Carol Mandigo, November 5, 2014

Title

Carol Mandigo, November 5, 2014

Subject

puppetry
Catskill Puppet Theater
Oneonta, NY

Description

Carol Mandigo has made a life in the arts and community service since the 1970s. She was born and spent her childhood residing in Clay, NY. Ms. Mandigo has extensive familial roots in Oneonta, NY and fond memories of visiting family there as a child. She went on to study sculpture and fine arts at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, NY and graduated with the class of 1975. From there, she and her husband, John Potocnik, moved to a family homestead in Laurens, NY, where they currently reside.
Ms. Mandigo co-founded The Catskill Puppet Theater with her husband in 1979, and has served as its artistic director for thirty years. At the time of its inception, The Catskill Puppet Theater was the only organization of its kind in central NY and quickly gained popularity in the niche market of live puppet entertainment. Largely self-taught in puppet making and puppeteering, Carol and John combined their love of art, music and theater with multicultural stories and lessons in tolerance to create unique and highly sought-after entertainment programs for children.
The memories captured in this interview center around Ms. Mandigo’s time spent in Oneonta as a young girl, then later returning post-college graduation to live in an 1840s farmhouse previously owned by her great-grandmother. She speaks about her grandmother as a restaurant owner in Oneonta, what it was like to spend time in the city as a child and how she later used her creativity and artistic skills to give back to Oneonta and the surrounding communities. The interview includes what it was like to begin a creative business in the arts, to manage its unexpectedly rapid growth, to balance the demands of parenting and managing a business, and to let go of some responsibilities within the Puppet Theater to take on the role of prevention specialist at an anti-addiction organization (LEAF, Inc.) in recent years.
I interviewed Ms. Mandigo at her office at LEAF, Inc. in Oneonta, NY early one evening. She had just finished a day at work and was preparing to play back-up guitar with a few other jazz musicians that night at the B-side Ballroom restaurant and venue in the Clinton Plaza. As she explains in the interview, Ms. Mandigo plays rhythm guitar in many bands. In addition to playing the event, before I arrived, she was also in the midst of finding another musician to fill in for the leader of the jazz group who had recently fallen ill. As demonstrated in her career and personal life, Carol Mandigo is committed to lending a hand to serve her community whenever she sees a need.
Ms. Mandigo’s office, is located beneath a restaurant adjacent to the main street of Oneonta. Noises from above commingle with Carol’s responses, but do not hinder understanding of the content of this interview. She is easygoing and often infuses her stories with humor and laughter, which is noted in the transcription. To fully experience Ms. Mandigo’s delightful personality and positive attitude, researchers are encouraged to consult the audio recording.

Creator

Emily J. Conner

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2014-11-05

Rights

New York State Historical Association Library, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mpeg
27.5 MB
audio/mpeg
27.5 MB
audio/mpeg
2.1 MB
image/jpeg
1000 × 1504 pixels

Language

en-US

Type

sound
image

Identifier

14-032

Coverage

Oneonta, NY
1953-2015

Interviewer

Emily J. Conner

Interviewee

Carol Mandigo

Location

LEAF, Inc.
Oneonta, NY

Transcription

EJC = Emily J. Conner
CM=Carol Mandigo



[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

EJC:
This is the November 5, 2014 oral history of Carol Mandigo, conducted by Emily Conner held in Oneonta, NY for the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s Community Stories. So Carol, could you just start off by telling me a little bit about what it was like growing up around here?

CM:
Well, actually, I grew up north of Syracuse but my mother and grandmother and all my relatives grew up in the Oneonta area. In fact, we live in my grandmother and great-grandmother’s house that they built in 1840. So, when my grandmother died we moved back in to the Laurens area and took over their house.

EJC:
And when did you move back here?

CM:
We moved back in the 1970’s. My husband, John, went to the Cooperstown Graduate Program and that’s what drew us here after college. But we wanted to keep the farmhouse in the family. My grandmother had just died and it was kind of a receptacle for all the family history [laughs] and artifacts and junk. So we wanted to keep it in the family and we were the likely prospects for living there.

EJC:
What kind of things did you find in the house when you moved in there?

