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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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Marionettes By Manteo

By Stanley Abrons, '35

The Magpie, May 1935, p. 44.

One of the least known and yet most entertaining theaters in New York, is the theater of the Manteo family on Mulberry Street in the heart of Little Italy. It is a little theater with a big flaring cloth banner behind the plate glass window. At some remote time "Il Teatro Manteo" was a store, but the store "No make good," as Signor Manteo explained to me when I explored the work shop back of the stage. In this workshop all the marionettes and their trappings are made by the family themselves. Out front we find two banks of seats, a sloping floor and a box office, "The whole works," according to the genial Signor.

The most unusual things in the place, by far, are the marionette actors. They are larger than most marionettes, since they are about four feet tall and weigh about fifty pounds apiece. This great weight is due partly to their size, and partly to the complete suits of medieval armor worn by the men figures. The ladies of the piece are dressed in medieval fashion, wearing long trailing gowns of some heavy materials, and are all bedecked with jewels.

Owing to its great weight, each of these figures is not worked in the conventional manner. Instead, an iron bar is passed through the head, and a similar bar is put in the sword hand of each knight. The other hand and the hands of the ladies are worked with heavy cords. The Manteos operate them from a platform above the stage. Their lines are spoken for them by one member of the family who sits in the wings with a bulky manuscript of the play in his lap, for he has to portray sometimes as many as thirty characters in one evening. Surely a difficult task!

This theater is unusual in another respect in that only one play is ever given, but it takes about four years of consecutive nightly performances to present. It is naturally given in Italian and most of its audiences are content to see an old favorite repeated. "Orlando Furioso," or "Roland the Terrible," as the play is called, deals with the struggles of the Christians against the Moors during the Middle Ages. The great French hero, Charlemagne, enters into the play. He certainly is a fine figure of a man in his golden armor, his red plumed helmet, and his sky blue cape thrown over one shoulder. The Moors are fine too, with little crescents on their helmets to distinguish them from the Christian knights.

Suddenly we see that two knights are going to fight! There is much shouting of course in Italian as the audience becomes greatly excited. The knights slash at each other with long swords but inflict little harm. Suddenly they retreat to opposite sides of the stage for some reason. In a moment it becomes plain. They are swung off the stage and fly towards each other to meet in the center with a terrific crash! One of them falls prostrate leaving the other victorious. It is usually the Christian knight who defeats the Moorish champion. Once Signor Manteo tried having the Christian knight beaten, but the audience objected, so it has never been tried again.

Sometimes as many as three or four knights crash together and then a fine spectacle rewards us for coming. Heads fall off, shrieks arise from the wounded and dying, and the battle field is strewn with dismembered corpses. These battles are staged near the end of an act to hold the interest of the audience over the intermission.

Between the acts, little boys run up and down the aisle calling out, "Soda, soda," which they sell in bottles carried in buckets of chipped ice. Perhaps the soda serves as a stimulant, as, just about this time in the evening's entertainment, the air becomes semi-solid due to the great amount of tobacco smoke that has accumulated. Soon the next act begins and once more we see brave valiant knights and sweet demure maidens, acting their parts in a drama that is more than a hundred years old.

A few weeks ago, while writing this, I decided to visit the Manteos once again to check up on some of my facts. I walked up from the subway station a few blocks, turned the corner and—the theater had vanished! There was the little bakery that had stood next door but now it rubbed shoulders with a dull unromantic garage . . . Clearly the Manteo family had moved, but no one in the neighborhood seemed to know where. I have tried ever since to discover the whereabouts of the Manteos. It seems strange to think that now a garage occupies the spot where once the genial Signor Manteo and his wonderful wooden actors held sway. But it is inconceivable that he should have vanished so completely. Therefore, I am still hoping to find news of him. So far, trips to Brooklyn's "Little Italy" in the Red Hook section, and to the Italian neighborhood bordering on our school have failed to locate him. If by chance, any of my readers have discovered him, will they not tell me, so that I may again see the brave mimic battles and hear the clash of medieval armor?

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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