"They are a window into time," Puckett says. "Theatre is ephemeral. A production exists only while it is running. Then it vanishes. The poster is a representation of that time. There's an immediacy. That's why so many collectors take a poster in their hands and feel its texture. You can recall all the memories, good and bad."
The Triton Gallery, which Puckett established in 1965 and is now on Ninth Avenue near 45th Street, on the fringe of the theatre district, has the world's largest collection (more than 5,000) of theatrical window cards and posters — current Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional plays and musicals, and the hits and flops of productions past.
Puckett has loved the theatre since childhood — he came to New York from his native Texas to be a dancer — but, he says, his passion for posters came almost by accident.
He was born in San Saba, in central Texas — "if you put a star right in the middle of the Texas map, that would be San Saba" — and grew up in "a house with a tin roof" in Austin. When he was very young, he says, his mother took him to a movie in downtown San Saba — "I saw Betty Grable doing a hula in 'Song of the Islands'" — and he knew from that moment that he wanted to dance. He put himself through Texas Christian University working in summer-stock musicals in Dallas — "but right after I graduated, and finished summer stock, I moved to New York."
He got work right away, in a touring company of The Pajama Game, a gig that led to his first — and only — Broadway credit. It was 1961. "I was doing 'Steam Heat' from Pajama Game in Boston, next door to the out-of-town tryout of Kean, with Alfred Drake. A dancer left Kean, and a lot of people auditioned for the part. And I was the one who fit into the costume." His last dancing job was at the 1964–65 World's Fair in New York. "I had the unprecedented salary of $200 a week, and I saved money and bought the gallery. It was then a frame shop. The store was on West 45th Street near the theatres. It had two big windows, and the shows asked me to put their posters in the windows. And people would come by and ask if they could buy them. So I realized there was a market."
This was 1965, he says, "before there was any real theatre merchandising." In fact, he says, once he started to sell posters, "people wanted to know what kind of shop this was. They had never seen theatre posters for sale, so they weren't used to buying them."
His breakthrough in the poster business, Puckett says, came in 1971, when the producer and director Harold Prince "allowed me to sell and distribute Follies posters. He let me increase the printing run to more than those necessary for the show itself. After that, producers started to come and ask me to sell posters."
His favorite poster, he says, is the one designed by Fay Gage for Dear World, the 1969 Jerry Herman Broadway musical that starred Angela Lansbury. "It's really colorful, and it catches the essence of the show," Puckett says — "with Angela Lansbury's eyes, a hat, gloves, jewelry and a peacock feather."
The most expensive poster he has ever sold was for the 1965 Richard Rodgers–Stephen Sondheim musical, Do I Hear a Waltz? — it went for $2,500 in November of 2005. "First of all, it's Sondheim," Puckett says. "And also, the show didn't run long, so there was only one printing." In those days, Puckett says, posters were done in small printings. "There was concern that the cast would change, or they would want to add critics' quotes. But they kept the same cast, and the show closed fairly quickly. So maybe 150 or 200 posters were printed. In 45 years, I've seen only three of them."
The holy grail of posters, the one collectors seem most to want, he says, is the one for Follies — because it's Sondheim, and because it is such a legendary musical. "I don't have any Follies posters now," he says. "But the last one I had sold for $2,000."
Does Puckett prefer posters past or posters present? "This is a great time for show posters," he says. "They are filling the page with art." He cites among his favorites those for The Color Purple, Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia and "all of Lincoln Center Theater's posters" by James McMullan.
There is one thing about theatre posters, though, that Puckett would like to see changed. "Theatre art has been neglected," he says. "I want it to be recognized as a true art medium. It's a superb representation of our time."