CM:
Actually, our house is one of several houses that belonged to my family in this area. But that was a house that was bought by my grandmother from her parents. She went to Oneonta Normal School to become a schoolteacher and when she graduated she bought that house from her Dad so that she could live there, but it was kind of a ghost house at that time. It was being used to store chicken feed during the [Great] Depression and really one of those abandoned houses. And they were living in town, my grandmother and grandfather. His mom had a restaurant on Broad Street called Winnie’s Hotel, and so he was working for his mother at a restaurant in Oneonta and she had to fire him and lay him off during the Depression. So they moved back into that old farmhouse and became subsistence farmers during the Depression. When we moved in it had been kind of fixed up, but it still had remnants. It wasn’t insulated and when we pulled the siding off to insulate it, it was still full of chicken feed from back during those days. So we found a lot of surprises as we moved into the house. We were fixing up our back room and out of the rafters fell these old 8mm movies from 1936. Because my great-grandfather was a photographer and filmmaker, so we have old 8mm movies of the Franklin and the Oneonta Flood that came through with footage of rivers running right down South Main Street and Market Street. Pictures of the old county fair, the Otesgo County Fair, with two black pugilists on the back of a flatbed truck and pictures of my mom and aunt who are now in their late 80s when they were little, like two years old running around Neahwa Park. We found thousands and thousands of photographs and also just old clothes; no one ever threw anything away in that family. [laughs] And I just cleaned out my aunt’s house up on Winnie Hill Road because they were selling it - that was my great-grandmother’s family homestead. We found amazing stuff dating back to the Civil War, old overshot quilts, photographs, and we found the complete police records of Oneonta from the late 1800’s. We found a bottle of Mount Vernon rye whiskey unopened from 1917, pre-prohibition. Later we found out it was worth $10,000, but we had already drank it [laughs]. Oh, we found all kinds of stuff. I still have a barn full of things, but what do I do with them? I don’t know.

EJC:
What did you say the restaurant was called?

CM:
Well that restaurant was called Winnie’s Hotel, and it was a hotel and restaurant. And I’ve heard it catered to the railroad men that were coming into town at that time. I’ve heard it was a brothel at one point, sort of, nobody really confirmed that, but that was the rumor. When I was a kid, my cousin and I – my cousin lived up on Brook Street – and we used to go and stay with my grandmother on Winnie Hill Road. We would come down and there would still be railroad guys and the bums of town would be hanging around in the restaurant, and it was so much fun. They’d put nickels in the jukebox and we’d get up on the bar and do the twist for them. [laughs] It was a blast. My great-grandmother was quite a person, cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking. She had a big black Studebaker and she used to drive 90 mph around town. Really a character. We had fun as kids in Oneonta.

EJC:
What ended up happening to the restaurant? Did it shut down?

CM:
When she was older, they tore down Broad Street. She got Alzheimer’s and this younger guy hung around and got her to sell him the restaurant for a cheap price and then it kind of went downhill. When they had urban renewal, they tore it down and left it kind of torn up and vacant for many years. Now the Clarion Hotel is there. It’s really renovated into something nice. They had a restaurant a long time ago, I think their first restaurant in Oneonta was called The Homegrown and that had to be back right after the turn of the century.

EJC:
You said you moved here right after college?

CM:
Yeah, I always came and spent a few weeks in the Oneonta area, because this is where my mom grew up and we would visit my great-grandmother and my cousins. My cousin, Joan, her father used to be the president of the Oneonta Savings and Loan, and my aunt was the art teacher at Oneonta High School so they knew everybody in the community. I got to know a lot of the people like the Mullenarys and the Ranieris and all the local people from when they were kids, really, hanging out with my cousin.

EJC:
Where did you go to college?

CM:
I started in Buffalo and I went to Stony Brook University and a little bit in Denmark at the University of Copenhagen. I graduated from Stony Brook, though.

EJC:
And what did you study?

CM:
Art, fine arts, sculpture major. In Denmark I studied art and architecture.

EJC:
How did the Catskill Puppet Theater begin?

CM:
Well, my uncle Bob – the guy who was the president of the Oneonta Savings and Loan – his sister is a puppeteer in New York City. She used to make these beautiful, hand carved, wooden hand puppets and do Shakespearian plays, like Macbeth. She’s really a great actress, she’s written a book and done one-woman shows. And even though I’ve never seen her shows, ever, in my life, when I was a kid I saw pictures of her puppets and thought how fun it was. So, when I was studying sculpture at Stony Brook, I got into making kinetic sculpture. When John, my husband, was in the Cooperstown Graduate Program we started an old timey string band because he’s a fiddler. We were playing all around at colleges and coffee houses and I thought I’d start a little business that we could do during the day because we were performing at night. I started carving wooden puppets and we immediately got booked into the Delhi Old Timey Days, we got booked at the Suffolk County Fair on Long Island, we got booked at the New York State Far and in many parks – so it turned from a little hobby into a money-maker really immediately before we even had the shows finished. It was just this strange little niche market of summer work at festivals, so pretty soon the puppet show took over the music and we just started getting more demand and more bookings for that. Eventually it turned into – without really even promoting it heavily – a business that supported, at one point, five families and put all our kids through college with no debt [laughs]. It was very surprising.

