IT ALL MIGHT seem rather simple, maybe childlike. But concocting, constructing and bringing to life an inanimate object to stir emotions and imagination is complex, profound business. Just ask Aurora Valentinetti, recipient of the University of Washington’s 2019 Distinguished Teaching Legacy Award, who, as this column appears, has reached her 98th birthday.
Propelling a walker as she strode across the Meany Hall stage on June 13 to receive her medal, the honoree drew a roaring ovation while mirroring the fortitude that she carried from her West Seattle upbringing to the UW in the fall of 1939, and that helped her forge a lifetime persona — that of puppeteer.
From the early 1940s to her retirement in 1992 and beyond, this puppetry professor and promoter took her hand, rod and string creations seemingly everywhere — from the Showboat Theatre to the Metropolitan Theatre (both long gone), from St. Mark’s Cathedral to First African Episcopal Church, from Bainbridge to Bumbershoot, from Fremont to Federal Way, from statewide tours to national festivals, from the beloved Christmas windows of the old Frederick & Nelson department store downtown to her own “Puppet Playhouse” show on KCTS-TV, Channel 9.
Though her productions sometimes targeted adults by exploring themes from operatic to existentialist, Valentinetti’s deepest impact — and love — lay in her shows for children, tapping into worldwide cultures and using puppets that each took 200 hours to build.
She wasn’t a recognizable kids’ TV icon like Wunda Wunda or Brakeman Bill because her work, by definition, was behind the scenes. “You have to become the soul of that figure, and you don’t count,” she says. Nonetheless, she mesmerized moppets, no doubt because most of the time, their eyes wide open, mouths agape and minds “still in touch with fantasy and magic,” they were reacting to the escapades of her puppets in person and in real time.
Such engagement, she says, validates a universal, desperate need for artistic endeavor. “Without the arts, we are going to be robots or back to the level of animals,” she says. “Real learning happens through all of the arts, particularly for young children. That’s where they grow and expand. That also is where children can be individuals.”
Since college days, she lived in Wallingford to be close to her classes. She never married or drove a car, instead bidding rides from students. “They knew that if they drove me home, I’d feed them.”
To live closer to a niece, Joanne Bratton, she moved in 2016 to Wenatchee. There, she keeps several of her puppets close by. “They have a power all their own,” she says. “I just treat them like human beings.” Perhaps she’s imparting a deeper lesson to us all.