STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Tim Lagasse knows how to get to Sesame Street. He worked there.
For him and many other puppeteers, the road goes through the University of Connecticut, one of two schools in the nation from which a student can earn a degree in puppet arts.
"They call us the UConn mafia," said Lagasse, a 1992 graduate who now works for Disney, bringing to life the main character in the children's TV show "Crash & Bernstein." ''You end up on any type of puppet project, and about 20 percent of the people on the job went to the University of Connecticut."
That number may soon grow as the university expands its puppetry program, which has become an international showcase for the school. Part of that involves moving its Ballard Puppetry Institute and Museum to the new Storrs Center development.
The museum, which is named for program founder and famed puppeteer Frank Ballard, houses a collection of more than 2,000 puppets from around the world. The new building also will include a performance space.
"We want to do kids performances, performances for adults, artist residencies, where a puppeteer working on a new show can work in the space," said John Bell, the museum's director, who also will teach classes in the new center. "We want this to be, not a daily part, but at least a regular part of life on campus."
Both the museum and the Puppet Arts Program have been located since 2002 in the remote Depot campus several miles from the main campus. Before that, the program had been run out of the basement of a dormitory.
Puppet Arts program director Bart Roccoberton Jr. transformed the space into classrooms and workshops, which are filled with the products of his students' imaginations. Visitors are greeted by a hallway lined with rod puppets from a recent production of "A Christmas Carol" and a 7-foot polar bear that stands guard in one corner. Roccoberton's desk is in the building's studio, somewhere under the marionettes and the foam head of a 12-foot-tall red queen from a corporate skit put together for an insurance company.
"Puppet people never throw away anything," he joked. "We allow them to stay creatively engaged. If things are moving or shifting, I don't ask them to clean."