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After founder’s death, deal means Orlando puppets’ legacy will live on

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

When Tracey Conner died in June, the future of MicheLee Puppets — the educational puppetry company that was her life’s work and reached more than 2 million students over nearly 40 years — was in doubt.

But after months of behind-the-scenes discussions, the puppets — and Conner’s legacy — will be saved through a deal reached with Orlando Family Stage. The theater, which specializes in shows for young audiences, announced Thursday that it has acquired the assets of the small nonprofit and is committed to keeping alive its mission of helping youngsters cope with the world around them through the puppetry arts.

Representatives from both boards of directors met Tuesday afternoon to formally sign off on the deal.

“It’s such a sad thing that happened,” said Orlando Family Stage executive director Chris Brown of Conner’s death, which followed a long illness. “We’re in this because Tracey passed away.”

With puppets, Tracey Conner helped children and built community | Appreciation

Theater executives agreed that the work of the puppet troupe, which entertainingly teaches children about topics such as nutrition, exercise, science, making friends and dealing with bullies, was too important for the community to lose.

“With any long-running organization, we are concerned about its legacy,” said Orlando Family Stage artistic director Jeffrey Revels. “When we can help, we feel a responsibility to help.”

In this case, Revels said, “We have so much mission overlap, and we serve the same demographic. It made sense.”

Orlando Repertory Theatre changes name to reflect its mission

Arranging the deal required fortuitous help: from the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation, which made a financial contribution, from Junior Achievement of Central Florida, which is providing puppet storage space, from Orlando Family Stage staff members, who doubled as movers when MicheLee Puppets gave up the lease on its office.

“We got a bunch of staff and a U-haul and unloaded the office, so nothing was thrown out,” Revels said.

The Bush Foundation, which has longstanding relationships with both organizations, is providing a year’s salary for a MicheLee Puppets employee to join the Orlando Family Stage staff and oversee the integration of the programming. It was critical assistance, Brown said.

“It gives us time to bring that person here without worries about profitability,” he said.

Children find fun, friends in free ‘puppet chats’

“Our commitment celebrates the foundation’s passion for the arts, our admiration for Tracey Conner and MicheLee Puppets, and the innovative leadership of the board and staff of Orlando Family Stage,” said Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation president David A. Odahowski in a statement announcing the news.

Talks between the groups began months ago as Conner’s health worsened. As the deal was worked out, Brown said, helpful overlap between the two nonprofits was discovered. MicheLee puppeteers also worked on Orlando Family Stage productions and will continue to be contracted when needed. Board members from the two organizations already knew each other, which aided in the talks.

“We are very fortunate to have an organization like Orlando Family Stage in our community,” said MicheLee Puppets’ board president, RJ Manchester, in the official announcement. “We began talking with them when we saw that without Tracey’s guiding hand, the work of the company would be jeopardized. By working with Orlando Family Stage and looking at its very similar mission, we can ensure the mission of MicheLee Puppets continues.”

Orlando Family Stage acquired the puppets, sets and rights to MicheLee Puppets’ more than 80 original shows and other assets for $1 under the agreement. MicheLee Puppets will formally dissolve as a nonprofit, although the name will live on for the foreseeable future under the Orlando Family Stage umbrella. Board members of MicheLee Puppets will have the opportunity to join the theater’s board, Brown said.

Puppetry will be featured across Orlando Family Stage’s programs of classes, camps and full-scale productions, Revels said. And the smaller nature of puppet shows makes them a good fit for “mobile productions,” that can be produced around the community or in schools, as was common with MicheLee Puppets before the COVID-19 shutdown.

In the long term, Brown said, Orlando Family Stage hopes to attract former donors to the puppet troupe to support the theater, which will also pursue grants for the educational programming.

MicheLee Puppets was a far smaller organization, with a $250,000 annual budget compared with slightly more than $3 million for the theater, and Brown said Orlando Family Stage had enough staff to absorb the grant writing and other work the acquisition would entail.

“We have a whole team of people who can help,” Brown said. “I hope our efforts will make it easier for [the puppetry] work to shine.”

Revels said the Orlando Family Stage was taking to heart the responsibility of giving both MicheLee Puppets and the art form a future in Central Florida.

“We really feel honored,” he said, “that they trusted our organization to be the stewards of their work.”

Follow me at facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or email me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com. Find more arts news and reviews at orlandosentinel.com/arts, and go to orlandosentinel.com/theater for theater news and reviews.

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