CONSIDERING the lure of a warm and sunny Saturday outside, the steady stream of visitors here at the Children's Museum of Manhattan is surprising. On the other hand, who can resist a subject like puppets, and such a happy m'elange of felt and construction paper, scissors, string, and Elmer's glue? Open since March 20th, ``A Pageant of Puppets'' bills itself as an ``interactive exhibit'' - and it's certainly that. Hands-on workshops guide children in making their own creations (today they're working on lunch bag puppets), and in the main part of this cozy side-street museum is a fabulously colorful exhibit of every variety of puppet imaginable, as well as a bounty of things for children to examine, touch, and play with.
Upstairs in an airy, comfortably cluttered room, the puppet-making workshop is gearing up.
``I want to make a cookie monster,'' says one little boy in a striped shirt and red zipped sweatshirt.
``I need help,'' pipes up a little girl across the table.
``Why don't you start with feathers?'' suggests her mom.
``Here you go, here's two furry eyes,'' says her dad, handing them over.
``I don't want to do this,'' announces another little boy, bouncing up and down on his folding blue chair.
``Well, I want to,'' says his mother. ``I don't know how, either, but they're going to show us.''
Museum volunteers weave down the long tables, giving assistance with the blunt-edged scissors, making suggestions, and praising everyone's efforts.
Meanwhile, downstairs, toddlers with sticky fingers prod the numerous glass cases, peering wide-eyed at the displays. More than 100 puppets from around the world - many of them rare and valuable - have been brought together here by museum director Bette Korman.
On one wall is an antique Indonesian shadow puppet, delicately crafted from pierced leather. Nearby is a cluster of Jim Henson's Muppets. Reunited atop a marionette display are two old friends from ``The Sound of Music'' - the lonely goatherd and his sweetheart, lent by puppeteer Bil Baird. Overhead, huge mechanical butterflies made of pink satin and sequins flap their glittery wings.
``A large part [of the exhibit] is from the Columbia University collection,'' explains museum spokeswoman Dipti Desai, adding that others came from private collectors like Mr. Baird.
There are replicas of many of the different puppets for children to play with, and an ``enchanted castle'' theater they can climb into, complete with a window just the right height for putting on their own show. Way at the back is the ``Farm Garden'' area, where Marjorie from New Jersey is trying on a giant carrot body puppet as her friend looks on in delight.
In addition to the display, the museum schedules performances by professional puppeteers each weekend. Today's show features the Yueh-Long Chinese Shadow Theater. The stage on the second floor is dark, except for a spotlight on the bright red silk set. Strains of mysterious-sounding Chinese music fill the auditorium as three women, dressed from head to toe in black, their waists wrapped in vibrant red sashes, come out in front of the set and introduce themselves. One explains that shadow puppetry began in caves, when men and women used the light of the flickering fire to make shadows on the walls. She demonstrates, moving her hands in front of a footlight to cast a shadow on the cloth screen behind her.
``That's a rabbit,'' says a little girl in pink overalls, sandwiched in between her mother and grandmother.
``Right,'' says the woman, and she moves her hands again. The image of a swan flickers across the screen.
``It's a horse!'' squeals a boy in a bowl haircut.
The puppeteer says that the first shadow puppets were made out of paper. These were replaced in the 12th-century Sung dynasty by flat, jointed, colored figures made from dyed animal hides. Controlled by rods, these are similar to the ones used in the show here today.
The lights dim, and as the ancient story unfolds, parents and children alike sit entranced. What better place to spend a Saturday afternoon?
The Children's Museum of Manhattan is at 314 West 54th St., and is open Tuesday through Friday from 1 to 5, and Saturday and Sunday from 11 to 5. The exhibit will run through Dec. 31.