I thought it would be a good way to do sculpture, do music, do theater – all of which I studied and really enjoyed. Also, my husband always loved Native American culture, it’s sort of a way to do folk culture and do history. Teaching runs in my family, all my family are schoolteachers, so it was a way to be in the schools and have an impact without having to go into the classroom every day and have a full time job doing it.

EJC:
What kind of impact do you think that the Catskill Puppet Theater has had on the communities that you’ve been able to go into?

CM:
Well we have affected millions of kids, really. At one point I estimated about a 100,000 a year, but I think in a lot of years we were on the road for over 200 or 250 days a year and it wasn’t unusual for us to have six hundred kids a day impacted by the shows. A lot of our work was multicultural before that was an accepted term, but we tried to do shows that promoted understanding between people because when I was a kid those stories that I read or the Disney movies, or whatever it was that I saw had a big impact on shaping my attitude toward other people. All of our shows kind of had that anti-bullying, tolerance, understanding, being patient – those types of values that we feel are important for becoming a sensitive, caring adult. So, who knows what kind of impact we had. We were really just a one-off.

We did lots of workshops with the kids where we went in and had them build puppets and I know that had an impact, because a lot of them have their puppets still when they’re 35 years old [laughs]. We’ve got Iraq War vets that still have their puppets in their closet, so I know that creativity had an impact. I hope that some of our shows really got a message through to the kids. At least, it didn’t hurt. We were commissioned to do a show on Holocaust issues for the Holocaust education curriculum in New Jersey. We did a show about hate crime and Nazis and skinheads. What I figure is, it’s a little vaccination for the kids against other messages that they’re going to hear which are hateful messages. It’s hard to measure what you do, but I feel like for entertainment we were pretty conscientious. We didn’t entertain the kids by having murders and meth dealers [laughs], glorifying smoking.
[TRACK 1, 14:40]
EJC:
How do you use puppets and music to address some of those tough issues?

CM:
I’m a strong believer in art, music, and theater as the biggest weapon in the arsenal in terms of world peace and understanding and love between people. Right now, I work for an addictions prevention agency and even the most destitute and depressed and downtrodden people on earth need and love art and music and poetry. They really find it as a way to form friendships across cultures to understand other people. I used to have kind of a low self-esteem problem from being an art major in a pre-med school - at Stony Brook we didn’t even have our own building when I went to school there. But now, I’ve realized that art and music were in existence before any of the sciences and math. It really is a human need for people to express themselves, and when people can express what’s inside of them it’s so freeing for them that it shows up on every other measure. There have been so many instances of schools that almost closed because of lack of attendance and bad behavior and violence in the school. One I can think of, a principal took over a failing school and he decided to fire all of the armed guards that were standing there with metal detectors and put in art and music programs. Just completely saved the school. If anything else came in and had those kinds of positive results, it would be like a miracle cure. But now I really believe that art and culture are an incredible, just like sports, have proven to be a way for people to actually understand and work together with each other. So…what was the question? [laughs]

EJC:
You mentioned your uncle’s sister was a puppeteer. Were there any other artistic influences on the puppet theater or on your own puppet-making that you could think of?

CM:
Actually, there are a lot of artists in my mother’s side of the family. My great-grandfather was a vaudevillian and he played the banjo. He lived in Oneonta, he had his own radio show, so he was really an entertainer, and a minstrel. He had a medicine show and traveled all around on showboats for 30 years. But in terms of puppetry and learning the craft of puppetry, I really had no one, it didn’t seem like it was a developed skill when I was learning it in the early 1970’s. So I went to the library at S.U.C.O. [State University College at Oneonta] and Hartwick [College] and just borrowed all the books I could find on puppetry and I couldn’t believe they would let the community walk out with books with real photographs with wax paper on them, it was amazing. But most of was just experimentation. I didn’t really find many good how-to books on puppetry. Now it’s kind of come back as an art form and gained some respect and there are all these new cutting-edge technologies. With two part foam and all kinds of remote controls and mechanisms and also fantastic Broadway productions that use puppetry and famous artists that use puppetry. But back when I was learning it, and even still to this day, if I make something, I basically figure it out from scratch and walk around the hardware store [laughs] and pick things up and try them and see what might work. I’m basically self-taught. Up here, you don’t have a huge community of puppeteers to draw from either, so.

