Say the name “Elmo” to any American and nearly all of them will connect it to the fuzzy red Muppet from “Sesame Street.”
Talk to the residents at San Simeon by the Sound in Greenport and they’ll tell you the puppet everyone should know is Frances, a pink pig with a squeaky voice who visits them on Saturdays and is manipulated by Lynn Cataldo, a 63-year-old physical therapist from East Marion.
“Hi, Joe!” Ms. Cataldo — er, Frances — said to resident Joe Giello during a recent trip to the Route 48 nursing and rehabilitation center. “What’s for lunch today?”
Mr. Giello, an elderly man with a kindly countenance, was sitting in his wheelchair, waiting to be served a meal of Swedish meatballs and noodles.
He didn’t say much to Frances as she cheerfully inquired about his day. Instead, he smiled lovingly at the puppet, taking a moment to scratch behind her felt ears.
“Oh, that feels good, Joe!” Frances said appreciatively.
Ms. Cataldo and Frances continued on in that fashion for the better part of an hour, visiting with other San Simeon residents and engaging them in well-known songs like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “You Are My Sunshine.”
Each of them looked Frances in the eye and listened intently as she shared tidbits about her life: that her favorite food is spaghetti, that she’s 6 years old and loves being in kindergarten and that she recently visited her Nana.
“The residents forget Lynn is standing there,” said Margo DeVito, director of recreation at San Simeon. “She makes this puppet come alive.”
Frances materialized about 15 years ago, when Ms. Cataldo purchased her from a puppet booth at a fair in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
“The puppets were handmade and I thought, ‘I’d love to get one,’ ” she said. “I was with some friends and when we got in the car they asked me what the puppet’s name was and I said Frances. It was the first thing that came to mind.”
Though she’s worked as a pediatric physical therapist on the North Fork since 1993, Ms. Cataldo has a background in puppetry. In the early 1980s, she auditioned to be a muppeteer on “Sesame Street” and had the chance to hone her skills with Jane Henson, wife of “The Muppet Show” creator Jim Henson.
“I ended up being one of three finalists,” Ms. Cataldo said. “I didn’t get the job but it was quite a learning experience.”
Years ago, the New Rochelle native also performed mime and improvisation around Manhattan with Garden Variety Mime Theater, which she and some friends founded.
It wasn’t until three years ago, Ms. Cataldo said, that she got the idea to use the pig puppet she’d acquired on a whim for something meaningful.
“I had a friend who was quite ill,” she said. “Some friends and I went into the city to visit her and I took Frances. And it was just a visit of play. We went from topic to topic, laughing and singing. It was a relief from having to be concerned about illness or doctor’s appointments or medications. That all just kind of got suspended for a brief moment in time.”
Deeply struck by that visit, Ms. Cataldo took Frances to San Simeon by the Sound two years ago to visit another friend who was there for a period of rehabilitation. A doctor noticed the performance and asked Ms. Cataldo if she and Frances might be interested in visiting other residents and brightening their days, too.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“Frances has made quite a few friends here,” Ms. Cataldo said. “People find themselves talking to the puppet and not to me. That’s the whole point of it.”
“Lynn could be with or without a puppet,” Ms. DeVito said. “The dementia patients, they come alive. They are responding.”
Bringing joy to the residents at San Simeon by the Sound is something Ms. Cataldo plans to do for the foreseeable future, she said.
“I would love for it to go on as long as it can,” she said.