After thousands of performances, dozens of marionettes and a feature documentary, the Lancaster Marionette Theatre has closed its doors for good.
The theater formally dissolved its nonprofit status in the final board meeting, which took place on Zoom and lasted roughly 12 minutes.
“I’ll miss the audience, when they’re with you and you feel that electricity,” says Robert Brock, the proprietor, main actor and marionette artist of the theater. “There’s nothing better than that.”
The Zoom meeting in early October was a formal declaration of a decision Brock and his mother, Mary Lou Broucht, came to following the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and the realization that health enforcement methods would be too difficult to maintain.
While the theater itself, which began life as the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre, will no longer be open to the public, Brock’s life work will continue in the form of his YouTube channel, where he will write and perform new shows and updated versions of classics.
“I don’t want people to be sad that it’s closing,” says Brock, 64, sitting in a chair next to his mother, Mary Lou Broucht, in the living room of their home above the theater stage. “I think that we have a lot to celebrate. We’re still going to have our 30-year gala. It might be when we’re 35, but we’re going to have the gala.”
The final performance Brock gave at the theater was on March 7, 2020, and is showcased in the film about his life and theater, “Marionette Land” by formerly Lancaster-based documentarian Alexander Monelli.
“And in the film, I say ‘This could be the last time I do this show,’ and it was prophetic, because it was the last show we did,” Brock says. “At the time, I had just meant it as the last time doing (the show) ‘Kiss the Heels Goodbye.’”
Though Brock’s work with puppets and marionettes dates to his time as a child, the first production on the 126 N. Water St. stage was a show called “Shantilly Lake” in 1990.
At that point, Brock still had additional cast members. In 2003, after the death of his father, Robert, The Brocks/Brouchts decided to remodel the space above the theater into an apartment. Since then, Brock has handled the performance side of the business, while his mother operated the books on a volunteer basis.
Their singular relationship is on display in “Marionette Land,” which will officially premiere in early 2022 on Video on Demand and in a physical DVD/Blu-Ray release through Brock’s beloved Turner Classic Movies. The film is a love letter to Brock’s drive as an artist, and that drive is perhaps what is keeping Brock going with his new online endeavor.
The space where there was once the up–front, children–only seating at the theater is now filled with high-tech lights and audio and video equipment. “Marionette Madness” will allow Brock to focus on the creative side, and the theater’s closing allows him to sidestep the financial obligations he’d potentially be one day responsible for if it had remained open.
“I wanted to perform for 50 years, that was my goal,” Brock says. “It can still be my goal. It‘s just not going to be with an audience. My mother does so much, I’m scared to death of what I’m going to do when I don’t have her to do that stuff, so she’s trying to simplify it for me.”
While the elder Broucht, 86, doesn’t quite understand the inner workings of YouTube, she remains supportive of her son.
“It’s repetitive to say that it’s bittersweet, but I don’t think it could be described any other way,” Broucht says. “But I’m looking forward to Rob’s having his satisfaction from what he’s going to be able to produce with everything that he’s acquired over the years.”
One of the myriad ways that Brock will attempt to retool his work for a YouTube audience is by writing all the music himself, mostly to bypass the website’s stringent copyright rules.
Where several of the theater’s popular children’s shows, such as “Peter Pan” and “Sleeping Beauty” are in the public domain, the songs that made up the adult shows like “Divas & Dames” are songs sung by, well, the actual divas and dames, from Mae West to Judy Garland to Bette Midler.
To that end, Brock has amassed dozens of instruments, from a trumpet to a glockenspiel, to compose and perform scores to his heart’s content.
Since “Marionette Land” first began on the film festival circuit, Brock has notched 239 followers on the “Lancaster Marionette Theatre” channel, currently 761 subscribers short to be eligible for channel monetization.
Brock plans to involve his mother, known to the theater’s young audiences as “Nanny Lou,” in a revolving segment called “Nanny Lou’s Happy Hour.”
“While I’m not a major player in this — for which I’m grateful — nevertheless, it sounds like fun rather than pressure,” Broucht says with a smile. “Plus, the fact that the timing is different. You don’t have to be at a certain place at a certain time, like say, at the front door 20 minutes before showtime.”
The change is a positive one, Brock says.
“In the theater, you’re not supposed to go see a show and think, ‘Wow, how much hard work is that?’ Brock explains. “But, to put up a show, you’ve got to finance, write it, build it, do the PR and ticketing, and then check people in and do front of house.
“I do the tour of the stage, the museum tour, do the performance and then do Q&As and photo ops,” Brock says. “And you know that at the end of all that, there’s someone that will be impossible to get out, so I won’t miss any of that.”
As one facet of a career ends, another begins, but Brock will still start each day in his apartment and walk down the stairs to his creative workshop. And if there’s no in-person audience to play for, there are always his beloved dogs, Max and Elsa, to workshop ideas with.
“My mother’s not going to change, and I’m not going to change. I’m just trying to be happy and content. And thank God for the dogs.”