Ventfort Hall puppet show offers fun, educational school vacation activity

carl sprague works his marionettes

COURTESY PHOTO
Local filmmaker and photographer Carl Sprague will bring his marionettes to Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum in Lenox for several performances of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ during the December school break.

LENOX — As fairy tales go, “Hansel and Gretel” is one of the darker ones, featuring a young brother and sister abandoned in the woods who must escape a witch who wants to eat them.

But performed in a traditional Czech marionette theater at Ventfort Hall in Lenox during school vacation week, “Hansel and Gretel” is sure to delight local youths — and it does have a happy ending, after all.

Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum in Lenox is hosting several puppet shows by local filmmaker and photographer Carl Sprague — Dec. 27, 28 and 29 at 3 p.m. and Dec. 30 at 2 p.m. After each show, there will be a Victorian holiday tea and children will be able to meet the puppets and the backstage wizards behind the charming and humorous show.

“The kids love the show,” said Ventfort Hall’s office manager, Mark Monette, who said the show will most appeal to children ages 3 to 12, including his own 9-year-old son, who saw “Rumpelstiltskin” last year. “He absolutely loved it.”

But adults will enjoy it, too, Monette said.

“Carl puts a few above-the-brow things in there that make the adults laugh,” he said.

Sprague has performed various puppet shows at Ventfort Hall over the last decade, all of which highlight the happy ending for the marionette theater itself.

The theater, which measures about 5 feet tall and wide, was handmade during World War II by Carl’s great-grandfather, Julius Hybler, as a Christmas present for his granddaughters, Tjasa and Hanka Krofta.

Marionette theatres were enormously popular in Czech culture in the early part of the 20th century, a source of “nationalist pride” when the Czechs declared independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Sprague said.

“The puppet theater was one thing the Austrians could never censor,” Sprague said when discussing the theater in an interview prior to last year’s production of “Rumpelstiltskin.” “Czech language and theater were kept alive for hundreds of years with these toys.”

Sprague’s great-grandfather built the theater from one of the do-it-yourself kits that were available in Czechoslovakia back in the 1920s and ’30s. During the war and in the communist takeover that followed, Hybler suffered tragic losses and was never able to complete or deliver the gift for his grandchildren, who had moved to America. After his death in 1960s, his wife finally took the theater down from the attic and sent it to Sprague’s grandmother, Maria Krofta, in Lenox.

At Christmas in 1969, after a year of restoration, Krofta pulled the curtain up for the first time to her astonished family. It instantly became a hit with the Sprague family, especially Carl, who was 8 at the time.

“It was a complete, incredible surprise,” said Sprague, who as the oldest of four boys basically co-oped the theater. “I just basically hogged the thing. It kind of became mine.”

Now, 43 years later, Hybler’s theater remains a family treasure that Carl, Tjasa and all the Sprague family are proud to share with the community with the Ventfort Hall puppet shows, which have become a mainstay in Ventfort Hall’s family-friendly programming.

“We’re trying to be a little more interactive,” Monette said, adding that exposing kids to the mansion also will give them “a little bit of history,” especially local history. “They can understand somewhat what’s right here in their backyard,” he said.

Admission to “Hansel and Gretel” is $16 for adults, $7 for children 5 to 17 and free for children 4 and under. Ventfort Hall is located at 104 Walker St. in Lenox. For more information, visit gildedage.org.

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Rebecca Dravis

Berkshire County native Rebecca Dravis is a former journalist who now works for the Girl Scouts. She lives in Williamstown with her husband, 7-year-old daughter and cat.