June 01, 1987 12:00 PM

During the Roaring ’20s the longest-running show in New York was staged far from Broadway, amid the tenements and sweatshops of lower Manhattan. There, night after night, homesick Italian and Sicilian immigrants flocked to a storefront theater to see Papa Manteo’s life-size marionettes put on Orlando Furioso, an oral epic of chivalry presented in 394 separate installments of two hours each, for a total running time of 788 hours. A traditional Sicilian drama based on the exploits of a medieval knight sworn to spread Christianity among evil pagans, Orlando Furioso each evening featured clangorous battle scenes in which 5-foot-tall marionettes in metal armor bashed each other with heavy broadswords. Rowdy audiences cheered the heroes, and on occasion got so carried away they joined the fray. “One time a guy popped up from his seat, pulled out a gun and then—boom, boom—he took two potshots at the villain,” recalls Mike Manteo, 78. ” ‘Take that, you bastard,’ he said. ‘You’re dead now.’ Let me tell you, there was a panic in our theater that night.”

Half a century later Manteo, who inherited the honorific “Papa” from his late father, Agrippino, has gotten more than 200 of his marionettes out of storage and is reviving the proud family tradition. The Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences recently began staging selected episodes of Orlando Furioso and plans to continue on a regular basis. Papa Mike and his sister, Ida, the only surviving members of the original Manteo family puppet troupe, throw all the voices in Italian. Members of the extended Manteo clan, led by Papa Mike’s son Pino, 53, handle the marionettes. Even Papa Mike’s 9-year-old grandson and namesake gets into the act, running errands backstage. As director, Papa Mike, still barrel-chested and stentorian despite his years, demands perfection from every one of them. “If there is a little mistake, I do the same thing my father did,” he says. “I go haywire. After the scene is over, I become a very angry beast.”

Papa Mike remembers his father as a severe man whose “blue eyes would scintillate when he got mad.” A Sicilian-born orphan who grew up scrounging from carnival vendors and sleeping in puppet theaters, Agrippino arrived in New York in 1919 with a handful of marionettes and a love for show business. Settling in Little Italy, he ran an electrical business by day and staged puppet performances at night. Agrippino’s wife, Caterina, collected quarters at the door, and four sons and a daughter helped backstage. “I started out as a kid cranking the pianola—an old hurdy-gurdy,” Papa Mike says. “But whenever my father wasn’t around, I’d practice handling the puppets. All the while he pretended not to know. I guess he figured it would kill my interest if he was always looking over my shoulder. Eventually I was allowed to manipulate the marionettes onstage, and my father came down to direct the show from the wings.”

As the story of Orlando Furioso unfolded, episode by episode, the hero, Orlando, and his main sidekick, Rinaldo, encountered fire-breathing dragons and wicked sorcerers as well as a fair number of damsels in distress. “We tried to give the stories a little sex appeal,” Papa Mike says. “Of course Orlando was very pious, like a saint. He didn’t mingle too much with the girls. But his partner Rinaldo was worse than Errol Flynn—a real skirt chaser. He’d disappear with some damsel for 15 minutes, and everyone knew he was giving her the works.” Romance, however, was a secondary attraction, and no episode was complete without a grand battle. “If there wasn’t any fighting, people wouldn’t sit still to watch the show,” Papa Mike says. “Whenever one war ended, there was another one beginning. And we always left each episode in a cliff-hanger so people would come back the next night.”

The violence also left a lot of the marionettes in considerable disrepair, while the intricate plot demanded an ever-growing cast of characters. So Papa Mike and his siblings spent their days fixing battered old warriors and handcrafting new ones. Weighing up to 125 lbs. apiece, the marionettes were carved out of wood, with padded torsos and detachable heads. Warriors wore full armor made from scrap metals. Other characters were arrayed in velvets and satins. Over the years the Manteos accumulated some 500 priceless marionettes, each individually named and doted upon by the family.

During the Depression the Manteos lowered their admission price from 25 cents to 20 cents; nevertheless attendance steadily dwindled. “Even if only a handful of people showed up, my father always insisted on performing as if there were a packed house,” Papa Mike says. But just as people were getting more change in their pockets, radio and talking pictures delivered the coup de grace. In 1938 the Manteos closed up their theater and put their beloved marionettes in a friend’s cellar. Agrippino died a few years later. “It was a tragic end,” Papa Mike says. “My father was getting on, and he lost all his pep because he was no longer on the stage every night.”

In the years that followed, Papa Mike worked as an electrician to support his wife, Mary, now 81, and their two children. Meantime many of the puppets were mistakenly thrown out by a landlord, and many others were ravaged by rot. Then in the ’50s Papa Mike took out some of his favorites and started mending them in his shop. “Working with the marionettes again got me so excited,” he says, “I went a little crazy and neglected my electrical trade.” At Mary Manteo’s insistence, he got back to work, bringing the puppets out only for occasional shows at schools or folk art festivals.

Now retired from the electrical business, Papa Mike can give full time to the puppet theater at last. In anticipation of coming episodes, he spends most days in a big Staten Island workshop studying the saga of Orlando and mending ailing knights and knaves. Surrounded by the surviving marionettes—they hang in long rows, waiting to be called into battle—he is a man at peace. “I’ll die if I’m separated from these marionettes again,” Papa Mike says. “They are part of my soul.”

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