Earlier this year, the University of Washington honored 97-year-old Wenatchee resident Aurora Valentinetti with the prestigious Distinguished Teaching Legacy Award.
In 1948 Aurora formed Valentinetti Puppeteers to provide an outlet for the talents and enthusiasm of the graduate students who had performed with the UW Puppeteers. From 1957 to 1959 they took on one of their biggest undertakings, the Christmas window show at Frederick & Nelson department store.
Aurora and I met at her apartment at Avamere Independent Living in Wenatchee, along with her niece Joanne Bratton of East Wenatchee. Aurora was surrounded by her favorite puppets, many of which she carved and painted by hand as well as sewed the clothing. She is sharp as a tack with wonderful memories her life and the students she taught. She doesn’t mince words. Aurora told me she has no idea how many puppets she owns but there are crates of puppets at the home she still owns in Seattle as well as at the Aurora Valentinetti Puppet Museum in Bremerton.
Every puppet has his or her own personality, she explained, and she talks to them. Some are cantankerous and difficult. Her first puppet, named Melody, was altered to become a ballerina for a performance in Pinocchio. Aurora cut off the feet and gave her new ballerina slippers allowing her to spin on her toes. One favorite puppet named Joy performed only once, after which time, Melody decided she didn’t like performing, Aurora told me, and the puppet never again appeared in a show. For as long as Joanne can remember, Melody has sat in a special chair in a protected case in Aurora’s bedroom and to this day remains a favorite of Aurora’s.
Teaching puppetry was the means to connect with students and build relationships with them. She became known for giving bluntly honest advice, such as when she told Harvey Blanks, one of her many Husky football students in the late 1960s, that he had no chance of playing professional football but that he did have the skills to become an actor. As it turns out, Blanks went on to an acting career that took him to Broadway.
Blanks recently wrote a note to Aurora that expressed his gratitude. “You saw something in me and never altered in conveying to me that if ever I got serious then I could succeed in this business. Well here I am,” he wrote.
Aurora never married, but she considers the countless students she taught over five decades to be her children. “It wasn’t for lack of proposals or propositions,” she told me. “I never met a man that I wanted to give up 98 percent of my private life to make him a success,” she added.
She misses Seattle but does get to spend weekends with Bratton and her husband Rex. The albums that Joanne has put together of news clippings, photographs, and other memorabilia has created a wonderful legacy of a lifetime of Aurora’s work and impact.
She built community one puppeteer at a time.