It wasn’t just his skill as a puppeteer that won Bobby Box fans and friends all over the world. It was also his endless enthusiasm, his agreeable nature and his warm embrace of others. Box, who spent more than 20 years at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts, died unexpectedly last week at his home in Woodinville, Washington. He was 61.
Robert Lee “Bobby” Box grew up in Arkansas and attended both Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he received degrees in, among other areas, dramatic arts. After a brief time in Ohio for a master’s degree from Bowling Green State University, he moved to Atlanta and began doing theater, eventually becoming an active member of the Piccadilly Puppets Company. Jon Ludwig, now the Center for Puppetry Arts’ artistic director, saw Box in a show in the late 1980s and approached him about working at the center. Box balked. He didn’t want to leave Piccadilly in a lurch, but he did join Ludwig in Midtown in 1988.
During a 22-year career, Box directed, wrote and adapted scores of shows, eventually becoming an associate producer at the center. He directed such productions as Charlotte’s Web and The Shoemaker & the Elves for its Family Series; A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Don Quixote, Tales of Edgar Allan Poe and Live Faust, Die Young for its New Directions series; and oversaw the center’s Xperimental Puppetry Theater (XPT) program for adult audiences. In 2003, he directed The Velveteen Rabbit, performed in Cantonese, at the Ming Ri Theatre in Hong Kong.
His acclaimed Anne Frank: Within & Without, which he wrote and directed for the 2005–06 season, was arguably his signature work. He received a Jim Henson Foundation grant in support of the show, which received national attention, including a preview in The New York Times. The piece won Box a prestigious award from the Union Internationale de la Marionnette American chapter (UNIMA).
Getting permission to stage the show was far from a straightforward process. “A lot of people had to sign off on that,” Ludwig recalls. “People had questions. When the average person thinks of a puppet show, they don’t think of Anne Frank. People needed it explained, and Bobby made a strong case for what it would be. It was such a hard story to be told. He told it, and he went all the way to Anne’s demise. Some productions stop with her capture. Bobby dared to do that.”
Stephen Michael Brown, president at Cookerly Public Relations, was on the center’s board of directors during Box’s tenure. “Bobby was so incredibly meticulous and sensitive in realizing his vision for this piece, of imbuing his jewel box of a puppet performance with such extraordinary heart. Those who saw this production were moved by how he reinvented the form — an emotional tempest in a dollhouse — and took audiences on an altogether unexpected journey.”
Atlanta performer/puppeteer Alan Louis became the center’s education director in 2000 and says he was immediately taken by Box’s boldness. “What I find most exciting is that he created shows for the Family Series in the traditional lane but when it was time to adapt his own pieces, such as Poe or Anne Frank, he had the puppeteers in costumes onstage, free to move around in front of the audience. That was well before Avenue Q. It was unusual to see the performers, but it totally worked. Bobby felt doing that freed him up.”
Box’s work ethic and range especially impressed Ludwig. “He was a worker, and he took a lot of projects. He had the versatility to do shows for adults and kids. It is hard to go from one genre to another, from the world of Poe to the sweetness of his The Shoemaker & the Elves. But he loved what he did and became very well known in the puppet community.”
Box was always willing to work with new artists. Michael Haverty, producing artistic director at The Object Group, was one of those. “He was the guy that really brought me into the center,” Haverty says. “He directed me in my first show — The Shoemaker & the Elves in 2000 — and six altogether. He handed over XPT to me as well. He opened gates for people, gave so many people a chance, and brought them into puppetry.”
The art form seemed a natural fit for Box. “This was his world,” says Haverty. “He was so good with kids. He was kind of a kid at heart and fit right in at the location and with the audience that would show up. I feel Bobby could have fit in anywhere because he brought an openness. He was an excellent mentor, always giving advice on how to hold yourself in rehearsal. I learned so much from him. He would tell jokes and made the experience so pleasant and made everyone work harder and be able to access their imagination better.”
Box met Graham Kerr online in 2006, and the two became romantic partners. They had a commitment ceremony in 2007 in Atlanta and moved to Los Angeles in 2010. They married in 2014 on a Ringling Bros. yacht in Marina Del Ray, California, according to Alison Gail Pike, Box’s niece. The couple relocated to the Seattle suburb of Kirkland that year and later moved to Woodinville, where Box worked at the Wertz Bros. Antique Mart.
Box retired from theater when he moved to Los Angeles and began antiquing, becoming a founding sponsor of The Mart Collective in Santa Monica. “I love the fact that he let it all go,” says Haverty. “He busted his ass for so long and earned it and seemed to be living a simple and happy life.”
A week ago, on the evening of January 20, Kerr called Box from London, where he was working as executive vice president of a market research, political polling and strategic consulting firm. Kerr called again the next day and was unable to reach Box, which was unusual. He contacted property managers and asked them to check on Box. They found him unresponsive. Pike says he likely died in his sleep from heart failure.
