Have you ever been to Puppet Heaven? Well, you should go. Lucien Alban Odoulamy’s 21-year-old Crystal City puppet shop and its owner are a delight.
Odoulamy’s store, which is across from two stained-glass windows he made 15 years ago, is his fifth location in Crystal City’s underground mall. Puppet Heaven has now been around long enough to start selling to the next generation. And Odoulamy, who emigrated from Benin in 1990, says a girl—well, now “a lady”—whose mom used to buy her puppets recently came in to buy a puppet for her own baby. A guy who works upstairs bought an elephant for his mom because she likes elephants and she used to buy him puppets as a kid. “It’s something emotional for me,” he says. “It’s not just money.”
Back in Benin, Odoulamy, 60, trained as a puppet master, and it was a role that came with some rewards. He traveled to Atlanta for ten days in 1996 to put on shows for spectators at the Summer Olympics. He saves other press hits in his store, including an article from the Washington Post and a 2002 cover story in Crystal City Magazine.
Odoulamy is happy to explain the basics of puppeteering. When people think of puppets, they picture hand puppets, but there are also finger puppets and marionettes, which are his speciality. He can make Charlie McCarthy play the piano, and he also designed a Bill Clinton marionette carrying a saxophone.
The dog-shaped string puppets are Odoulamy’s best sellers. He picks one up and walks it up to my feet. “O, I like your shoes,” he says dropping into a voice. He sold Bozo the Clown Thursday. (A replacement model is on the way.)
Besides his puppetry, Odoulamy is also a talented artist. Along with the windows, there are black-and-white drawings of DC landmarks, a full-color self-portrait, and a stained-glass-style lampshade fashioned from the top of a water jug.
Business isn’t as good at his current location, so Odoulamy is thinking of moving to a sixth spot in the mall. The puppet business can be tough. But people who like puppets always find him. They have to. He owns the Washington area’s only puppet shop. Some other stores sell puppets, but a shop that only sells puppets? Not around here. “You look at DC. No puppet store.”