George Konnoff was born in San Francisco, and ended his life as a New Yorker. New York was the right city for him, I think; he always did love to make a deal.
He was the artistic good son of a tough working-class
family, married young, had a son, and ran off to join the
circus in the sixties. He worked with the San Francisco
Mime Troupe for some years, touring around and causing
trouble. later he worked with the Bread and Puppet Theater,
a group with which he formed strong ties, which he loved,
and to which he returned periodically.
In 1976 George co-founded the Puppeteers' Cooperative. After a few years he moved to Vermont and dropped the Co-op while he married Kylah Friedman and with her raised two kids, Alexis and Jacob. In Montpelier he organized cabarets combining his two loves, theatre and cooking. Later he moved to Massachusetts and teamed up with Theresa Linnihan, who was running the Children's Theater of Newburyport at Maudsley State Park. They moved to Minnesota and then to New York, and stayed together until the end of George's life.
In the late eighties or early nineties he picked up the Puppet Co-op again with me, Sara Peattie. We worked with community groups all over the country doing parademaking workshops. We also started doing giant puppet pageants, massive barely-rehearsed extravaganzas which George (and I) loved. These reached their peak in a series of pageants for the Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors Festival in New York. They featured an audience of thousands, an original jazz score related only loosely to the action, masses (more than a hundred) of youths from different settlement houses, a growing cast of talented puppeteers, actors and eccentrics, freely improvising narrators, and the New York midsummer weather, a major actor in itself. All of these (except the weather) were rehearsed, if at all, separately and in areas not at all resembling the stage. To see George putting one of these pagents together on the fly was to see a sort of perfect pitch in dealing with human beings practiced and studied and carried to an operatic extreme. At the end of the last pageant the audience rescued our heroine by chanting "Life, liberty, happiness" while dancing the hoochie-koochie - and they did dance, they got and danced, respectable old ladies at Lincoln Center dancing on the chairs and chanting, while hundreds of giant flowers flooded the stage..... George could do that.
The last project George worked on was the Rights of Spring in Prospect Park. It wasn't commissioned by anyone, it wasn't funded by anyone, George just wanted to do it, for the pleasure of the Spring and for the pleasure of the crowd, and for the pleasure of working with the puppeteers. It was a cold day, and by fifteen minutes before the show, we still had about fifty banners to give out and no audience or audience participants; even I wondered... a quarter of an hour later, there we were, banners all flying, marching off.
The Rights of Spring, George in center, in white shirt
When George was in his early hippie days, he used to
have a pet goat which would sneak into the house through
the cat door to snuggle up to him in bed, and, indeed, the
desire to snuggle up to George seems to have been nearly
universal. He was timorous about strange places, swimming,
and sewing machines, and brave about taking on the police, asking
for money, and death.
When George knew that he was dying, he worked on it in an organized fashion. He visited his mother, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Kylah, and the Bread and Puppet Theater. He watched all the old movies he liked on video, and ate all the foods he liked. He went out to the park and to say hello to the people in his neighborhood as long as he could. He died when he was ready, with his family and friends around him. By the next week, it seemed so peaceful as to be almost idyllic.
George never stayed long at any straight job, the kind with benefits. He had no health insurance and no savings, and no likelihood of ever having any. He spent money as fast as it came into his hands. He hadn't paid taxes in years.
George's great gift was for pleasure, and for comfort, for himself, and for others.
Consider the lilies of the field: they toil not, nor do they spin; yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.