You know the brown house that sits in Central Park with a flagpole that flies the Swedish flag? How did it get there? And why?
Today the Swedish Cottage hosts one of the few public marionette theater companies in the U.S. and celebrated puppeteers Tom Lee and Matthew Acheson have directed a show that chronicles the cottage’s journey from Sweden to America.
Fairy tale with imagination
It’s a fairy tale with a large dose of imagination in it, portraying Sweden as a place with meatball factories and a golfball-swallowing August Strindberg. In a forest some trees are being cut down in order to make the cottage, which is later stolen by a UFO and transported via ship to Philadelphia where, in 1876, it is to participate in the Centennial Exposition. During its stormy Atlantic crossing, the cottage comes in between a love struck whale and a giant squid. Saved again by the UFO, the cottage is dropped down in Philly, celebrated and feted at the Centennial, and then travels by train to New York and Central Park, its final destiny.
“Our programs are generally based on classic fairy tales,” explains James Burke, City Parks Foundation Director of Arts and Cultural Programs. “For this piece we wanted something original, we wanted to fabricate our own fairy tale from scratch. We reached out to Tom Lee, whom we had seen doing puppetry at La Mama, and he said he definitely wanted to do something, so we sat down with him and Matt Acheson. They began working intensely on it last August. Although it is a fairy tale story, several details in it are based on facts. For instance the cottage actually fell off the ship, but only when it had reached the harbor. And of course it was all dismantled then.”
Burke said it was also important to expand the age range, and get the bigger kids and possibly even grown-ups, excited. Lee and Acheson were given plenty of information about the Swedish Cottage and began embroidering on that.
“They were very open with what we could do,” explains Lee, an accomplished puppeteer who had never before worked with the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater.
An amazing place in an amazing location
“I was intrigued because I think the cottage is an amazing place, as is Central Park of course. And to me a theater is always a place with lots of memories attached to it, a lot of shows―it’s a special place.”
For a Swede watching the show, the details are amazing: The ship carrying the house over the ocean looks familiar, the text on the proscenium reads: “Inte bara för nöjes skull,” several times signs flashing by are written in perfect Swedish, and then there are the tomtar, all the gnomes.
“Well, I should let you know that the mother of my children comes from Malmö!” laughs Lee. “And I’ve visited there several times, so I know a bit. We’ve read a lot of Elsa Beskow to the children. I also put a Dalahäst in and yes, the ship in the show was modeled after the Vasa ship.”
The Swedish Cottage was a gift from Sweden to the United States, and was based on a customary schoolhouse model. It was built in Sweden, dismantled and then brought in sections to Philadelphia for the Centennial Exposition in 1876, where it was a part of the Swedish Pavilion (where, curiously, S.A. Andrée, later famous for his disastrous North Pole balloon expedition, worked as a janitor). A visitor to the Swedish Pavilion was Frederick Law Olmstead, co-designer of New York’s Central Park, who thought the cottage would make a nice addition to his park, and since nobody else seemed to want it, the cottage was purchased for $1,500 and moved to New York. It has since served a variety of functions, including a tool shed and Civil Defense District Headquarters (during WWII), and for a while it was quite run down. It’s been a puppet theater since the 1940s. In 1973 the interior was remodeled to include a permanent stage. The cottage is made of Baltic fir and is listed on the Historic House registry of New York City. City Parks Foundation took over the programming and operation of the cottage in 1998.
For more information:
The Secret History of the Swedish Cottage