Emerson Funeral Home in Box’s hometown of Jonesboro, Arkansas, is handling funeral arrangements. Visitation will be at 1–2 p.m. January 31, with a memorial service to follow. Burial will be at Jonesboro Memorial Park Cemetery. The Center for Puppetry Arts plans an evening of remembrance, with the date and other details to be announced later.
“I was looking through my flash drives and folders and papers and I couldn’t find anything with Bobby,” says Haverty. “Then I realized — everything he gave me is in my heart. It’s about how to treat people kindly, how to listen to people’s stories and bring joy to the workplace.”
In the past week, hundreds of friends and colleagues have paid tribute to Box on Facebook. Here are excerpts from some of the many, many memories.
Rachel Bodenstein Linkwald, former actor: I was just out of college. I was young and stupid and arrogant. You cast me in your show, and made my dream come true. I told my mom when I was 5 that I wanted to one day perform at the Center for Puppetry Arts. You truly made it the place of dreams: of play and exploration and challenge and sweat. Performing with the stomach flu and trying to walk my puppet offstage in character so that I could lift my puppet blacks and vomit before walking right back on and continuing the show. But one did such things for you. Because you had such passion, such faith in us. Your laughter made the walls shake. That’s a silence that will be felt. Your memory is a blessing, Bobby Box.
Reay Kaplan Maxwell, a resident puppeteer at the Center for Puppetry Arts: My career, my family, my life in Atlanta, I owe so much of to Bobby Box. He didn’t hire me right off, but saw enough in me to encourage me to find more of myself as an artist and come back. I did, he hired me, and we began a 20-year relationship, both professionally and as dear, dear friends. Bobby, you directed me in my first marionette show, with 14-inch strings, no less! You guided me through the Hundred Acre Wood, you covered my ass while I was puking off the puppet bridge, you adapted the most beautiful Edgar Allen Poe work that I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy as an audience member and as a performer. You had the biggest heart, the loudest laugh and most infectious zest for life, which you shared with every soul you touched. Rest in peace and love, my friend.
Therra Cat Jaramillo, arts administrator: I remember the first time I actually met you, Bobby (33 years ago, although I already knew your name then . . . everyone knew your name). I was pulling an all-nighter at Theatrical Outfit and bopped out the backstage door at about 2 a.m., and there you were. You just happened to be walking by. We chatted on the street. . . . I was so happy to reconnect on Facebook. I could feel your positive spirit even on this sometimes crazy social-media platform, even over the miles. Your smile was like no one else’s. Your smile . . . so “you” — warm, inviting, sassy, sexy, sweet.
Dina Shadwell, actor: Adding my voice to the oh-so-many who are mourning Bobby Box. He said it’s easier to teach an actor to be a good puppeteer than it is to teach a puppeteer to be a good actor. That’s why he was so willing to give so many their first puppeteering job, including me. And he kept casting me in wonderful roles that remain at the top of my theater memories. He made me laugh so much. And we even cried together in rehearsal after a national election that seemed so devastating back then. I love him and cherish my time with him. He is such a LIGHT. 😪❤️
Lorna Howley, actor–puppeteer: Bobby Box on my mind. Reading the posts and talking to dear ones I’m experiencing a flood of memories and feelings. I think we first met in late ’80s when we were seeing guys that were roommates. . . . Out of the blue he called me to talk me into an audition at CPA to be the witch in Hansel and Gretel — he was in the show as a puppeteer, he was not directing . . . yet. I had seen shows there and went in. It was the beginning of something, that show (those details are better revealed over drinks and time). Then when he directed his Professor Prattle’s Tales of Wonder, he called to offer me the role. He said, “There is some puppeteering involved, but I’ll teach you all you need to know.” And he did. I have had the experience of Bobby’s mentorship, encouragement, acceptance so many have shared. I have also had the privilege of performing with him. Frankenstein — Sweating side by side on the same puppet, him coaching and encouraging me to develop a skill I never thought I had. His XPT pieces! I think of Towing all the time. . . . So many shows, so many collaborations, so many laughs and so many disagreements (for the record he was always more gracious and forgiving on those occasions than I deserved). So many stories and ways to change the world . . . that time we drove the CPA van to the Henson Fest in NYC. So many memories, so many times hearing his laugh. His movie reviews lengthy, his Mardi Gras and Halloween costumes skimpy. Bobby mastered the balance of discipline, skill, dedication with the joy, abandon and curiosity it takes to be an artist. If you are now or ever have been, or ever hope to be a puppeteer at CPA, Bobby is a part of you. Cherish that. Be like Bobby, and balance. He will love that, he’s a Libra.