ST. ALBANS, W.Va. -- One day seven months ago, a phone call came for Tara K. Barton. It was Chris Lilly, a friend she'd known since first grade. "How would you like to play with puppets?" he asked her.
"And, of course, how could you turn that down?" said Barton, who'd been teaching in elementary schools for almost seven years.
Barton now calls herself "the other half of the Sassafrass Junction," a puppet theater that opened in November at 74 Olde Main St. in downtown St. Albans. Along with Barton and Lilly, the theater's other core staff members include puppet maker and puppeteer Benjamin Levesque and puppeteer Courtney Gleason.
Royal purple curtains line the Junction's storefront windows, promising a show behind them just like curtains on a stage. A long purple sign above the door features the smiling, furry face of a blueberry-colored Muppet-style creature, one of the theater's resident "Creek Critters," who welcomes you to the Junction.
Lilly, the Sassafras Junction's other founding half, said the name popped in his head one night at 3 or 4 in the morning. "Usually, that's when the best ideas come up."
He and some friends had crafted an elaborate puppet show for an annual party for some nieces and nephews, he recalled. "But when the party's over what do you with this set-up and this stage and everything?"
They thought first of doing a mobile show, driving to family birthday parties and the like. "But we found a little piece of real estate," Lilly said.
"They made us an offer couldn't refuse," Barton chimed in.
What they'd also found was a mayor keen to spur the arts on Olde Main Street. Across the street, the Alban Arts and Conference Center was the first fruit of that enthusiasm in 2008.
They began "dabbling" in decorating the space, Lilly said. Now, if he does say so himself, "it's quite a place of wonderment."
This was before they met puppet maker and puppeteer Benjamin Levesque. He'd gotten a degree in puppetry and children's entertainment through the West Virginia University theater department.
"So, now, " said Lilly with relish, "we'll be able to build our own."
A Massachusetts native, Levesque got hooked on puppetry by TV. "It was just something I always enjoyed as a kid. I loved watching 'Sesame Street', 'The Muppet Show,' all that stuff. One day, I realized that somebody actually had to do this kind of stuff. It seemed like something I could really excel in."
He generally makes Muppet-style puppets, but can also make marionettes, hand puppets and papier-mâché puppets.
The puppets all live in a place called Sassafrass Junction (there's a map on their website), which includes such attractions as the Octopus Gardens Amusement Park, Dr. Tottlebottom's Exotic Bird Aviary, Bait's Bait Shop, the Sassafras Falls and more.
Dr. Ophelia Tottlebottom is about the only non-puppet character you encounter in the junction. She bears a distinct resemblance to Barton on a poster advertising the doctor's "exotic Bird Show."
"She is the bird aviary expert and the only live person at Sassafras Junction. She has a husband, Capt. Charles Spurlock, 'the Crusty Barnacle,' that she never sees," Barton said. "He makes his appearances every once in awhile."