Van Houten's Landing Oral History Project 2006
Jo Peabody and Jeanne Peabody Walsh
(Violin playing while Paul Peabody's hand-made wooden puppets are shown in Peabody house on Van Houten Street, Upper Nyack)
Jo: Okay, um, we met in a Quaker work camp and he taught in a Quaker school for a year, and then we decided to come here to work for the Fellowship, and he moved into the publishing and magazine. He stayed then for 36 years.
So, the puppets were in his free time - which was anywhere from 4 o'clock in the morning 'til time to go to work, and then in the evening if there was time, but mostly morning, because in the evening he would read and do things with the kids.
But he had had a wonderful education, which his parents expected him to use in a different way, but you know, when we got married, then he was free to do what he wanted to, and you can tell what was in his head, because part of it is visible here, and he said that it was there, just waiting to come out, as fast as he could do it. And sometimes he wouldn't even finish. There are lots of things half - well, partially done things that he would …
And the puppets took over. He had written a book, but writing was really not his thing.
What kind of book?
It's a children's book, and young Paul got on him, oh, about 15 years ago, because we met a children's publisher person at Putnam, and young Paul got the book out from under the bed and said okay, and so they published it.
But this is where his heart was. Everything he wanted to do he taught himself. When he wanted to do something, he went to the library. That was one of the things an education had taught him - where to find what he wanted - and he would go and find it. Fortunately he didn't use anything but hand tools. Even those, he hurt himself a couple of times, but … So all of it is done with the most rudimentary tools.
That was important to him?
Yes - just to show other people it could be done. He loved the workshop, he loved the workshop.
At what point did he start performing with them?
Jeanne: I was in fourth grade - early on. I think he did one while I was still in Upper Nyack, so third grade, because I went to middle school in fifth. But that was just to use what he was making.
Jo: He had friends that put pressure on him to perform. In the beginning I don't think he had that as an intent. I think that other people saw them and thought that he had to share it. Once they convinced him, there was no problem, but it was slow, because he was not a performing person - almost shy.
Jeanne: But as a young kid I really felt very different, because my dad was a public figure from third grade on. He'd be in the paper regularly, dressed up in all these outfits. Of course it wasn't exactly cool. You definitely go through a period when you're aware of what's in and what's not, and though I definitely never fit in, I was aware of where my father was in the community. Like I said, as I grew up, I came to just love it. Certainly by the time I was in high school, I had developed a real appreciation for what he was doing. And then, when I reached adulthood, so to speak, I performed with him quite a lot, just because I loved being with him so much. I am by no means a performer at all, but loved my dad so much that it was great.
Jo: It was great when they did it together.
Jeanne: Yeah, we had a great time. He was a treasure.
Jo: Both of them had an unprofessional sort of streak - I thought it was better when the two of them did it, than any other time, because usually the people that helped him were wonderful, but they were performing, and for some reason, Jeannie could do all the things that they could do, but it didn't come across the same - for me anyway.
Jeanne: Yeah, I think Toby's just like my dad. Toby was my dad's favorite. He was in nearly every single show, probably over the last two decades. He's been around for a long, long time, and ended every single show and lands in every child's arms whenever feasibly possible - much to their delight. Always a crowd pleaser. One my dad could identify with.
He'd say that each one of these characters was an extension of his personality. But if I could only pick one I would say was most like him, I'd say Toby. He was so gentle. He'd ask him to get up, and he'd say, "It's okay Toby" to do whatever the antic was - to the delight of the kids. It was a simple - jumping through something, or holding something in his mouth. And all those things were kind of like my dad. He never did anything (whew), but it was something simple, always heartfelt - like Toby - definitely that character.
Petrushka's right next to him, and this clown here is the clown from the Nutcracker. Punchinello is behind …(several other puppets are pointed out, but it's difficult to understand the words.)
Jo: He would set out to create a show about Beatrix Potter's characters. The only one that somebody else asked for was the Indian. We were going to Stratford, and they were having that year, emphasis on America, so they wanted him to do a native guy. So it's probably the least successful - because somebody told him what to do.
Jeanne: He used it quite a lot over the years.
Jo: Well, then he did an American show - a whole early American thing.
Jeanne: There's Sheherazade too.
Jo: He loved Nutcracker.
