A Little Italy tradition hangs by a string

BY COREY KILGANNON New York Times Service
 
 NEW YORK — The evening on Mulberry Street was already thickening with the aroma of fried dough and grilled sausage when a knight in faded armor coursed through the crowd in a shopping cart.
 
 “Puppet show in the church,” shouted a man pushing the cart. “Marionettes in the church.”
 
 The popular street festival that is the Feast of San Gennaro is a concerted heave every September to celebrate the culture and traditions of Little Italy in Manhattan.
 
 Much like the neighborhood, those traditions have been fading for years, but here was this errant knight being conveyed by a couple of locals doing their part to revive a tradition: the Marionettes of Mulberry Street.
 
 “The Marionettes are back on Mulberry Street,” yelled Tony De Nonno, 70, an aficionado of a specific style of Sicilian puppet theater of which the hand-carved knight was an example.
 
 Nearly a century ago, homesick Italian immigrants flocked to small theaters in Little Italy for operatic renditions of medieval tales by such puppets.
 
 “Back then, every Italian neighborhood had marionettes and a theater,” said Susie Bruno, 78, whose family, the Manteos, were the longest lasting of New York City’s puppet troupes.
 
 They ran nightly performances in the Manteo Marionette Storefront Theater on Mulberry Street until it closed in 1939, and was replaced with a rectory for the Shrine Church of Most Precious Blood.
 
 More recent generations of Manteos revived the shows in the 1970s and 1980s using a portable theater. The tradition has continued in Sicily, but not here.
 
 On Wednesday, De Nonno, a filmmaker, educator and friend of the Manteo family, gathered a few Manteo puppets donated to the Italian American Museum in Little Italy and prepared to stage a lively presentation on Wednesday night right after Mass in the Shrine church.
 
 “We got the feast, a Mass and a puppet show — it’s just like it was 70 years ago,” said Bill Russo, director of activities for the church.
 
 He helped heave Ronaldo, the armored knight, into the shopping cart to wheel to the church.
 
 The knight was made nearly a century ago by Agrippino Manteo, Bruno’s grandfather, who eventually passed down to his son Mike the ability to make puppets that were often taller than 5 feet.
 
 “It’s got to weigh 100 pounds — can you imagine needing two guys to carry a puppet,” Russo said. “I don’t know how they handled it onstage.”
 
 De Nonno said, “Listen, people in those days, they were bulls, they had endurance.”
 
 De Nonno grabbed a smaller puppet knight made for him in the 1970s by Mike Manteo. This puppet was more manageable, at only 40 pounds, and De Nonno danced the puppet along Mulberry Street weaving through the crowd while he manipulated the sword and shield.
 
 “Buonasera,” he shouted to the crowd — good evening — as the puppet danced and elicited a kiss from a woman.
 
 “That’s the most action I got all year,” said the woman, Marie Corleone, a legal secretary from Brooklyn.
 
 De Nonno and his puppet headed into the church’s rear courtyard on Mulberry Street where festivalgoers were pinning dollar bills to a statue of San Gennaro that is carried along during the feast.
 
 “My name is Orlando Furioso,” De Nonno bellowed to his audience as he maneuvered his knight, who is based on a medieval hero.
 
 He told the crowd, “These knights in armor were made by magnificent hands,” by Manteo family members who were “artists on many different levels.”
 
 The puppets were meticulously made and operated by the family, which also made the stages, scenery and carried out every aspect of the productions, including the music, De Nonno said.
 
 The men did the heavier work, like manipulating the heavy puppets from a bridge over the stage. The women sewed gowns for the courtly heroines with detailed needlework.
 
 “These were consummate actors and they knew how to create captivating characters,” said De Nonno, before he started showing a documentary he made years ago about the Manteo family: “It’s One Family: Knock on Wood.”
 
 The so-called Papa Manteo Marionettes came out of puppet theater that thrived in Catania, Sicily, in the 19th century, he said.
 
 Agrippino Manteo brought dozens of puppets to the United States in 1919 and established a theater in Little Italy, staging nightly performances with the help of his wife, Caterina, and their four sons and daughter, until 1939, when one son died of tuberculosis.
 
 “The family was crushed,” Bruno said.
 
 The theater was promptly closed and the family eventually moved to Brooklyn. When the family revived the shows several decades ago, Mike Manteo made marionettes in his Brooklyn shop. He would often turn old hubcaps and metal appliances into sturdy suits of armor for knights that would clash violently onstage.
 
 “It wasn’t a little Punch and Judy job,” Bruno said.
 
 SAM HODGSON/NEW YORK TIMES
 
Tony De Nonno, 70, an aficionado of a specific style of Sicilian puppet theater, does a performance at the Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood in New York on Wednesday. De Nonno and others have been working to revive the puppet tradition in Little Italy.