Friday, October 30, 2015

The Tale Of The Marionettes.

During and after the war, the west of Scotland accepted a large amount of Italian migrants, mostly from the area around Barga. They integrated well into the community, setting up coffee bars, ice cream parlours and restaurants. All the great ice cream makers in Scotland are Italian, all the ice cream vans have names like Porrelli or Paraducci. The world famous Nardini empire might have been broken up by a family feud but, as it is an ill wind that blows no froth off a cappuccino, it means that we now have a Nardini's ice cream parlour and coffee shop right in the west end of Glasgow, where I set my novels.
And where I need to go for research.

The old puppet theatre

A family called Girasole moved from Barga into the West End of Glasgow around 1937 and started the Girasole Puppet Theatre ( the tiles of the premises above had a rather elegant Art Deco style  sunflower on each of the arches) which became the West End Puppet Theatre, which became the World Famous Vinicombe Street Puppet Theatre although its fame never really spread much further than Vinicombe Street itself.  It was a marionette theatre.  Automatonophobia is the fear of marionettes which is irrational and therefore a true phobia.  Pupaphobia is fear of puppets in general and as I would not like to meet Miss Piggy down a dark alley when I had chocolate and she was hungry, it is a true fear, therefore not a phobia.

In its hey day, the  building above had the two outer windows draped in red velvet curtains, blood velvet, huge swathes of them. Another curtain covered the upper portion of the central window and the puppets  of the moment would hang below, backdropped by some  appropriate scenery, bracketed by the sunflowers.  Did they move? Sometimes they did, pulled by invisible strings from the master puppeteer hidden behind the upper curtain. You can imagine the consternation of the passing shoppers, minding their own business, thinking about what to make for the tea and then out the corner of their eye they see the window display dance around. It was rumoured that the police told them to stop doing it as crowds of people stood and watched, causing an obstruction on the Queen's highway. This was in the 50's, way before Ipads.

As a kid, primary seven, our class went to see the Girasole Puppet Theatre, I think it was then billed as the greatest puppet show on earth.

I recall getting off the bus, full of  fizzy juice and sweeties and the building in front of me was this one ...

Which looks much more like a theatre than the theatre does. It's now a night club/eatery.

It still has the painted seahorse on the side of the building.

The road is a dead end on to the main road of Byres Road and these building are right at the corner. 


So the bus blocked the view of what was across the street. We ran up the side alley to what we thought was a stage door. Oh it was so exciting. Probably made more exciting with the inherent sense of danger to one who believed then, as I still do, that puppets have a desire to kill the human race and are probably in league with those master criminals the teddy bears. However I digress.

Mrs Babbapulle  told us all to get back into line. The bus reversed to reveal the puppet theatre 
in all its red velvet glory. .

Signora Girasole was a flamboyant character. She always started the show off, walking in front of the stage with the presence of an  opera diva on her day off, Her hair was jet black, cottage loaf style, her make up was  severe,  her manner was severe.  She would tell us what was going to happen, then a puppet fluttered down.  It was based on Tinkerbell obviously, probably just a mix of  fine lace, glitter and two bits of chicken wire on a string but we were impressed.  She would tell us the moral of the story - they always had a moral - but before she finished the  naughty boy puppet would appear and make rude gestures behind her back. It was pantomime. Her face never cracked.

Reading up on them now, the story is quite sad. She had been an actress and designed the puppet clothes and  their make up, their facial set if you like. Her husband was a master craftsman, a puppet maker  who specialised in marionettes. The show we saw was called The Enchanter, a cross between  Babes in the Wood and Peter  Pan.

 After five minutes you forget that they are puppets.

Then tragedy struck and the theatre was sold,  and bought over to become a garage which it has been for the last thirty years or so- the sign on the tiles outside now says the Botannics Garage.

Recently, the puppets, the scripts and the costumes have all come to light and are up for auction.

The premises are in a smart, trendy part of Glasgow. This building below is the public swimming baths, you can just see the old theatre at the end of the street.

Across Byres Road is the lane we went looking for on our quest for the old Girasole residence. These lanes are common in Glasgow. The property here is the most expensive in the west coast so every nook and cranny is now occupied.  I live ten minutes from here in a 130 year old four bedroomed  house with a two bedroomed granny flat in the huge garden and all that costs less than a one bedroomed flat here!

The Girasoles lived down here, a short walk to work - the back end of their  house had been converted for the puppet workshops.
We saw the back of this house

with a tailor's dummy in the window.

 We saw this tiny garden, a house built in what was obviously a stable or an out house.

Then we saw something that looked rather familiar from the news pictures I had seen.

This building turned out to be ...

 a garage within a big sliding door.

This looked like it. A white house with beautiful Rennie Mackintosh windows. It runs into the back of the tenement flat that would have been  the dwelling house.

The current owners have converted it into a house and added some modern Rennie Mackintosh designs.

Imagine this little lane being your walk to work, it is incredibly quiet - less than two minutes walk from the West End Hilton!

Going the other way.

The back door architecture. The steps down show just how much people have burrowed under to use every scrap of land.

Behind the gardens sits a  home - well a secure living facility - for the elderly. We could tell it was it by the very ornate fire escape at the rear.  Was this where Signora Girasole lived out her later years?

These windows have a magnificent view over the gardens and the city. These are locked gardens that belong to those that live in the surrounding square - each house has a key. The gardens do not allow children, dogs, or playing with a ball.  They are there for quiet contemplation and peaceful thought which you probably need after driving round for forty minutes to find a parking place.

It is rumoured that Mrs, sorry Signora Girasole lived out her final days here, staring out the window and talking to her puppets in Italian.  She had one son, who had one son and that son is now fighting for the remaining puppets  and  more importantly to him, the original plans of their puppets that his grandfather so carefully laboured over. The meticulous costumes they wore and the stories they told. And why?

It's all going under the hammer, with unsure provenance.  And Pietro is not happy.

It's a sad tale. But is it a convincing one?

Because I just made it all up. But yesterday I was on my flaneur for research for my next book and somehow, looking at the pictures it all came together. The book hopefully will be called Standing Still. As in the song, "The Duch of the terrace, never grew up, I hope she never will." By The Stranglers.  Their Waltz in Black will terrorize  anybody even slightly automanophobic. 

 I am away at my annual Grantown Crime Fest - the place with the gorilla on the street - another huge puppet!

Caro Ramsay  compulsive story teller   30 10 15


  1. A lovely tour, a lovely tale, and you had me all the way to the end, you marvelous liar.

  2. I never believed the bit about puppets taking over the world!

  3. One of my best friends growing up was a Girasole. I dare not tell you how he would have handled such disrespect to his dear uncle Sid and aunt Charise's memory. So happy it turned out to be just a fig newton of your crime-riddled imagination. Yes, dear Caro, it was a perfect cookie of a story.

  4. "Girasole" means sunflower in Italian. I GREAT bit of verisimilitude! I did not know you spoke la lingua. Bravissima!