Arts & Culture

Cherry on Top

A wacky Charm City mainstay celebrates 40 years.

Although the Black Cherry Puppet Theater is known around town for its eye-popping performances and award-winning school residencies, the puppetry group was never meant to be more than a summer job for five students from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

“I don’t think we had a vision beyond making a puppet show that we could tour to recreation centers during the summer and make money,” says Michael Lamason, the nonprofit’s executive director.

He had never seen a puppet show when he founded the group in 1980 with Bill Haas, Rick Weiss, Corliss Cavalieri, and Michael Richardson. But by the end of that first summer, Black Cherry had put on 107 shows.

For the next decade and a half, the group performed puppet shows and hosted workshops at after-school programs and recreation centers around the region before putting down roots in Hollins Market in the late 1990s. The unfinished space, which sports a series of psychedelic splashings, as well as a mural by visual artist Espi Frazier, has worn many hats during its decades on Hollins Street, including a puppet theater, a live music venue, and, most importantly, a springboard for young talent.

Black Cherry affiliated artists Jennifer Strunge and Valeska Populoh were students at MICA when they joined the theater, and now Strunge runs the after-school workshops. Populoh, who now teaches in MICA’s Fiber Department, co-founded the theater’s fast-selling Puppet Slamwich series.

“Many of us have cut our teeth on puppetry in that space,” Populoh says.“A lot of people have given their free labor and time to Black Cherry because it’s been such an important resource for us.” Strunge agrees, calling the theater, “a place for connoisseurs of cardboard and lovers of scrappy inventions to support each other.”

Lamason hopes that sentiment will continue for years to come. For now, the theater continues to perform virtually until stay-at-home orders are lifted. But planned renovations slated for later this year include adding a new bathroom, ticketing area, and upstairs studio to give the next generation of puppet masters an improved performance space to last the next 40 years.

Now 62 years old, Lamason says he won’t be putting away his puppets anytime soon.