EJC:
You sort of mentioned some of the materials that you’ve worked with, has the way that you make the puppets changed over the course of the life of the puppet theater?

CM:
Yeah, I started carving in wood, which I loved, but it was limited by the weight of the wood. We started to have audiences of 600 kids, so we had to get big. So, I started doing some of the sculpture techniques I had learned in high school and college, which, the first thing I used was cast fiberglass. And that is wonderful but it’s highly toxic. Everything about it is toxic. Drilling it, you get microfibers in your lungs; I probably ruined my health using that. Then, I switched over to different casting materials, like plastic, wood, using lead pellets to press it into molds, I used neoprene rubber for a while, but that shrunk and distorted. Then I started using foam because I wanted to take the toxicity out of it, so I turned to foam and hot glue. And that’s good, only it’s hard to control; I use different kinds of foam and then sometimes use rubberized cheesecloth over it. But it’s hard to really make it keep its shape. But the upside is you can get really huge with it. And we started making giant figures that are up to 18 feet tall. I’m still kind of having fun with that idea. There’s so much you can do with giant sized things. But I haven’t made puppets in a quite a while really seriously, because I’ve been way too busy doing other things. [laughs]

EJC:
What kind of things would you use the giant puppets for?

CM:
We were always commissioned to do them. I don’t think we’ve ever just straight out said “Let’s build one for fun,” because they’re really time consuming. So the first ones we built were for Oswego Harbor Fest and they were the 18-foot tall wizards. They went really fast and they were fun to make and went quick. They looked great, they moved really well, and we took them to Harbor Fest and we got paid a pittance, like $900 for 3 giant puppets or something like that. We took them up for their festival and they were going to own them, so I left them there and told them how to put them away for the night and they just never did. They left them tied up to the tents of the festival and during the night a bunch of drunken rowdies came and tore the puppets down and they kicked them all around like soccer balls. Stole one of the heads and two of the bodies and so I had to go up and just get what was left of them, they still get used once and while and that was 25 or 30 years ago. Those were the first ones we made. Then we started making life-sized elephants, we got commissioned by TV guide to do clowns for their family fun day so we did sort of Cirque du Soleil Asian clowns. And First Night Oneonta commissioned us to build a whole bunch of puppets for their parades, so we did those with kids in schools as workshops. We went in and had each class make their own giant puppet. We probably made 50 of those over the course of time. Oh, and we got commissioned by Toho Entertainment in Japan to make a giant puppet to go for a puppet festival in Kurashiki, Japan. So that one we built on a wheeled walker and we had a complete sound system inside and we had three puppeteers inside working the puppets and another little puppet show that came out of a little box of the world she was holding. Then we had two people outside playing music and doing things outside of the puppet. Lots of the big ones, they’re always a commission usually.

EJC:
So it sounds like you’ve traveled quite a bit with the theater, can you describe some of your favorite venues you’ve been to?

CM:
The Smithsonian used to be fun, they used to have us come in every spring and every fall to the Discovery Theater and they would really promote it. So, we would sell out for all of our shows and then the television crews would come in and we did commercials for the Smithsonian. They would put us up in an apartment in Georgetown and it would be fun and it would be during cherry blossom season. But then something happened where they were renovating the theater and they closed it for a while - it was in the Arts and Industries building, and I’m not even sure it’s opened up again. So that went on for probably ten years or so, maybe more. We’ve worked at the Annenberg [Center for the Performing Arts], and that was cool because it was fun to poke around Philadelphia. We’re still doing shows at Symphony Space and we’ve worked at the Guggenheim and Museum of Television and Radio, the JFK Library. We worked at a lot of Holocaust centers because of the show that we did, and in Jewish community centers. So it was really moving to be in places where sometimes – one Jewish community center would bring Holocaust survivors in and pair them with high school students so they could talk and share stories. We still do this year after year, I think we do spring and fall at this one center, but a lot of survivors came and saw our show with Holocaust issues, and really came up afterwards and thanked us and said they really appreciated it, and that was really great. That was a great experience. The same with the Smithsonian, we’d be brought in for African-American month and there are a lot of Ethiopian people in the DC area and people would come up after the show and say “Oh, yes, your show – ambasha bread, and injera bread,” and the people were really nice, we got to meet a lot of people. Our Native American show about Hiawatha was performed on the Onondaga nation, they would have us back year after year for probably 10 or 15 years and have us come in and do workshops with the kids to build their own puppets. So we were in a lot of situations where we were accepted and invited into another culture because of our story. People really appreciated the treatment. It was fun.

