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Bernice Silver, Impish Puppeteer and Activist, Dies at 106

Ms. Silver was known as the “Queen of Potpourri” for her fast-and-furious storytelling ability as a puppeteer.
Ms. Silver was known as the “Queen of Potpourri” for her fast-and-furious storytelling ability as a puppeteer.Daniel E. Ungar/New York Times/File 1988

Bernice Silver, a hummingbird of a woman at 4 foot 8 inches, was a puppeteer whose performances were mock-chaotic, subtly cerebral, and always slyly subversive. She made sure to slip in a history lesson, or a plug for conservation or social justice. She called them happenings, for the political theater she was schooled in.

Her fellow puppeteers called her the Queen of Potpourri, for the fast-and-furious storytelling form at which she excelled (potpourris, as these performances are known because they contain a little bit of everything, are a beloved feature of puppetry festivals).

Ms. Silver died April 18 of respiratory failure at Englewood Health, a hospital in Englewood, N.J., said Dean Freedman, her nephew. She was 106. She had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

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Ms. Silver was a member of the sprawling tribe of troubadours and activists who inhabit the overlapping worlds of folk music, social justice, puppetry, and political theater. Pete Seeger had been a friend and fan. (Ms. Silver had long been involved with Friends of the Clearwater, Seeger’s environmental organization.)

The Bread and Puppet Theater once halted a show mid-performance to honor her. That tribute was at an event in Manhattan a month after the 2016 election, about which she declared, with typical good humor: “Where there’s light, there’s hope. Where there’s dirt, there’s soap.” The Bernice Silver Appreciation Society on Facebook has been flooded with accolades since her death.

The world of puppetry, said John Bell, director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut, “is multifaceted, permanently in flux, and ranges from the well-known arts of children’s entertainment and education to serious drama and avant-garde spectacle and performance. Bernice embraced that whole range of work. She was a beloved central figure in American puppetry.”

She was born Oct. 7, 1913, in Brooklyn, to Frances Resnikoff and Sam Silver, an itinerant salesman and candy store owner. She was the eldest of eight, and so sickly as a child that, Freedman said, she couldn’t quite believe she had outlived her siblings.

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Ms. Silver was trained as a nursery school teacher. She also worked at factories making candy, Eskimo Pies and radios and later, in the 1940s, sold encyclopedias and hair care products door to door in California.

She learned activism and political theater in New York in the 1930s, joining groups that were part of the workers’ theater movement of the time and giving agitprop performances on street corners and in factories, sneaking in through windows and singing to striking workers. She was always up for a good rally, and joined Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011.

It is not clear, her nephew said, exactly when she became a puppeteer, or why, but he noted that puppetry can be a form of activism, and maybe that’s what drew her to it, sometime in the early ’60s.

For more than half a century, Ms. Silver lived in a studio apartment on the corner of 95th Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan, which Freedman described as chockablock with books, flyers, sheet music, and puppets stuffed in drawers.

She had been living — and performing — since 2016 at the Lillian Booth Actor’s Home in Englewood and was a participant in the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University’s School of Medicine.

“At first glance you might dismiss Bernice as just a little old lady with puppets,” Bell said. “But she was telling stories about history and democracy. They weren’t just fairy stories for children. She believed the role of the arts was to support justice and equality.”

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