On a recent Tuesday, a curious visitor made her way down Back Bay’s narrow Public Alley 437 to a hobbit-sized door. There, on the backside of Newbury Street’s historic Emmanuel Church, hung a sign: “Ring bell.”
After a few minutes, the wooden door opened slowly. A petite woman peeked out, smiling as she squinted into the afternoon sun. “Here to see the puppet library?” she asked.
Sara Peattie is the legendary keeper of one of the Back Bay’s best-kept secrets: Boston’s Puppet Free Library. She is a puppeteer, puppet-maker, and puppet librarian.
For over 40 years, Peattie has perfected this storytelling style of the ancients, entertaining communities across the world. Her puppets are regular attendees at some of Boston’s signature events, such as First Night — fanciful images woven into the city’s memories year after year.
She is the cofounder of a nonprofit called the Puppeteers’ Cooperative, started in 1976 with the late puppeteer George Konnoff, and the author of a pamphlet called “68 Ways to Make Really Big Puppets.” In June, she received the annual Paul Vincent Davis Award from the Puppet Showplace Theater in Brookline for her lifetime contribution to the craft.
But from 2 to 7 p.m. most Tuesdays, anyone can come see Peattie among the power tools, work tables, glitter, and glue in the church basement lair, where she gives tours and loans out puppets.
“I spend my days doing what I love,” Peattie said. “Puppetry has everything. It combines sculpture and sewing and painting and performance and music and symbolism.”
On this afternoon, Peattie led the way into a dank basement vault where hundreds of puppets sat, many staring out onto the room. On rows of shelves were 12-foot dancing cats, giant Little Shop of Horrors-style flowers, and flying dragons. There were masks and monsters with snaggle-teeth. When they’re not brought out to start wild rumpuses at community pageants and parades, this is their home. Some Peattie made herself using materials such as clay or cardboard, though her favorite medium is papier-mâché. The rest were made by other local puppeteers.
“Her creativity is understated . . . she’s the inspiration and the leader, and the rest of us come along as we can,” said Jackie Smith, a puppeteer from Cambridge who has performed with the Puppeteers’ Cooperative. “Puppeteers . . . might be very shy, but when they’re in a puppet they can fly, walk on water, be magnanimous and big.”
Peattie doesn’t ask people why they need to borrow a puppet. It’s a free service. With just a name and a phone number, teachers borrow puppets for classrooms. College students take them to throw impromptu puppet parties in the Public Garden.
The puppet program at the church began as the brainchild of Emmanuel’s late Rev. Al Kershaw, the rector in the 1980s, who was fond of puppetry. Today, they see this and other visual arts projects as part of their mission. The library itself “oozed into existence,” as Peattie likes to say, in the ’90s.
“We give the church money when we have money,” she said. “In turn, they let us be here. We couldn’t afford to rent a broom closet at Boston’s market value.”
The church community appreciates its unusual longtime tenant.
“As far as I know for myself, Sara has always been there,” said Michael Scanlon, a member of the Emmanuel Church congregation and chairman of the building commission in charge of maintenance. “She’s a wonderful member of the family.”
Peattie was born in Chicago to an architect father, who believed anything could be fixed with a wire hanger, and an anthropologist mother who eventually taught in MIT’s urban planning department. In 1969, before she was out of high school, Peattie began touring with Peter Schumann’s famous troupe Bread and Puppet, using puppets in political actions in the streets of Eastern Europe and to protest the Vietnam War at home.
They once opened for Joan Baez during the Newport Folk Festival.
“People kept screaming, ‘Get off the stage,’ ” Peattie said laughing. “That stayed with me.”
Roxanna Myhrum, artistic director at the Puppet Showplace, considers Peattie a national treasure.
“For forty years, her parades and pageants have defined Boston’s First Night experience, more so, I would argue, than fireworks and ice sculptures,” Myhrum said in an e-mail. “Her giant puppets have brought joy to community events and political actions across New England and New York City.”
Peattie said she thinks of herself as a medieval mechanic. Her hands are covered in paper cuts, hot glue burns, and endless nicks and scratches. As she shuffled around her domain, she pointed out the puppets she’s made.
Her favorite, she said, is always the one she’s working on at the time.
“Puppets made my brother nervous,” Peattie said, looking around the vault. “He said there were too many eyes looking at him.” She knows puppets can be frightening as well as beautiful.
“I sometimes think my life’s work is scaring children,” she said mischievously.
On certain summer days, Peattie admits, she dons a giant mouse mask she made, adding a patterned dress and white veil. She’ll push a cart filled with puppets to lend out across the street to the Public Garden. On it are the words, “Ms. Mouse’s Art Emporium. Take what you want. Give what you like.”
Sometimes, she’ll sit perfectly still and knit as kids approach, cautious about this rodent in their midst. They’ll grab masks from her cart and chase one another. Other days, Ms. Mouse romps about shouting, “Art For All!” taking joy in startling every passing parent and child.