EJC:
What kind of reactions do you usually get from audiences or from children when you come in to perform?

CM:
We did have a couple when we first started out that were really festival shows where we get the kids boo-ing the villain, and old-time melodrama. We had a lot of audience participation in those shows. But as the shows rolled on they became more theatrical, I think - more educational. We used more lighting effects and developed soundtracks. We also used a lot of other puppeteers including a Russian puppeteer who used to be the head of the Moscow regional puppet theater, he was in charge of 75 puppeteers. He wound up here due to a tragic accident and worked with us for three years. We used a Scottish puppeteer. We taped our soundtracks then that became kind of like a movie for the kids in a way, not really but we get more “You couldn’t hear a peep” -type of a reaction. And some of our shows have humor in them, so we will get some loud laughter and some “[gasp] Wow!” reactions. But a lot of the times people are just amazed that even little kids who are usually quite antsy sit there and just watch and just pay attention to the shows. In a way, I would like to go back to being more interactive because times have changed and now I feel [with] live theater there are ways to be interactive that are really valid as opposed to “Oh, I can’t hear you, scream louder!” You know, there are ways to interact with kids that are a great experience for everyone involved. I would like to do that if I was going to work and build more shows. Because during the middle of our career we had three kids, so it was hard for both of us to be out there. You need to be personally doing it, in a way, if you’re going to plan to use a voice and be interactive like that. It’s hard to make someone else do that for you.
[TRACK 2, 01:00]
EJC:
So you work with John, what is that like, to work with your husband?

CM:
Originally we were famous for having three kids and being on the road and still having a puppet theater, because most people just gave up when they realized they were going to be on the road all the time. Now we’re famous for still being married [laughs] because no one else is in our business, it’s really difficult to be that on top of each other all the time. Since we met each other in college in, I think, 1972, we’ve always been in close quarters. We went to an experimental college and we lived in the same dorm room with probably two or three other people, because we were hippies and that’s what you did. But then we traveled in a truck and drove all around the country, so we were in that confined space. We lived on a sailboat for many years in Florida, and came up here in the summer, but lived all winter on the sailboat, 44 foot sailboat, so that was another confined space. On the road, you’re basically averaging about five hours in the car, five days a week, 52 weeks a year. And that’s sitting one foot from the other person. Then, doing the shows, you’re really weaving around with the other person and you have to be careful that you don’t get tangled up and bump into them all the time. And setting up it’s the same thing, you’re weaving in and out of the trailer, then you have the same conversation with everyone where you’re performing, it’s “Hi, how are you, where do we set up, well, thank you very much, and thanks for having us,” but it’s not like you really have all this human interaction with someone else. You’re basically depending on the other person for any meaningful conversation. Then, you’re in a hotel room in the same room. So it’s really a challenge to not step on that person’s toes and the way we did it was separating our duties, so one person took care of all that, and the other person took care of all this and we created private space around ourselves to be able to function. We work really well as a team, plus I’m really patient [laughs]. I grew up in a family with five younger brothers and sisters, so, I just try not to ever get upset about anything.

EJC:
What was it like to balance being an artist traveling, and also be a parent at the same time?

CM:
That was the hardest part. Our kids used to come with us all the time and they would miss 100-something days of school. Our school, Laurens Central School was really cooperative with us because our kids were top students, they were both valedictorians of their college, our daughter just got her doctorate, they both were straight-A students. So the school would let us take their work along with us on the road and the kids would do the work and come back and pass the Regents [Examinations]. So, thank God. But when they got in higher grades, 8th and 9th grade, our middle daughter was even in 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade, we would leave them home. You couldn’t leave two or three kids in one place, so we’d drop off our oldest daughter at the principal’s house, and then our middle daughter at the scout leader’s house and it got to be really sad. We’d be heading out at 3 in the morning for Rochester or something and dropping someone off here and there the night before and I just hated it. So that’s when we started hiring other puppeteers to go. John went out for a couple years with some other puppeteers, then we got some crews on the road and stuff. But it was challenging for us and the kids. They were always a guest at someone else’s home.

EJC:
How did it feel to make that shift from being primarily your and John’s company, and then you had to shift to trust other people to act out your vision? How did that play out for you?

