Washington — ''The Manteo Sicilian Marionette Theatre is a national treasure - alive, well , and flourishing in the heart of Brooklyn,'' says Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
''Papa Manteo is its memory, its artistic conscience, and its star,'' he explained at a ceremony last month to honor Mr. Manteo and 15 other recipients of the National Heritage Fellowship Award - a $5,000 support for those chosen by the endowment as contributing to ''the shaping of our artistic tradition and preserving of cultural diversity of the United States.''
''Papa'' is a hard-won title bestowed on Miguel Manteo, the fifth Papa in succession to a Sicilian family of puppeteers. Using life-sized marionettes - many of which weigh more than 100 pounds - the family performs episodes of ''Orlando Furioso,'' a 16th-century chivalric epic detailing the exploits of Charlemagne and his knights.
The Manteo family hails from Cantania, Sicily, but Mr. Manteo's grandfather brought the family to New York in 1919. He eventually set up a theater on Mulberry Street in the heart of New York's Little Italy.
There, the present Papa took the part of Orlando, ''the Errol Flynn of his day - he didn't leave a girl alone,'' says Mr. Manteo in a rush and tumble of words that spill out in little vignettes during an interview before the ceremony. His brother took the part of Orlando's sidekick, Renaldo, Mr. Manteo explains, ''and they would always be fighting over a girl, only she'd be off with someone else,'' he says with a grin, pointing stage left, ''and they didn't know it.''
Mr. Manteo, a balding? man who keeps a hand on your shoulder when he talks, says the audience was divided roughly along the same lines, with ''the Orlando people sitting over here'' - he points to his left - ''and the Renaldo people over here. My brother and I, we had to dole out the fight blow by blow, because if Renaldo got off two blows on Orlando, then the Orlando fans would start to complain like this,'' he says, with deep, guttural cries, ''and Orlando would have to hit him back the exact same way. That was Italian entertainment before the moving pictures.''
The audience - some of whom were ''second, third, fourth generation at our theater'' - knew the story ''better than we did.'' The whole cycle, done 21/2 hours each night, takes 13 months to complete. ''If you want to see the whole story, you have to come to my theater every night, every night,'' he insists. ''We always left them with a cliffhanger.''
So well did the people know the story, he claims, that they'd say, ''Let's not go there tomorrow night - not much happening. Let's go Friday - Roland's gonna kill 16 giants on Friday.'' But during at least one week, everyone would come, he says, because for ''four performances we had a battle between the Christian king and the pagan king - 50 soldiers for the Christians, 50 for the pagans.''
All 500 Manteo marionettes are intricate, handmade characters. ''In puppetry, you got to be everything,'' says Mr. Manteo. ''You got to be a sculptor, and know that the left hand opens this way, the right hand holds a sword that way. Then I'm an old seamstress,'' he says, sewing with imaginary thread. ''You fill the legs and arms with mattress stuffing - I find mattresses, I don't buy them. You make that leg beautiful, the ankle, the kneecap, and thigh, and then you got to match it - that's hard.''
Many of his marionettes are covered with armor hammered out of stainless steel that he picks up on the streets of New York (''these people, they throw out rotisseries, washing machines'') or from friends in the restaurant business. ''I am a tailor in metal,'' he says, pointing to a knight on exhibit at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History that weighs in at about 100 pounds. ''All of this is done by hand - there are no machines. When you do it this way, you appreciate the work.''
So real is the fighting between these steel-plated knights, he says, ''that sometimes you could see sparks fly.'' They add to this sense of violent adventure by ''squirting beet juice mixed with water onstage. We have a very old manuscript (of the story) - so old, I'm afraid to turn the pages - and sometimes I'll see drops of this 'blood' on the pages and remember, Oh yeah, that was the night my brother got a little wild with the beet juice.''
His brother, he says, ''was a little inattentive, and one night my father got so mad he threw an alarm clock at him in the middle of a performance.'' His brother caught the clock, making his father even angrier. ''I tell you, there was more going on onstage than the people could see.''
His father, he says, ''had a secret way to get you interested in the marionettes - he would hide them from you. The more you wanted to know and learn , the more he'd hide, until one day he'd show you just a little bit. That's how I got to be a fanatic about the marionettes. You can't teach anyone about them - they got to want to learn on their own.''
He has students, he says, who come by and want to help. ''I don't show them anything,'' he says, firmly, ''but I let them do the zing and zang (sound effects). Then they get up on the bridge (where the performers stand to manipulate the marionettes) and help out a little. That's the way to teach.''
The theater closed in 1947 when his father passed away, he says. ''But then we started to forget it, so in 1957 we opened again, and I've been going ever since.'' They no longer do the 13-month cycle, though, ''because this younger generation, they're not interested.''
Now they do ''bookings only. I have everything, only one thing lacks,'' he says, with two hands now on a visitor's shoulders, ''a theater of my own. I would do anything to get that, and get my marionettes out of storage - they are packed in like sardines,'' he says soulfully.
He concentrates, meanwhile, on passing the tradition onto his son, who manages the group. ''I retired,'' he grins, ''and asked him to do the paper work - I'm tired of doing that. Now I just do the marionettes,'' says the Papa, with a happy smile.