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Arts, Sports & Culture

Beloved, pioneering Pittsburgh puppeteer Margo Lovelace dies

Margo Lovelace
Norman Beck
Margo Lovelace retired in 1985 and lived in the Pittsburgh area until 2012.

Puppetry is for kids — but not just for kids, according to Margo Lovelace. The puppeteer beloved by generations of Pittsburghers was an arts pioneer in several ways. She died May 7, at age 99.

Lovelace was best known for her Lovelace Marionette Theatre Company, which operated on Shadyside’s Ellsworth Avenue from 1965 through 1978, and then at the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater until her retirement in 1985.

Margo Lovelace
David Visser
An early photo of Margo Lovelace with "Mr. Punch" and "Salvadore."

Her work was “a part of my childhood,” said one poster on the Facebook page of Ken Bolden, a local actor who worked for Lovelace at the theater.

“I loved her,” said Norman Beck, who first worked for Lovelace in 1966 as a 12-year-old apprentice. “She was kind of a like a second mother to me. I always wanted to be there.”

“She was a pioneer and a visionary and a very kind woman,” wrote City Theatre co-artistic director Marc Masterson on Bolden’s Facebook page. “She gave me my first paid directing job many years ago.”

“She was the first person in [t]heater I met when I first moved to Pittsburgh. [S]he hired me as her [h]ouse manager at Carnegie Museum for the Lovelace Theater, I remember feeling so grownup,” said actor Tracey D. Turner. “This hits hard.”

Margo Lovelace
Norman Beck
A photo of Lovelace from early in her career

Lovelace’s countless collaborators also included internationally renowned stage and opera director Peter Sellars, a Pittsburgh native who started working at the theater at age 10 and has often cited her formative influence.

Lovelace was born in Edgewood in 1922, said David Visser, one of her three children. He said she took up puppetry in the early 1950s while taking classes at the then-new Arts & Crafts Center (later Pittsburgh Center for the Arts) in Shadyside and doing community theater at the Pittsburgh Playhouse (then still in Oakland). At the time, she was the single mother of three young children. Her earliest puppetry experience was in department stores, he said, as a member of a regionally touring troupe and also on her own in Downtown Pittsburgh. (Visser cited her Christmas-season gigs at stores like Frank & Seder’s and Rosenbaum’s.)

Lovelace, whose married surname was Visser, was keen on all aspects of puppetry, from costume design to performance. She also had an entrepreneurial flair, and after years of performing in an East Liberty warehouse, she started a theater in a building she had constructed at 5888 ½ Ellsworth. (Shadyside real estate was then quite affordable.) “The puppet theater was a perfect synthesis of all her skills and interests,” said Visser.

Visser said he believes the venue was the first-ever U.S. theater created expressly as a permanent showcase for puppet shows.

At first, the fare was family-oriented: “Rumplestilskin,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Peter Pan.” But in the ’60s, Lovelace was invited to spend a month in Moscow, studying with renowned Russian puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov. It inspired her to do shows for adults.

“They were mad, marvelous, wild production of plays that you probably never even heard of,” said Norman Beck. He said the first production for adults was French surrealist Jean Cocteau’s “The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower.” Some of the puppets were silhouettes painted in outrageous colors, Beck said, while others were made from found objects like “pots and pans.”

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According to Lovelace’s archive, housed at the University of Pittsburgh, she also staged experimental work by Jean Giraudoux, Moliere, and more.

The theater was small, said Visser, seating about 100 for children’s shows and fewer for adult programs. In 1977, the company moved to the Carnegie, where it offered a full subscription of puppet theater and collaborated with famed New York-based company Mabou Mines, Pittsburgh's Iconclad Agreement Theatre Co., and the nascent Pittsburgh Public Theater. Lovelace Marionettes also performed at the Three Rivers Arts Festival and the Union Internationale de la Marionette Festival Mondial, in France, according to the archive.

After Lovelace retired, she donated her puppets to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Beck, who remained a lifelong friend, said Lovelace spent her time doing arts and crafts, including crochet, painting, and clothing design. She was also an avid reader and arts patron.

In 2012, she moved to the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, N.J., where she lived until her death.

Visser said a virtual memorial is planned for June.