CM:
At first it was very fun for me creatively and it was easy. When we were really getting tons of bookings and hiring people, it became more like a job. We had to work within commercial constraints and be very careful, especially in the schools; there are so many critics of everything you say or do, you are evaluated every single day by all the teachers at every school and if you have a bully character be mean, then that was bad for the kids. Something I’ve had to say – “This is not my masterpiece, but it’s feeding my family right now” [laughs], and it’s sad, it really is. It would be much more fun to just follow your dream and be the kind of artist that you want to be, but, for me it’s not my personality-type. I’m more utilitarian. I don’t think we “sold out” in that we created shows that pandered to anybody, or we always did original stories, almost, or a very original adaptation of a story I really liked. I didn’t spend enough of my own time building the puppets, I would even hire people to come and help me because I would be in a huge hurry. So, yeah, it was a business/art form. But, who knows, maybe someday I will create something I’m really, really proud of [laughs], everyone else thinks they’re fine, so that’s what I go with.

EJC:
Were there any other challenges that you faced as the artistic director?

CM:
Oh, getting the guys to listen to me and respect what I said! Especially when the guy from Russia was working with us because he was used to bossing everyone around, and boy, I had John and Nikolai both – because I was writing the plays and writing the music, and then John makes the scenery, but [I was] making the puppets. Trying to deal with the criticism and – I don’t know. But, enough about that [laughs]. They were fun! They were fun. They were just real stubborn and hard headed, so I would have to wheedle and trick them into doing stuff.

EJC:
How would you choose who to work with when you started to work with other puppeteers?

CM:
Well, we were basically looking for people to work for us. I didn’t really have much of a chance to collaborate with other puppeteers, because there’s not a big puppetry community around here. I didn’t have the time to do that. I’ve always wanted to, it’d be wonderful. But, what we were really looking for was people who would come and be willing to travel that much and be away from home and earn whatever small amount we were able - we actually paid pretty well for puppeteers. We were paying our people more than we were making and we were giving them full health insurance. At a time when you don’t have to do that when you only have a few employees – but we really tried to be fair and give everybody a fair deal. I think we only had a couple people who had a puppetry background and then the rest of the people may have had a theater background or just wanted to have a fun, creative job. I was just looking for anybody who really thought they wanted to do it enough to stick around and make it worth training them, because it’s a months-long training process. We did have a couple people, maybe one person, that trained up and then left after a couple months because they were really talented and smart and they just realized they didn’t want to live in a hotel room in New Jersey for the rest of their life [laughs]. But our other puppeteers all turned out to be really, really wonderful. Honestly, some of them have tough times finding other jobs but working for us they turned out to be very loyal and very caring and really do a bang up job for us. I’m happy with the people that we’ve had the good fortune to have work for us.
[TRACK 2, 12:14]
EJC:
And who does the puppeteering now?

CM:
Right now John is out with a guy named John Ryan, he’s a local artist. John, my husband, fell off a ladder down in Brooklyn and ruptured his spleen and got a head injury and bleeding on the brain and had emergency transfusions, just July 23rd. John Ryan doesn’t drive, so he was down there stuck in a really bad part of Brooklyn with a truck and trailer and John in the hospital. I got the phone call and I found one of our other puppeteers, Dennis Walrath, who came down with me and he wasn’t even working for us anymore and he always comes whenever John has a heart attack, which he’s had, or on the road, Dennis pops out of the woodwork and comes back to work and helps us. So, we got down the following morning to pick up the truck and trailer, Dennis drove it back to Oneonta, but John Ryan, our puppeteer, had slept right in the hospital all night because he wanted to stay with John and didn’t want to leave him. But he’s moving, there’s some type of artist colony forming in North Adams, Massachusetts, so he has an opportunity to go there. I guess they help you find a job and market your artwork. He’s a carver, so he wants to go and try to see what he can do there. He’s been with us for probably ten years, on and off.

EJC:
What kinds of shows do you do now? Or, not you, but the Theater?

CM:
We still have shows that have been in our repertoire for over twenty years. Our oldest show is the old time melodrama, and John and I do that live, so we go out and do that at fun party events. It’s a musical based on an old time novelty track from the 1920’s. We have an original fable that I wrote – wow – at least twenty-five years ago, Sister Rain and Brother Sun and it’s just kind of sibling rivalry of the sun and the rain and Mother Nature. That’s really popular with the younger kids. We do a show about Hiawatha, the real Native American hero, his childhood imagined in the forest with his grandmother, that one is popular in schools. We do The Lion’s Whiskers, an Ethiopian folktale. And Ivan’s Three Wishes is a Russian folktale, it’s an original tale, it’s not based on a real Russian folktale, but it incorporates Russian folklore like Baba Yaga and all that kind of stuff. We do The Town that Fought Hate, that’s the Holocaust show. And we’ve retired probably a dozen shows. Some because they were silly like The Gypsy and the Vampire [laughs], The Atomic Power Hour. We used to have Professor Wobblies, which is vignette things, scientific vignettes, I don’t know. We had a lot of different shows.