Jeanne: She wasn't used frequently, but he loved to use her. She was a little provocative, so he didn't use her often - but she was great. He used music from Sheherazade and the Nutcracker.
Jo, did you ever work on the shows in any form?
Jo: In any form? Well, I helped a little bit - because that was the only way I could get to go anywhere. Somebody had to help him. And so … I never worked a puppet, because they're heavy. They don't look heavy, but they are heavy. And I never manipulated. But I did help - like he has lots of different tricks - and you had to keep up with his tricks. And the records - he used LPs and old-fashioned record player too. Of course we couldn't use modern things, so somebody had to do the records, and that was - I earned my way.
Clarinda was a tightrope walker - did you ever see the tightrope walker?
He would put a huge rope between two tall upright things and she would walk that tightrope. It was beautiful, even - he did it down at the church one night and the shadow on the wall behind her - it was just beautiful. A lot of it was beautiful.
My most unbelievable memory is we went to Morgan Library for a big show, and he took the Fairy Queen, and of course she had this red velvet carpet that goes up to her, and it's rather an involved thing. And then the kids get touched by the magic, by the wand, and to see those little kids, my, it was beautiful.
It's an American thing - I don't know who, but he found we could come up with this kind of magic marionette. Underneath her skirt there was a whole other scene. In other words, he would pull the skirt all the way up - you couldn't see her at all. And there's a balloon with a basket and a small Punch in there. So her whole skit was she was having a party, she had lost the Punch, and she went all over everywhere looking for the Punch, and at the right moment he would pull up the skirt and there was the Punch. But now, what's happened to Matilda? And then he did the same thing with Santa Claus. He put a Christmas tree under Santa Claus's skirt.
He loved Alice in Wonderland, so he did the tea party and that music box just had some of the characters from children's literature - Long John Silver and Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, Mary Poppins.
Those were for your kids, right?
Jo: Yes, those were just things around the house. He also loved music to distraction . That's why he used such beautiful music with the puppets. Every puppet not only had their outfit and their skit, but they had music that he felt fit the personality. A really nice man in the city at Griffins Music would always find the music. Sometimes Paul would just describe what he wanted and he would send him several records and then he would choose the one that he thought fit for that skit.
What about that dollhouse?
Jeanne: When I was 8 or 9 he gave me the house, completely unfurnished - maybe there were one or two things in it. Then, over the period of the next 10 years he furnished it completely, with characters and furniture - even down to making blankets and pillows and candleholders. Anything you could imagine a house would need, this house has got. So it was wonderful, each birthday or Christmastime, I would get something special for the dollhouse that would add to the fun. I had 2 good friends who lived next door who enjoyed coming over and playing with it as well. They're not here, they live up in Massachusetts - Saskia and Ariel. I was really lucky to have kids who came over and played.
Now, my son enjoyed it for years, and now my niece Elsa is having a great time with it. But yeah, over a period of about 10 years, it was completely furnished and great fun. Everything's usable - you can take things out, and just like everything my dad made, all the joints work, the drawers open…
Jo: The books don't open. Nobody can believe it, because everything else works. They're just blocks of wood with pictures.
Jeanne: But one thing I'll say about having worked with him that I think is important, is it was always amazing to go to a show, no matter where we went. I mean I would walk in some time and go like this (hands over face) - I probably did 100 shows with him over the years. And there were times when I thought, "This is going to be a dismal failure. This is chaotic, the kids are out of control." And almost from the moment he walked out he would captivate the audience.
It was absolutely something to marvel at. This person would bring these very simple characters, in the age of media-oriented kids, they were clearly being motivated by Superman and everything else. Still, he brought to them the simpleness of his wonderful characters. I'd be back stage going "Whew". I think that's probably the reason I loved going. The kids would be so pumped with the stories, going, "Can you believe?" He was able to transform this place that was chaotic, or this group of children- there's no way we were going to reach them - and he transformed them.
I just loved that. I think people always picked up on how genuine he was. It was the magic. It was such genuine goodness.
Jo: Nyack has changed, you know, and even down to Van Houten Street. I think the families that were living here when we first came, were all, economically at least, not as well-off as they are now. So it's expensive to live here. But the same warmth and goodness is here.
