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Almonte’s Puppets Up! festival returns after six years

Puppets will be back on the streets of Almonte this weekend and no one is happier than Noreen Young, Almonte’s master puppeteer

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Puppets will be back on the streets of Almonte this weekend, and no one is happier than Noreen Young, who was beginning to think her hand-crafted characters would be lounging in her basement forever. 

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She’s the master Almonte-based puppeteer, now 80, who’s famous for her work on the classic Canadian TV shows Hi Diddle Day and Under the Umbrella Tree. A member of the Order of Canada, Young founded the town’s Puppets Up! international festival of puppetry in 2005. 

But, after more than a decade of delighting the townsfolk of Almonte with a summer weekend of performances by puppet troupes from around the world, the annual festival came to a quiet end in 2016, beset by financial challenges. 

“We were a little bit afraid of the financial aspect of things because the board was personally liable for any shortfall,” Young recalled in an interview. “It seemed a good time to shut it down because it was at its best that year. Plus there was some volunteer fatigue, and all that stuff that festivals run into when volunteers are running things.”

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Fast forward to the pandemic. In the midst of the doldrums brought on by isolation and lockdowns, former Mississippi Mills councillor Jane Torrance was remembering the good times the puppets brought. 

“I was feeling sorry for us as a community not having smiling faces around so I was thinking, ‘When was the time I felt happiest in my community?’ and my mind immediately went to Puppets Up!,” she said. “It’s so magical to walk up the street and see (the puppeteers) behind the screen and the smiling faces in front. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if we could have Puppets Up when we come out of the pandemic?’”

She pitched the idea to Young and they decided to place an ad in a local newspaper to gauge interest. More than 70 people responded, eager to help organize. Led by Torrance as executive director, and with Young resuming her duties as artistic director, they took the plunge, buoyed by the support from the town.  

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It was important to re-create the festival with Young at the centre because she’s the “puppet queen,” Torrance said. “She’s the grand dame of puppetry and she can mobilize people. When she asks you to do something, you say yes because she always says yes. She’s such a gracious and modest person herself that we all want to be Noreen when we grow up.” 

Noreen Young presents Ottawa mayor Jim Watson with his very own “mini me” at an unveiling Wednesday, July 23, 2014, at City Hall.
Noreen Young presents Ottawa mayor Jim Watson with his very own “mini me” at an unveiling Wednesday, July 23, 2014, at City Hall. Photo by Julie Oliver /Ottawa Citizen

Even the funding came together this time, thanks to successful grant applications and businesses stepping up as corporate sponsors. Home builder Neilcorp Homes signed on as the title sponsor while other local companies rallied to sponsor each of the festival’s five stages. Tickets are also selling well. 

As for this weekend’s lineup, Young scored a coup in landing her old protege, Ronnie Burkett, who is bringing a streamlined new show (aimed at adults) developed during the pandemic. Designed to fit in the trunk of a car, The Loony Bin uses hand puppets instead of marionettes. The one-night-only performance on Friday is already sold out. 

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In all, there are 13 puppet troupes headed to Almonte this weekend, including international talent such as Maine’s Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers, the Vancouver-based Indonesian puppeteer Sutrisno Hartana, who’s a master of Javanese gamelan music and Wayang (shadow) puppetry, Brooklyn, NY’s Ambassador of Joy, Joshua Holden and his sock puppet Mr. Nicholas, and Bernd Ogrodnik, the master puppeteer for the National Theatre of Iceland. 

Also appearing are festival favourites such as stunt ventriloquist Tim Holland, Indigenous puppeteer DerRic Starlight and the Montreal-based duo of Pavla Mano and Csaba Raduly.

A highlight of the festival is always the parade, when the residents of Almonte take their puppet lookalikes out for a stroll, joined by performers and other guests. Over the years, Young has made dozens of mini versions of people in town on a commission basis, including a new one for Torrance that depicts her in a kilt to reflect her bagpipe-playing Scottish roots. This year’s parade starts around 1:45 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 

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August 10, 2013: Tim Holland, the Puppet tamer at the.9th season of the Puppets Up! International Festival in Almonte. Photo by Bruno Schlumberger
August 10, 2013: Tim Holland, the Puppet tamer at the.9th season of the Puppets Up! International Festival in Almonte. Photo by Bruno Schlumberger Photo by Bruno Schlumberger /Ottawa Citizen

The festival starts Friday and runs until Sunday along a few blocks of downtown Almonte. There are two main entrances: at McCallum Street approaching the Ottawa Valley Rail Trail and at the Old Town Hall. Parking is free at the fairgrounds. 

While the shows require tickets, there’s no charge to check out the site. A food court, marketplace and kids’ craft tent will be open Friday and Saturday. 

For more information, and to buy tickets or passes, go to puppetsup.com

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From the archives: 

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