celebrating a sense of place

Pinocchio was probably the most famous marionette of all – the puppet who became a real boy. While Sydney Delle Donne’s marionettes don’t actually come to life, they come very near to it on her newly released app, “A Tale of Two Mice.”

Even with GPS, we got lost trying to find Sydney Delle Donne’s “farmette” in the hinterlands of Chester Township. A Staten Island ex-pat (“can’t you tell from this poshy accent,” she asked) who always wanted to live in the country, Sydney is a smart and savvy down-to-earth frenetic fast-talker full of self-deprecating wit, shoot from the hip honesty, and comedic timing that could rival the late Joan Rivers – we liked her immediately. In less than thirty minutes, we knew who had lived in her house over the past two centuries, the symbiosis of vinyl siding and ivy, what was behind the wallboards and in the ceiling, where the guests slept during the holidays, where she got her dog, Snoopy, and her horse, Lakota, all about her two sons (the radiologist “who was always a bit of a germaphobe” and the virtual reality superstar [and one of their girlfriends]), her husband the architect, her work as a much-sought-after display artist for the biggest names in the toy industry and the now defunct Lechters, her best friend from kindergarten who is a NYC mounted policeman, meeting Meryl Streep in FAO Schwartz, fake cake and Marissa Tomei, the summer she was almost on “Shark Tank,” her bout with cancer, why she never should have admitted that she doesn’t like modern impressionist art, the invasive species in her yard, being a mime at Bloomingdales, the time a hooker got in her car… and, oh by the way, did I mention that she’s a marionettist and makes her own puppets?

Sydney and her horse Dakota.

“Nothing is sacred,” Sydney told us. “This is a seven dollar negligee I bought at Sears,” she said, holding up a glittery piece of fabric that will be sewn into a costume. “I cut up anything that isn’t moving or shaking.”

Sydney is completely self-taught, though it’s obvious from her stunning, hand-painted backdrops and costume designs that she’s a talented artist with innate skills (and it doesn’t hurt that she’s a graduate of the School of Visual Arts). If she’s in a rush and uninterrupted, she can complete a puppet, start to finish in about four days.

“Luckily, my husband’s rarely here,” she said.

Sydney has been in love with the art form of marionettes since she was nine years old, performing with her puppets at local libraries, and kids’ parties.

“Oh my God,” groaned Sydney, recalling the reaction from some of the mothers at her sons’ birthday bashes, “she’s gonna whip out the puppets and we’re never gonna leave.”

While a few of the moms may not have given her marionettes the love they deserved, “don’t change diapers on my display” Sydney quipped, the kids are always mesmerized and invariably want to grab hold of them when the curtain comes down. “They rush the stage!” said Sydney.

So, to avoid the perils of backyard puppetry, Sydney has developed an ingenious smart phone app. Combining her puppetry know-how with the design and video skills she acquired as a display artist, she’s created an interactive e-book with marionettes, animation, and sound that can be downloaded on to a smart phone. Kids can read along with the dialogue and press twinkling stars on the touch screen to turn pages and change scenes. “I always wanted people just to pick up their phones and see a puppet show,” Sydney told us. “Now, if your kid is driving you nuts at the grocery store, you hand them the phone and say ‘here kid, watch a puppet show.’” “It’s really fun and it makes kids want to read.”

Unlike hand puppets, marionettes are those little jointed figures manipulated from above by strings or wires (think Howdy Doody or the “Lonely Goatherd” sequence from the film The Sound of Music) and Sydney makes them all herself. Most of the bodies are made from jointed blocks of wood, using about 36 wood screws on average. Sydney casts the limbs in a silicon mold using Das® modeling clay, but she isn’t averse to utilizing and recycling just about anything she can get her hands on. A gorgeous owl she showed us was a perfect example of her ingenuity. It started life as one of those plastic owls that you buy to scare off other birds in your garden until Sydney got him into her studio, which doubles as a dining room and sometimes guest room, and brought him to life.

“We sawed his head off, we added feathers, and then we added all fake fur around him,” she said.

The body is made from an old coffee can and the eyes are baubles from a pair of woman’s slippers she bought at the Friends of Matheny thrift shop, Second Chance, in Gladstone, where she’s a part-time volunteer.


A Tale of Two Mice

Sydney Delle Donne Brings Her Marionettes the the Small Screen in a Big Way

By C.G.Wolfe  ● Photos By Susan Pedersen

All of Sydney’s scripts are original stories and she does the staging and filming at home, using her back deck as a makeshift film studio. Her picturesque 18th century home, abutted by forested parkland, is also an ideal sylvan setting for magical happenings on a midsummer’s morn, when mice in sun bonnets, hoot owls, and ancient turtles on invisible strings toil in the vegetable garden, find refuge in a hollow tree trunk, or paddle a boat across Peapack Brook. While she is the voice for many of her characters (I don’t know how she conceals that “poshy” accent) she also enlists willing and unwilling family members to take on roles and help with the puppetry.

“That’s me being the puppet Nazi,” said Sydney. “Move it, get your paws off of it, hold it still… my son got fired. He wasn’t an enthusiastic enough turtle.”

Sydney teamed up with a seasoned app publisher, who not only guided her through the entire process, but acted almost as an agent, giving her editing advice (“there’s not enough movement – more movement!”), encouragement, and nagging her about deadlines (he’s already on her about the Spanish version of “Tale of Two Mice” and her Halloween book, “Who’s Afraid of Ghosts?”). The results of all her work are amazing, absolutely adorable and will probably be the next big thing. “The app is $1.99” she said, “the app store and the publisher get $1.20 – I get 80 cents.” We know all about labors of love, Syd. We left Sydney at her studio table and overflowing desktop on her laptop, watching scenes from her A Tale of Two Mice.

“My name is Daisy and I live in the country where I work in my garden growing delicious vegetables,” the little mouse Marionette cooed.

“When I’m not losing my mind,” Sydney added as an aside.

A Tale of Two Mice is available for only $1.99 at the App Store. To learn more and to watch a video clip, visit www.countrymousepuppets.com.