EJC:
Is there one that is your favorite, or was the public’s favorite?

CM:
Actually, yeah, my favorite and I don’t know why exactly, and I think it was the public’s favorite at least for a while, was The Willow Girl. That was based on Chinese immigration into the Gold Rush. It features an irish family and a Chinese family living in a little mining town and learning how to get along with each other. It does have that kind of bullying theme, where the one little Irish boy is kind of mean to the Chinese girl and the other little Irish boy stands up for her. They become friends. It features a willow tree that I climb up into, or whoever is being the “me” of the show climbs into, and you reach your hands down into the roots and there are work gloves and you can pull the roots up into hands and gesture. Then, there’s a construction helmet that turns the eyes and the branches come up to reveal a face and the eyes open, it can speak the eyes look back and forth. It’s kind of a nice story about having the courage to stand up for somebody who is different. When researching the shows I always learn a lot about what happened back during that time. I just ran into a Chinese guy, he lives in Middleburgh, and he’s opened this big huge gym in Sharon Springs. You know, we can have that whole conversation about the Opium Wars and the Chinese exclusionary laws and all that kind of stuff. I always research pretty heavily whatever it is I’m trying to write a puppet show about. We got to perform that in Chinatown, in the park, and the electricity went down that day. So we’re in a park and we literally had thousands and thousands of people there to watch this show, and there was no electricity so they called the park people. This really nice big, black guy came, he was maintenance or something in the park and he brought a generator. And we pulled it and pulled it and the thing wouldn’t start. So the clock is ticking and it’s like seconds to the show, and this guy said, “Let’s all just get down on our knees and hold hands and pray.” We got down on our knees in a circle around this generator, we held hands and prayed and then he pulled the thing and it started right up and there we did the show! It’s just a really fun experience to once again be in a place where you’re doing a show about someone else’s culture, and people are watching it and coming up and saying “Oh, thank you for doing a show about our culture!” That’s the puppetry part of it, you can get away with that.

EJC:
So what kind of music do you play?

CM:
I play back-up rhythm guitar for the most part, so I back up a lot different styles of music. Right now I’m in an electric blues band, an acoustic blues band, a Celtic band, an old-timey band, a band that plays Swedish nyckelharpa, a band that plays Middle Eastern music [laughs] and of course, country and bluegrass and all that kind of stuff. I don’t play anything fancy, but I just play rhythm to a lot of different things. For the soundtracks, John plays the fiddle, so we used a lot of his fiddle playing and then I just hacked stuff off on the synthesizer for a lot of things. I don’t play keyboards very well, but it’s fun to just make noises on a synthesizer for a puppet show. And if we needed something played really well, we’d hire a pianist to come play the songs, to really do a great job. For The Town that Fought Hate, we hired a friend of ours that plays in a fantastic klezmer band and he had one of the best bands in the world play our soundtrack. They won the Canadian version of a Grammy, the violinist got 2nd in the Tchaikovsky competition in New York City – they’re fantastic. That show had some interesting people working on it. Dasha Shishkin was the daughter of Nikolai, the Russian puppeteer, she painted our scenery and she’s become one of the top young artists in the world. She was one of the top five emerging artists like six or seven years ago. She’s got shows in Hamburg, Milan, installations at the University of Colorado, stuff in MoMA. And we have her painting on our scenery! The person who cut the shadow puppets for that show, Yetti Frenkel, her parents met at the Nuremberg trials. Her mother was a German court reporter and her father was on the Kindertransport when he was 12 years old. He got out of Nazi Germany and went to England and the whole rest of his family was killed. And that was their daughter, she did our shadow puppets for the show. She’s a great artist and muralist from the Boston area.

[TRACK 2, 22:44]

EJC:
It sounds like you have built a family with your art, I guess.

CM:
Yeah, and now that I’m working here [at LEAF (Life Enjoyed Addiction Free or Leatherstocking Education on Alcoholism/Addictions Foundation), Inc.], I’m involved in all this other different kind of art and poetry with the young people around town. It’s expanded to include amazing artists and people in this area and all over the world. We have an art and poetry contest every year and last April we had to limit it to Otsego county, but the year before we had entries from 23 countries around the world. And I’m friends now on Facebook with people that are unbelievable artists, they’re so kind and it’s cross-cultural. Some of the poetry we got from people who had emigrated from Turkey to Japan to learn aikido and then got bullied and picked on. And Romanian surgeons and people who immigrated from the Caribbean to Germany and just incredible stories. Lots of African people, I get Facebook messages of people trying to convince people to get the polio vaccine in Nigeria and they want to know what’s going on over here and shocked to learn that some people don’t vaccinate over here either, “Well, we thought Americans knew that stuff!” Uh, no, sorry buddy [laughs]. There’s superstition everywhere. It’s been really fun to be part of this community, all the musicians and artists around here.