Jeanne: There's absolutely no question. When I was growing up, this street was considered a poor street. If you lived down Van Houten Street you were not part of Valley Cottage. I remember feeling poor - I didn't want to say that I lived down here. I think the money has awed me over the years - to just come in and literally gut a house, transform it, or do whatever they want. It wasn't like that when we grew up around here. In fact a number of our neighbors worked at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where you basically worked for the love of what you were doing and cared for humanity or whatever you wanted to say. I think a lot of people were very low income. Not only were they not affluent, I think it was a low income area. But again, I still feel like you do. When you're here there's a lot of love in this area, which is great, because I don't think it's everywhere when neighborhoods change.
Probably during the hardest years, during my high school years, I spent my time on the river. I would come home from school and get in my boat and go sailing. Just that alone - I don't know what it saved me from - but it was my little corner of Eden down here. I would go down - the boat was mine. They let me have my own space down there, I was free. It was one of those great opportunities. They would let me go down any time I wanted to. I would take my boat out, no matter how hard it was blowing - the more wind the better. I always had people looking out for me, so I was very fortunate.
It was just a sunfish, a very small sailboat, but I loved it. I spent most of my time between the Tappan Zee Bridge and Hook Mountain. I was not particularly adventurous. But I was adventurous in the sense that I got out there all the time, and I liked knowing that people were looking after me. I loved going along the shoreline, seeing all the homes. I loved being alone - and I still do. It's just part of my nature. You could be your own best friend on the river and enjoy every minute of it. There was never a day that I went out that I didn't love it. It would build you up. You had a hard day at school, or you felt unloved at school - whatever was typical of those years - it was completely diffused when I got out there.
And so the Hudson River is always home. And I have been fortunate to travel over the years, but nothing's quite like coming back to the Hudson. It really is home. It feels like a part of me. In fact we named our son Zachary Hudson Walsh. We almost named him Hudson. Anyway, it's dear to me. And I don't think the river has changed. I haven't been on the river much over the years since, but I still have the same feeling when I'm near the river. It's just such a peaceful place, it has its own life separate from all the hustle and bustle. It's always the place I know that we can go to, we being the community, to escape the busyness - which I think is one of the great fortunes of living near a body of water.
A refuge, exactly.
So, Jo, did you spend a lot of time doing that?
Jo: Always. But, because they were watching her I was not quite as…I didn't like it when she would almost get out of sight, but …And I didn't like it when she'd turn over and they'd have to go get her either, but that was okay. It made Jeff feel like a hero.
Jeanne: He was.
Jo: He was. All the people who worked down there were very friendly and welcoming. We knew all of them. They went up and down the hill 4 times a day. Mr. Carle was very welcoming and warm and kind. He was so kind that he sort of rescued an older friend of his and let him live down there in a little, little place, but he gave him stability and whatever, so Bud was in the neighborhood, and Mary, and you know, it was like I say, the people were very welcoming and kind.
Lots of children were born in these houses. I had a friend whose husband was born in this house and he must have been at least as old as I am, so maybe 75 or so years ago he was born here. We know babies that were born up on Ellen Street, so there were probably children born in all these old houses.
It was great, because not long after we moved in (October of '67 or '8) a family with small children moved into one of the houses on Ellen Street. The Perrys were here with their 3 children - they didn't have Rusty then. And there was a little girl, a Sarvent, in the Sarvent house. So there were lots of people for them to play with, the school was right around the corner for Tim and Jeannie. It was welcoming - I never felt unwelcome here for a day. Some of the older people wished there weren't so many children, but I never felt unwelcome down here at all.
Jeanne: I felt the same way about this little area as when I was a child. It's always been a safe place, it's always been quiet. I was always a quiet kid and liked being able to get away from the hustle and bustle of Nyack. Upper Nyack and down here always had its own sort of peacefulness and I like the ability to come home and get away from all the other kids around me and just walk around. And back then we had the freedom to walk down to the boatyard - which I did.
Jo: It was a big part of our life.
Jeanne: Walking around down there, visiting. One of my closest friends when I was really little was Mary Anderson who was the night watchwoman down at Petersen's who I adored. Even though she was old enough to be my grandmother, we had a great friendship. She was this person I looked up to and loved. And she was also kind of a quiet person. We walked together on our visits. Anyway, I would say that what I love about this community is the fact that there is still that feeling, that you can still come here and feel that it's a safe haven.
Recorded at the Peabody home July 10, 2004
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