Mr. Desarthis was smitten by marionettes as a boy, inspired by his father, Robert, a former toy seller and clown who built Paris’s first stand-alone puppet theater in 1933. Back then, the Luxembourg Gardens, owned by the French Senate, swarmed with three times as many visitors as today.
“There were almost no cars, and people didn’t leave on vacations and holidays,” he said. “Le tout Paris went there, and every puppet show was packed.”
When Françis-Claude was born in 1948, his parents put marionettes in his crib. At 6, he said, he told his teacher: “It’s no use teaching me to read. I want to do puppets.” His father enrolled him in diction and acting courses, and sent him to a top marionette training school in Czechoslovakia at age 16.
These days, Mr. Desarthis said, children have more distractions.
“They have technology, videos, TV, phones,” he said. “But once they come inside my theater, they have a direct interaction with the Guignols, and they forget about all that.”
He slipped his hand into a floppy piece of brown fabric topped with a wooden ball. Suddenly, Guignol sprang up, waving his arms and pointing around the theater.
“People don’t understand how much of an art it is, to make a puppet come to life,” he said. “The magic is in the wrist,” he continued. “If you know the craft, you give him energy, vibrancy and a real personality.”
The marionette dates to the Middle Ages, when icons of the Virgin Mary were paraded in religious processions. “Marion,” a diminutive for Mary, took on a life of its own in the 17th century, when puppets inspired by the commedia dell’arte in Italy appeared in street shows, just as the French playwright Moliere popularized traveling plays in villages around France.