As the stage’s red curtain opened, children began pointing at the sight of the first marionette. It was Jiminy Cricket, peeking out to begin the tale of the wooden boy who became human because he told the truth.
“We always do shows with a very strong moral, and we try to build character in a child because he can succeed,” said Ralph Kipniss, master puppeteer of the National Marionette Co. of Chicago. “If he has that drive to want to do good and to help people, a child will succeed in life as he grows older.”
“Pinocchio” is one of the many performances and events celebrated Saturday at Nifong Park as part of Columbia’s 29th annual Heritage Festival and Craft Show. “Pinocchio” will be performed again today, the second and last day of the festival.
Coordinated by Columbia Parks and Recreation, the festival provides tradition and history through African storytelling, bluegrass and gospel music, and artisans and entertainers dressed in costumes, including American Indians, cowboys and Civil War soldiers.
“We say, ‘Listen, learn and see; history comes alive,’” said Karen Ramey, the Heritage Festival coordinator for the last four years. Ramey said the festival includes a mixture of 19th- and early 20th-century history.
This year marks the first time Kipniss is participating in Columbia’s festival, but he started working with marionettes when he was 12.
“I was sort of born backstage,” said Kipniss. His grandparents ran a puppet theater in Russia, and when they moved to the United States, they continued the tradition. Later his parents also joined the world of puppetry.
Kipniss almost missed the Saturday show because the puppets they use for American heritage shows were broken recently while being transported. Instead, the marionette company resurrected its “Pinocchio” show, set to Italian music.
“We were supposed to do American heritage here, but unfortunately ... all our puppets were completely broken,” he said. “So we are bringing a production of ‘Pinocchio’ because we didn’t want to disappoint anyone.”
Kipniss traveled from Chicago in a 25-foot-long trailer to perform in Columbia.
“I hope (the children) will learn something from the shows we do,” Kipniss said. “What I love the most is giving something to the children that they’ll remember.”
Scotty Selch, a puppeteer from Indianapolis, is performing hand-puppet shows at the festival for a third time. He’s been a puppeteer for 30 years.
Selch said the word “marionette” originates from the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church used puppets to teach people — because most people couldn’t read — about the Bible and Virgin Mary.
“So puppets became known as ‘little Mary’s’ or ‘marionettes,’” he said.
Tammy Miller, a public information specialist at Columbia Parks and Recreation, said that preparations for the festival begin immediately after the previous one ends.
“It’s a family event,” Miller said. “It’s also an opportunity for children to go learn history through seeing it first-hand.”