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Puppet master: Cheryl Capezzuti's creations captivate Pittsburgh crowds

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
| Saturday, July 30, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Puppet maker Cheryl Capezzuti with some of her puppets in her studio.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Puppet maker Cheryl Capezzuti with some of her puppets in her studio.
Puppets created by artist Cheryl Capezzuti are lined up in preparation for the Pittsburgh bicentennial parade on Saturday, July 9, 2016.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Puppets created by artist Cheryl Capezzuti are lined up in preparation for the Pittsburgh bicentennial parade on Saturday, July 9, 2016.
Artist Cheryl Capezzuti gets her puppets ready for the Pittsburgh bicentennial parade on Saturday, July 9, 2016.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Artist Cheryl Capezzuti gets her puppets ready for the Pittsburgh bicentennial parade on Saturday, July 9, 2016.
Artist Cheryl Capezzuti's puppets in the Pittsburgh bicentennial parade on Saturday, July 9, 2016.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Artist Cheryl Capezzuti's puppets in the Pittsburgh bicentennial parade on Saturday, July 9, 2016.
Cheryl Capezzuti works on a Roberto Clemente puppet for Pittsburgh's bicentennial parade earlier this summer.
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
Cheryl Capezzuti works on a Roberto Clemente puppet for Pittsburgh's bicentennial parade earlier this summer.
Artist Cheryl Capezzuti paints a depiction of Ebenezer Denny, Pittsburgh's first mayor, during a Roving Art Cart stop in Mt. Washington on Friday July 8, 2016.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Artist Cheryl Capezzuti paints a depiction of Ebenezer Denny, Pittsburgh's first mayor, during a Roving Art Cart stop in Mt. Washington on Friday July 8, 2016.
Imanuel Giles, 14, of Israel, paints during a Roving Art Cart stop in Mt. Washington on Friday July 8, 2016.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Imanuel Giles, 14, of Israel, paints during a Roving Art Cart stop in Mt. Washington on Friday July 8, 2016.

“Where are Roberto Clemente's hands?” asked Cheryl Capezzuti.

“Are these them?” replied her assistant.

“No, they aren't,” Capezzuti said. “They belong to someone else — Sidney Crosby, I think. If we can't find them, we will just have to make new ones.”

Artist and master puppet maker Capezzuti was referring to the costume hands for a puppet of the former Pittsburgh Pirates baseball star. Her commission was to create likenesses of him and other Pittsburgh celebrities, such as Crosby, for the city's bicentennial celebration parade.

Papier-mache heads and pairs of hands were strewn about her Brighton Heights driveway.

And she wouldn't have it any other way.

“I get cranky on days I don't make art,” Capezzuti said, standing in a garage full of colorful puppet heads and costumes, with streaks of paint in various shades decorating her pants. “We often leave heads and hands out in the driveway. If I need to make another puppet, I might have to go to my closet and pull out another head. I have extras.”

The lightheartedness of her personality makes her the perfect person to create and bring fun characters to life, say those who know her. She projects her easy-going nature into her work every minute.

But, in the beginning, her longterm career plan didn't include puppet maker.

Capezzuti spent her college days studying architecture at Penn State for three years. Then she got a job at the arts center on campus, which collaborates with the annual arts festival in State College. She changed her major to an integrative arts degree and met puppet maker Sara Peattie, of the Puppeteers Cooperative out of Boston, who was an inspiration.

The first puppet Capezzuti made was a turquoise iguana. She's made too many to count since then.

She admits she doesn't know where all of her creations are, with some on loan, some purchased, some being housed at the Braddock and Butler libraries. But she's OK with that, because she likes that her puppets are making people smile and are out in the community.

She wouldn't be able to do as much as she does without the support of the Sprout Foundation, she says, which provides funds for the lending library, and help from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

“My work is about connecting with the community, and these puppets belong to so many people, from those who help make them to those who inspire the different puppets,” Capezzuti says. “I love sharing my puppets. If they go away for a while, that's OK, because I believe one day they will return.”

For the bicentennial parade, she created a timeline of Pittsburgh that included celebrity puppets — from Fred Rogers to Queen Aliquippa, Clemente and Crosby — and signs of Pittsburgh firsts, such as the retractable dome of the Civic Arena, the polio vaccine, the Ferris wheel, the Ice Capades, plus a commercial and a public television station.

The heads of her large puppets are 30 inches high, with the completed puppets stretching 10 feet tall. She fashions costumes out of tissue lame and confetti dot sequins, which are see-through so individuals wearing the puppets can see where they are going. The person under the costume wears a backpack with a stick attached to it.

Capezzuti teaches classes, including youth workshops, at Touchstone Center for Crafts in Farmington, Fayette County. Operations manager Stefanie Glover says Capezzuti does everything from instructing how to make puppets to putting together a dance routine and parade with the characters and the children.

“I use my delight meter when deciding whether to take a job. … I will do it if it makes me happy,” Capezzuti says.

“She's got such a great way of interacting and engaging the kids,” Glover said. “Her work is both funky and vibrant — with a whimsical flair. She is down-to-earth and so easy to work with.”

Capezzuti says making puppets comes easy for her. She often looks at photos and prints them out and creates from what she sees. She enjoys the teaching side, too, such as when she works with the Citiparks Roving Art Cart, which visits a neighborhood park or playground Tuesdays through Fridays in the summer. She's been a part of this project for 10 years.

“We always come to the art cart,” said Tirtza Giles, who is originally from Squirrel Hill and visits Pittsburgh every summer with her three children to see her mother. “It gets them away from computers and iPads and into doing activities such as painting or drawing. They are having fun here.”

Capezzuti's art is welcomed every year at the FedEx Ground Parade at Highmark First Night Pittsburgh, says Sarah Aziz, program manager for festivals and special projects for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

“Cheryl Capezzuti has been the cornerstone of the parade for over 10 years,” Aziz said. “To create the puppets, which are the focus of the parade every year, Cheryl and her studio assistants engage community members to build the pieces, which highlight the festival's annual theme. Cheryl's dedication, enthusiasm and general joy around this project is contagious, and the parade's popularity and success can be directly linked to her and her team.”

Capezzuti will do whatever you ask her to do, says Tinsy Labrie, vice president of marketing for Visit Pittsburgh.

“We love Cheryl Capezzuti,” Labrie said. “She introduced her puppetry talents to Pittsburgh, and we were hooked. She is another of the wonderful cultural artists living and working here who help make our cultural tourism marketing activities that much more effective. Cheryl's creations are an asset to many major events in the city, including Pittsburgh's bicentennial, First Night and gallery crawls.

“Pittsburgh is lucky to have her.”

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7889 or jharrop@tribweb.com.

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