EJC:
Can you talk about what you do at your job now?

CM:
I was hired as a community educator, that was the job description when I applied and I thought, “Gee, something I’m actually qualified for [laughs]”. And at first it was a lot with the kids and kids in schools and we had grants to teach kids about problem gambling because of course they’re building a lot of casinos and a lot of people are giving their kids lotto tickets for birthdays. Then kids are kind of being groomed, the gambling industry is in cahoots with the video game industry and Facebook’s got gambling now – it’s a huge industry. It’s bigger than all of the other entertainment industries combined: movies, music - more money is generated by the gambling industry. Our mission is to head off problems for people and so of course every time I get involved in anything, I research it and get super passionate about it. Whether it be alcohol or smoking – I just got so interested in these issues and so appalled by the devastating effects that they have on even just our community, let alone everywhere around the world, that I started to try and use the whole art, music, that whole thing I believe in about it being a way for people to communicate about tough issues. I started to try and use whatever it is I know about that kind of stuff to have an impact on people’s minds and behavior around those issues. It went from just going in and doing some little puppet shows in schools to trying to reach every part of the community. At least make them aware of the impact. For example, drugs, so many people around here are addicted to drugs that are being marketed by Mexican drug cartels and international drug cartels that are destroying whole societies. There is this huge back and forth flow, like the global economy and money and guns and jobs going out of this country and drugs coming into this country. It’s just this insane mess that people need to be educated about because there’s a huge amount of propaganda and advertising and educating going on by people whose financial interests it is to sell alcohol, drugs, gambling, whatever you can think of that’s bad for you. And there’s no money going into prevention. So we have to use our wits! Which to me, it’s a challenge and the best way to do it is to have people educate each other because people want to be healthy, they want to have a good life. They don’t want to be a drug addict laying in the gutter and robbing their family and getting their kids taken away. So if they can just get hip to it and art and music, that’s the fun way. AA is great, but you’re like sitting in a meeting, or counseling is great but you’re sitting in a chair. If you can go out and form a community and have a blast doing something else, then that’s what I think is more appealing. That’s where I come in! [laughs] But we’re having these big giant festivals, like Fourth of July, big drinking holiday. We had alcohol-free festival from morning to night; we had 15,000 people there. Not one single crime. Police were there; they said they had two lost kids, and two found kids. They had two people lose their wallets, two wallets were turned in with all the money inside, and two people needed band-aids. One guy was drinking and he tried to come in the park but people smelled them and they stopped him before he came in and he got arrested – but he always gets arrested. We’re trying to change the culture so that people realize they can go out on New Year’s Eve and we’re going to have First Night at the Foothills [Performing Arts Center] and people can come from 5:30 ‘til 10:30, watch the fireworks, have a blast, alcohol- [and] smoke-free. Then they can go out and have a drink at a bar and party ‘til 2 and they’ll have a couple drinks, and not 16 drinks. Last year on New Year’s Eve, Oneonta did not have one drunk driving arrest in the city of Oneonta. We do Labor Day weekend Balloon Fest, it’s First Night and LEAF, we run it. We’re trying to get the word out that you don’t have to necessarily get toasted on every big holiday that there is. That’s what I’m doing now, I’m working on that stuff.

EJC:
Great! So we’ve been talking for about an hour now, is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t been able to talk about?

CM:
No, I just am so glad that the Cooperstown Graduate Program is still doing oral history and honestly, this area is very, very interesting, it’s such a unique area. It is the area where my relatives all grew up and did wonderful, fun things. So it’s great that the program is part of that, I love the Clarks, I love the museums, and I love the fact that someone takes care of this place and keeps it pristine and you can go around the lake and put your kayak in. So yeah, it’s really a great thing to preserve it and promote it for other people.

EJC:
Well, thank you for being a part of it.

CM:
It’s my pleasure.

Duration

30:00
30:00
02:19

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps

Files

Carol Mandigo.JPG

Citation

Emily J. Conner, “Carol Mandigo, November 5, 2014,” CGP Community Stories, accessed January 22, 2020, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/194.