Hanging around with Gus
The printmaker as puppetmaster
Gustave Baumann is best known globally as a woodblock printmaker, but his marionettes have charmed Santa Feans since the 1930s. Whether through the family’s holiday performances at the Baumann home at 409 Camino de las Animas, or later at the Museum of International Folk Art, countless children and adults performed in and were audiences for these magical glimpses into the world of what Baumann himself referred to as his “little people.”
Baumann and his wife, Jane, created a mobile marionette theater — The Santa Fe Puppet Wranglers — as a commercial enterprise in 1931. Baumann carved the puppets, painted the backdrops, and wrote some of the scripts for plays that the couple intended to put on during trips around New Mexico and the Southwest. Jane Baumann directed the performances.
In 1933, the Baumanns performed their most ambitious script in Central City, Colorado, as part of the festivities during the summer opera season. The Golden Dragon Mine, written in verse by poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril, featured the marionette characters Nambé Nell, Pecos Bill, Lord Leffinghoop, and Lulu, a tourist who can’t find a bathroom. There were also two dragon puppets: a fully articulated dragon and a puppet that was just the dragon’s head, which apparently appeared in the mouth of the mineshaft. The play was performed in a storefront with makeshift benches for the audience, and was reportedly so popular that the director of The Merry Widow — then playing on the main stage at the opera house — demanded that Baumanns’ puppet play close, so as not to draw more attention (and audience members) than his production.
Their grand debut was a triumph cut short, but it was in fact the economics of the Great Depression that ultimately made a traveling puppet troupe unsustainable. The Baumanns returned to Santa Fe and Gustave returned to printmaking, with Jane managing the public relations and sales of his artwork. They set up the puppet stage in their living room — at the Baumann house, you can still see the hooks in the ceiling that were used to hang backdrops — and staged marionette performances at Christmas for family and friends. These Baumann holiday performances ended in 1959 with a largescale production at the Museum of International Folk Art. The marionettes were packed up in a trunk, where they stayed for nearly 30 years. The marionettes, sets, props, and stage were all donated by
Jane Baumann to the Museum of Art after Gustave Baumann’s death in 1971.
In 1993, the marionettes were brought out of retirement as part of the public programming for the Gustave Baumann retrospective exhibition at the museum. The response was so great (and the puppets so fragile) that a campaign was launched to raise funds to replicate some puppets and hold annual holiday performances using the replicas, a tradition that continues at the Museum of Art to this day.
Most of the original Baumann play scripts are in the collection of the Museum of Art. Some of them are based on folktales and traditions from the Hispanic and Native American communities of Northern New Mexico. Duendes (mischievous elves), brujas (witches), saints, and eagle dancers: Baumann created marionette versions of them all.
A lot of the scripts reflect Baumann’s sense of humor, perhaps none as much as the story of San Ysidro. In it, San Ysidro refuses to stop plowing his fields on his own feast day. God sends an angel to tell San Ysidro to stop plowing. The angel reports that God will be mad because San Ysidro is working on his holy day, but San Ysidro sends him away and continues to plow. The angel returns, saying that God will send a cloudburst, but San Ysidro doesn’t care and sends him away again. The angel returns, again and again, bringing threats of drought or insects, but nothing will deter San Ysidro. Finally, the angel returns and says that if San Ysidro doesn’t stop plowing, God will send him a bad neighbor. This threat is so unimaginably bad that San Ysidro immediately stops plowing and attends the local fiestas with his wife, Rosina.
A casual read through the scripts indicates that they most likely were written as sketches, which would have been fleshed out by the improvisations of the Puppet Wranglers. There is anecdotal evidence that these performances included the gentle skewering of public officials and local celebrities, much like their older local cousin, the Santa Fe Fiesta Melodrama.
Gustave Baumann first exhibited his prints at the New Mexico Museum of Art during the year following its opening in 1917. As part of the activities surrounding the centennial of the museum and Baumann’s first exhibition, the museum is seeking first-person accounts of the Baumanns and their marionette performances. If you attended or performed in a marionette performance between 1933 and the final shows at the Museum of International Folk Art in 1959, or know someone who did, the museum would like to hear from you. They are looking for tangible memorabilia including photos, programs, ticket stubs, letters, and diary entries, as well as recollections and reminiscences.
“As we celebrate 100 years of Gustave Baumann in New Mexico, we want to recognize him as a playful genius,” said Rebecca Aubin, head of education and visitor experience at the New Mexico Museum of Art. “His creativity of the marionettes is an important part of his legacy.”
Individuals with stories and items to share should contact Aubin via email at the museum (rebecca .email@example.com).
Ellen Zieselman worked for 25 years as curator of education at the New Mexico Museum of Art.