There's evidence Americans are under the erroneous impression that only children enjoy certain toys. Puppet shows are only for kids; balloon animals are only offered to those standing under 3 feet tall; the coolest stuff at the toy store is always placed on the lowest shelves. But if the minds behind the Holiday Open House at the New Mexico Museum of Art have their way, adults will get over it and enjoy toys just as much as children do.

Each year, the museum holds its open house, at which the main draw is a puppet show featuring replicas of the marionettes of Gustave Baumann. The original marionettes, which were carved by Baumann starting in 1931, were the main characters in puppet shows that Baumann hosted in his Santa Fe home from 1923 to 1959. In 1979, eight years after Baumann's death, the puppets became part of the permanent collection of the museum.

Martha Landry, special events manager for the New Mexico Museum of Art, is just as enamored of the Baumann marionettes as children are. The museum has been holding its annual Holiday Open House steadily for approximately 15 years, but it's only in the last 10 years that the marionettes have played a large part in the event. Things really got moving in 2000 when Cristina Masoliver Blais, a puppeteer originally from Spain, and Muriah Love, a woodcarver from Taos, made replicas of seven of the 60-plus Baumann marionettes.

The puppets they produced were those characters that factor most prominently into the museum's Holiday Open House puppet show. (Before the replicas were made, the museum used the original marionettes—"But we don't talk about that," Landry says, her face turning stormy. I don't inquire further.)

Juan and Rosina are farmers, and they live with their burro Miguelito. Warts and Freckles are duendes, elves that often cause mischief. Santo Niño acts as the play's deus ex machina when things start to go awry. Then of course there is Santa Claus himself, who poses with children for "Santa on your lap" photo ops.

The play, which changes every few years, is more of a "scenario" than a play, Landry says. The puppeteers are told the general story, and most of the performance is improvised as the actors play off each other and the sometimes-rowdy audience.

The puppets have quirks of their own that need to be worked out in the show—Miguelito is a little stiff and has a leg that often gets stuck, and Rosina will literally lose her head mid-performance. Since everything is on strings, however, her head doesn't roll off; rather, it floats midair a few inches above her body until the puppeteer lifts her off the stage, pushes it back on and resumes action.

The stage is designed so that the puppeteers are not hidden behind a curtain, but are totally visible to the audience, as are all the props and the backstage setup. "We want kids to get an idea of how it all works and to think maybe they can do it too," Landry says.

Despite the transparency of the performance, the kids are invariably transfixed on the marionettes. After the play, there is a question-and-answer session, and while some of the older children may ask questions of the puppeteers, the vast majority of kids will address the puppets directly.

One of the puppeteers, Barbara Mayfield, is well-acquainted with the inquiring minds of children. Mayfield is a professional actress, comedian, puppeteer, painter and author, and while she's done performances for adults, most of her recent work is for kids.

Three or four years ago, there was an opening in the Baumann troupe, and Mayfield jumped at the chance to join. She had no experience with marionettes, but the call for actors mainly asked for adults with performance experience—primarily experience in children's entertainment. Landry says members of the troupe teach each other the intricacies of marionette performance, and it's a learn-as-you-go type of art form for them.

Mayfield's foray into puppeteering opened a whole new door for her. "Marionettes are the coolest things in the world," she says. After her second year with the Baumann troupe, while on a visit to Philadelphia, she found a stand at an art fair that was selling $10 marionettes. She picked up a puppet of her own and never looked back.

Sitting at her kitchen table, she laughs and throws her arms up in the air as she talks about puppeteering—then she suddenly leaps up. "I'll show them to you," she says urgently. "I'll show you my flamingo."

While Mayfield primarily gears her puppet performances toward children, after a few moments watching her and Mingo Flamingo, it becomes clear that marionettes are cool no matter how old you are. As I sit splay-legged on the floor of her home and studio in Glorieta, eye-to-eye with Mingo, soon enough I'm laughing hysterically. Mingo does flamingo yoga, practices ballet, tries to "hatch" an apple, looks up my pant legs for shrimp—sure, it's kids' stuff, but aren't adults really just old children after all?

"It's an obscure art in the United States," Mayfield says of marionette work, "but all over the world it's considered a legitimate form of theater."

Mayfield, who collects puppets of various shapes and sizes, and also hoards old dolls in hopes of turning them into marionettes, dreams of putting together a permanent puppet theater troupe in Santa Fe to present shows for all ages.

While the museum's open house is only one day of the year, it has become a staple in the lives of Santa Fe's kids—not to mention a few puppeteers. In addition to the puppet show, the event includes a table at which kids and parents can make their own stick puppets, and Forté, an a cappella women's group that sings holiday songs.

Once the play is through, after the question-and-answer session, the puppeteers then invite the children to "Say Good Night to the Puppets"—at which point the marionettes are nestled back into their specially made boxes to wait silently for another year to pass.

New Mexico Museum of Art Holiday Open House
1-4 pmSunday, Dec. 20

New Mexico Museum of Art
107 W. Palace Ave.

Barbara Mayfield
email Barbara