For most people, their interest and knowledge of puppetry might not extend much further than watching The Muppet Show or Sesame Street on TV as a child. However, relegating puppetry to the realm of children’s entertainment ignores the diversity of this unique art form, one which holds cultural significance across the globe and deep roots in New York City. From famous small screen residents of NYC like Lambchop and Big Bird, to the lions that dance down the streets of Chinatown for Lunar New Year and the giant puppets that parade through Greenwich Village on Halloween, when you start to look for it, puppetry pops up everywhere in New York City. Even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloons, created by master puppeteer Tony Sarg, were once referred to as “upside-down marionettes.”

Some of the country’s biggest and oldest puppet theater companies sprang out of New York City’s artistic enclaves. Bread + Puppet, now based in Vermont, was founded in the 1960s on the Lower East Side. Like much of New York City’s history, the history of puppetry in the five boroughs was largely influenced by immigration. Puppetry figures into the cultural heritage of many countries and as a result, New York City boasts companies like the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) and Chinese Theatre Works. While many NYC-based puppet companies take their shows on the road, like Puppetsburg, and Wonderspark Puppets, a few theaters dedicated solely to puppet productions – for children and adults – still exist. Check out the city’s remaining puppet theaters below!

1. Puppetworks Inc.

  • "The Steadfast Tin Soldier' & Jack meet the dancing doll."
  • "The Prince protects 'The Sleeping Beauty' from the dragon."

In the heart of Park Slope, Brooklyn sits the quaint Puppetworks, Inc. theater, founded in 1991 by lifelong puppeteer Nicolas Coppola. After spending years on the road touring with another company, Mr. Coppola wanted to settle down at a permanent home for Puppetworks. Ever since he found the space on the corner of 6th Avenue and 4th Street in 1991, the theater has been an iconic institution. Adults fondly remember catching shows with their parents when they were younger, and the youth of today is just as enthralled as their parents were with the puppets.

The non-profit theater features 15 different shows to cycle through, all based on classic children’s tales like “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Marionettes are the stars of the show, but the artists behind the characters are just as important. The designs are intricate yet charming and have a comforting old-school feel. School classes from all over the city have come to the theater since its opening, making it an iconic neighborhood institution in Park Slope.

2. Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre

Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater Exterior
Photo Credit: Merissa Blitz/City Parks Foundation

This charming marionette theater has a rich Swedish history that predates its home in Central Park, and it wasn’t always used as a theater. The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre was built in Sweden and brought to America in 1876 to as the Swedish exhibition at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The structure was enchanting in its traditional Swedish architecture, soon allegedly catching the eye of Frederick Law Olmsted. He was reportednly inspired bring it to New York and it was installed in Central Park in 1877. The Cottage was originally used as a tool house, then a restroom, an entomological laboratory, and headquarters for the Civil Defense, according to the Central Park Conservancy. In 1947 it became the workshop for NYC Parks’ traveling marionette theater and in the 1970s became a permanent theater.

Since 1973, children and adults alike have come to the theater to see paupers, princesses, genies, and giants grace the stage. The theater is now showing a modern take on Sleeping Beauty called “Wake up, Daisy!” about a girl living in the heart of New York City. The joy of puppetry makes it out of the small cottage as well, taking the show on the road across the five boroughs. The CityParks Puppet Mobile is the oldest operating company of its kind in America, showing free puppet performances and workshops in neighborhood parks, schools, and recreation centers throughout the city.

3. HERE- Dream Music Puppetry

Set Up of a Puppet Show at HERE
Photo Credit: Maria Baranova

HERE has been one of New York City’s most prolific art organizations since opening in 1993, producing thought-provoking and entertaining multidisciplinary art performances. The theater builds an inclusive community, from their home in Lower Manhattan, aimed at disrupting the conventional expectations of art. The Dorothy B. Williams Theatre inside of the space was specially configured for puppet works, making the space perfect for the unique art form.

The theater puts a new twist on the traditional art of puppetry, gearing their performances towards puppet works that feature live music as a collaborative element. Each show is unique and modern, bringing puppetry into the light as entertainment for a more adult audience. Shows cover themes ranging from love to loneliness, using everything from small puppets and marionette animals to life-sized realistic figures. These performances break the stigma that puppetry is nothing but a silly form of entertainment, but rather it can be a touching way to bring people and ideas together.

Chimpanzee Puppet operated by three puppeteers at HERE
Chimpanzee created by Nick Lehan, Photo Credit: Richard Termine

HERE is soon holding its annual Holiday Puppet Parlor, a celebration of new puppetry shorts. This two-day event will run from December 18th to 19th.

4. Teatro SEA

Puppet Show at Puppet Fringe 2023
Photo Credit: George Riverón

Teatro SEA is one of the premiere Bilingual Arts-in-Education Organizations and Latino Children’s Theaters in the country. They combine theatre productions with art workshops, inspiring education and change from New York to Florida to San Juan. The programs offered by the theater reach over 75,000 children and young adults every year thanks to the creative direction of founder Dr. Manual A. Morán.

The theater is also widely known as being an organizer of the International Puppet Fringe Festival. Leading puppet makers and troupes from all across the world come together in New York for the only puppet festival in the state. This summer’s festival celebrated the legacy of puppeteer Ralph Lee, inventor of the Village Halloween Parade. The theme was “Halloween in August” to honor the iconic New York parade. More than 50 enthralling performances were presented, including as well cabarets, panels, open mics, and workshops. The festival proves that puppetry isn’t simply for birthday parties or reserved for neon monsters on the T.V. It can be an intricate craft, and in many countries, deeply rooted in their culture and tradition.

Puppet Parade at Puppet Fringe 2023
Photo Credit: George Riverón

Whether you’re interested in taking your children to a charming neighborhood puppet show or heading out to a mature performance with state-of-the-art puppets, New York surely has a show to broaden your artistic horizons.

5. Penny Jones and Co. Puppets

Westbeth Artist housing in the west village

Penny Jones & Co. Puppets has been a staple of children’s theater since the 1970s. The theater’s repertoire includes classical adaptations for the stage as well as original stories featuring puppet ballet, live music, original scores, and more. Penny has a wide range of programs, like puppet pageants including 30 to 90 children, as well as workshops for the kids. Puppetry, storytelling, movement, and arts come together at this charming theater inside the Westbeth Artist Housing

Penny Jones, the founder of the theater, has performed and taught across the U.S. and in Europe and has authored over 28 puppet productions. Her puppetry style ranges from whimsical creatures like those she created for a Barnes and Noble display, to medieval fresco characters designed for a show at Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center

Next, check out A Look Inside Ralph Lee’s Puppet Workshop