along the way, she had to crawl across the Des Moines River bridge to sound an alarm and get help to rescue the stranded crew.

Among her many awards and accolades, a new bridge and passenger train were later named in her honor.

Vallez’s puppet play was developed for Eulenspiegel’s summer neighborhood tour, which typically includes a dozen performances in Iowa City parks. The city hasn’t canceled the July and August events yet, so Leo is hoping maybe some of the shows still can go on. Vallez also will be presenting the show at a summer camp in Scott County in July, with the audience split into groups of 15.

Leo is developing a show, as well, featuring magical fish tales.

“I have absolutely no idea when it will be performed, but someday,” she said. “It’s always a good idea to work on something creative, especially in a time like this — otherwise, the powers of depression start pulling at you.

“(From) everything I’ve been reading, it seems like it’s going to be a while before we can do anything in our space, because it’s apparently way more likely for this disease to spread indoors than it is outdoors, so I’m hoping we can still do some outdoor work this summer.”

Troupe history

Eulenspiegel didn’t have a home base for 20 years, until Leo’s late husband, John Jenks, saw the good bones in a former Latino community center next to his favorite hangout in downtown West Liberty. So the couple bought it, and Jenks, a carpenter, went to work transforming the dilapidated space into the Owl Glass Puppetry Center, 319 N. Calhoun St., established in 1995.

The troupe dates back to the fall of 1974, when Deanne Wortman, a mime who lived up the street from Leo in Iowa City, suggested pooling their talents. Leo had led a kid’s puppet troupe at the library, and had been making and selling puppets at art fairs and Renaissance festivals, but found herself surrounded by “big puppets nobody wanted to buy.”

“(Wortman) came over one day and said, ‘Why don’t we do some puppet shows with those puppets — you can’t sell them anyway,’” Leo said. “So that’s how we started.”

Their first paid show was staged at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton, which was serving students with hearing or vision losses. Leo said the school’s theory was that the students with hearing losses could see the puppets and the students with visual losses could hear the stories.

Wortman also suggested the Eulenspiegel name, inspired by the “Till Eulenspiegel” German folklore she was reading about a 14th century traveling peasant prankster whose name means “owl mirror.”

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“I’m happy with the name,” Leo said. “I figure nobody can spell it, nobody can pronounce it, but at least they recognize it when they see it.”

They performed together for two years, bringing a couple more short-time artists onboard. In the spring of 1975, Teri Jean Breitbach joined the company, and she and Leo performed as a duo through the 1990s, when they expanded their roster with musicians and other puppeteers.

Their professional push came in 1977, when they joined the Iowa Arts Council’s Artist in the Schools and Communities Program. In the ’80s, Breitbach cast their net farther, and they became part of Wyoming’s Artist in Education Program. In 1989, Eulenspiegel gained nonprofit status, further expanding programming.

Leo and Brietbach performed for more than 30 years, traveling to 28 states, as well as Austria, Germany, Japan and the Czech Republic. Brietbach died eight years ago, but Leo has kept their dream alive with new partners, including Vallez.

Now 75 and living since 1989 in a log cabin her husband built between Lone Tree and Hills, Leo has been heartened by renewed interest in her art form during her career.

“The thing that I’ve been hearing for as long as I’ve been doing it, is people telling me that it’s a dying art, but it’s quite the opposite,” she said. “In this country, (puppetry) has experienced quite a renaissance in the last few decades.

She said it started with the marionette variety shows staged through the Depression-era Works Progress Administration program launched in 1935. Later, Jim Henson introduced a new generation of children to puppets when he joined “Sesame Street” in 1969. Leo, however, said she was never interested in Henson’s Muppet style of mouth puppets.

“My parents were German immigrants, and I grew up with German hand puppets,” she said. “That’s more what I’m rooted in — that tradition.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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