Cute monkeys head towards us in the driveway one is driving a wire car and the other is pushing an old jalopy.
Beatrice van Niekerk follows closely on their heels. At age 85 she sometimes struggles to stand upright, but there’s nothing wrong with her hands as she deftly manipulates the puppet animals.
These monkeys are just two of the puppets in a collection of 200 she accumulated during the decades she spent entertaining audiences.
She has a long and storied history with the dolls and as she shows us her puppets, memories come flooding back.
“These are the lions in my circus story,” she says. “They climb stairs then slide down. I have a she-goat who can flutter her eyelashes when the male performs for her. One of the dwarves could use his hand to throw confetti over Snow White and her prince. When the witch offers Snow White a poisoned apple, we rigged it, so she could use a knife to cut it in half before giving it to Snow White.”
But soon Beatrice will be leaving them all behind. It’s been 40 years since Beatrice and her late husband, Jarie, built this house in the Lake Brenton conservancy near Knysna, and the time has come to move on.
Although she’s going to miss the stunning lake views when she moves to a retirement village in Sedgefield to be nearer to her grandchildren in George, it’s the loss of her beloved puppets that will be the biggest sacrifice.
There’s simply no room for them in her new home, so she has to let them go.
“It’s not nice,” Beatrice says. “They’re my children.”
She wants to give them all to one person who’ll use them to enrich children’s lives, because she really wants her puppets to stay together.
But she’s made peace with the move.
“My daughter doesnt want me living here alone. It’s time. And Sedgefield is pretty too, by the lake.”
She pauses to point at a puppet lying on its back in the driveway.
“It looks a little the worse for wear. This one wasn’t good enough to be a clown in my circus. He’s a drifter who helps with the equipment that circus animals use to perform their tricks. Look what happens when the penny whistle starts playing”
Beatrice’s nephew, Gerald Brown (35), who also lives in Lake Brenton and has been her puppetry assistant for years, plays some music on his smartphone and immediately the puppets left foot starts tapping.
Then his body gets moving and soon he’s jiving to the music.
“One must have rhythm,” Beatrice says. With her hand, she transfers the dance moves her own body can no longer perform through the strings to the doll.
“Jarie used to handle this one in shows,” she says wistfully. “We were a dynamic team before he died. I wish we could give one last performance before I move and give them all away.”
Beatrice was a little girl when she first watched The Sound of Music. One of the scenes in the film that made the biggest impression on the young girl was the puppetry scene in which Maria [played by Julie Andrews] and the Von Trapp children tell the story of The Lonely Goatherd.
“My two sisters and I cut out our own paper dolls and my mom was a good seamstress. That’s where we learned to make clothes first paper clothes and later proper clothes for my puppets,” she says of her childhood just on the other side of the Knysna lagoon.
As a teaching student in Oudtshoorn, her class were given the task of making puppets and using them in a classroom environment.
That’s where she made her first proper puppet the one that started it all.
After graduating, she became a kindergarten teacher. Her first post was at a school near the now defunct Pomfret mine in what is today the North West. That’s where she met Jarie, a primary school teacher.
The children in her class sometimes helped her make papier-mch puppets everything from heads and legs to paws, beaks and trunks. Then shed dress the puppets before tackling the last crucial step: the strings. Its complicated work, which can take up to an hour per puppet. Fishing line is used to make the puppet moveable, so it can be manipulated by hand.
In the 1980s Beatrice decided to offer her puppetry to a larger audience than just her school classes. She started the puppetry company Jareb a combination of her and Jaries names.
They were living and working in the town of Lykso, between Vryburg and Kuruman and in November 1989 they had their first performance in the church hall.
She was 50 when she decided to start studying again to become a remedial teacher and her puppets really helped her when working with special-needs children.
“They can help children in every facet of their lives. Put a puppet in the hands of a shy child, and they’ll flourish,” she says.
When Beatrice turned 55, she and Jarie retired and in 1992 they moved into their home, which is now for sale.
Though they weren’t in the classroom anymore, the couple kept performing their puppet shows. They even performed at the Klein Karoo Arts Festival in Oudtshoorn.
Beatrice came up with the stories, while Jarie chose the music. The music perfectly fit with what was happening on stage. He was so good at it. She says because of their expenses they never earned much money from their puppet theatre.
“But what it meant to the children was enough of a reward,” she adds. “After one of our shows, I thanked the audience for their support. A man stood up and said, ‘No, we want to thank you.’”
She was ready for another arts festival in 2020 when the pandemic struck and then Jarie died of lung cancer later that year.
Jareb hasn’t performed since. Beatrice’s brother, Peter, joins the chat.
“You can’t believe how big and beautiful the puppets look with the right lighting. He gestures towards the two rails with puppets in his sisters front garden.”
She’s so proud of her dolls. It’s going to be a sad farewell for her.
“Each puppet is carefully and lovingly wrapped in newspaper and stored in a long box,” Beatrice explains. “I tie the strings up with pipe cleaners so they dont tangle, and I sprinkle cloves to keep insects away.”
Although she could earn some money by selling the puppets, she can’t bring herself to do it.
“They’re priceless. They come in a group and must remain part of that group. The person who takes them must also fetch them here from me. When they’re gone, all she will be left with are her precious memories. That, and one wish. They must keep coming alive in someone else’s hands.I wish we could give one last performance.”
Produced in association with Magazine Features ZA