When It Comes to Collecting Puppets for the Detroit Art Museum, Audley Grossman Is No Dummy

updated 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

I have great fun finding things," says puppet collector Audley Grossman, 56, recalling the ragtag Punch-and-Judy set he came across some years ago. "They had been discovered in a suitcase after a train wreck outside Chicago. They looked dreadful, but they were absolutely priceless. Just think of all the performances they did—probably more than the Booths!"

Grossman packed the pair off to the Detroit Institute of Arts, where he is curator of the institute's Department of Performing Arts. As such, he sponsors films, plays and even Elizabethan feasts, but he also has built a troupe of marionettes, hand puppets and other onetime stars of the small stage into an 1,100-piece collection, the most extensive in America. Last fall the former speech professor took over two floors of special galleries in the stately museum, hung a huge banner of Kermit the Frog over its entrance, and began welcoming visitors to a six-week exhibit of puppetry. The display drew more than 100,000 people, the largest attendance in the last 20 years, and attracted longtime Grossman pals Burr Tillstrom, creator of Kukla and Ollie, and Muppet maestro Jim Henson.

"Puppets are as much art as medieval armor or Egyptian mummies," asserts Grossman in defense of his offbeat exhibit. "They are part painting, part sculpture and part theater, and they have been around almost as long as humans. Herodotus wrote about 'figures operated by strings or wire' in 300 B.C., and even then he said they were 'of great antiquity.' "

Grossman's passion for puppetry took hold when he was 6 and found himself quarantined with chicken pox. Two years later his private hobby went public when he turned the basement of his family's Detroit home into a puppet theater for neighborhood kids. Grossman eventually moved to a larger stage ("I fell into the American trap of thinking puppets are for kiddies") and directed student plays at St. Cloud State College while working toward a Ph.D. in theater and speech at the University of Minnesota. After 14 years as a college teacher, he joined the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1961. There, he discovered that the museum had been willed the papers and private collection of Paul McPharlin, author-illustrator of a noted history of puppetry, along with a $10,000 purchase fund. Grossman's interest in puppets quickly rekindled.

The expertise he has acquired on the job led to a term as president of the 2,800-member Puppeteers of America and to his writing the puppetry section in the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Curiously, Grossman has no puppets of his own ("Too many people collect just to be chic," he contends), but the gray-haired bachelor keeps a watchful eye for future museum acquisitions. "In America we're so Johnny-come-lately in caring for older puppets and making them part of museum collections," he laments. "Most are still in private homes, probably rotting. Puppets create moments of magic. What I do is to collect experiences that bring joy."

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