I’m Your Puppet
Puppets have always been important to me. As a child, I never missed an episode of Howdy Doody, Shari Lewis and Captain Kangaroo. I also loved all the Super-Marionette shows from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. I regularly watched Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers and Philly Favorites Bertie the Bunyip and Captain Noah. Yeah, I was older for those last ones, but, if you know me at all, that probably doesn’t surprise you.
I started making my own puppets as a child. I started with simple sock puppets and worked my way up to some involved marionettes. I read everything I could about puppet and puppet stage making. Shari Lewis wrote a great book about puppets and her success really inspired me. Shari was also a skilled magician and sleight-of-hand artist in addition to being a very talented ventriloquist.
By age 10, I was a pretty good puppeteer. My parents bought me some really advanced Pelham Marionettes (British) that were in the Sears Wish Book. I built an advanced combination puppet and marionette stage in my Uncle Ed’s basement woodshop. It folded up so that it would fit into a car trunk.
Unlike a lot of kids, I never performed a show for my folks. They weren’t into that at all. I was content to work alone in my attic “suite,” perfecting my writing and performing style.
My Uncle Ed knew Hal Taylor in Philadelphia. He had been a puppeteer for decades. His Taylor Marionette troop was in big demand. Hal made some of the marionette fish for the Diver Dan Show in the early 1960’s. His troop also worked them for the program. It was filmed at Philadelphia Film Works on Sansom Street in Philly. The voices were later dubbed by Allen Swift and other East Coast voice talent.
Ed got me a gig on the show when I was 10. I was operating several of the fish marionettes for the 7-minute short Diver Dan episodes. They paid me $15 a day, a huge amount for a 10-year-old. While I voiced the character’s lines for continuity, they would later be dubbed by the main voice talent.
The days were long but it was a hoot. They filmed the show (16 millimeter) though a fish tank, so live fish would be seen swimming around the undersea set. Had to be quite a depth of field challenge. The actor who played Diver Dan wore a full deep sea diver’s outfit, which weighed about 100 pounds. The strain of walking around on dry land in that heavy outfit under the hot studio lights had to be enormous. He passed out a few times each day. They would take off his helmet and splash his face with cold water. (What, and quit show business?)
It was my first job. Hey, a nationally syndicated TV show at age 10. I was riding high. I worked on the show for a couple of years. They filmed a bunch of episodes in a single day. I worked a couple of days each month.
When I got my car and license in 1967, I started advertising puppet shows I would do in people’s homes. It turned out to be quite a success. I was doing 5-10 shows a week, mostly children’s birthdays. One father asked if I did an “adult” show, as he was having a party that night. I said “yes” and spent the rest of the afternoon writing an adult-themed (a/k/a pornographic) show. I told him the adult show was $200, twice my kid’s show price. He didn’t flinch. (I hate leaving money on the table.)
Both my children’s and adult shows were very popular. I was able to buy a new car at age 17. The puppet shows continued to be very popular for several years, through my first few years in college.
When I was Creative Director of Corporate Media Communications in Atlanta, my boss and mentor Harry Hallman was one of the most creative people I ever met. He decided to do a line of “Meeting Puppets” to add some entertainment to usually boring corporate meetings. They were quite a success. We used them at meetings and in several promotional films. The puppet pictured is Pussum the Cat, made by one of the people who designed and built several of the Muppets.
Pussum was my favorite. He had a gruff, Good ‘Ol Boy, voice. I even operated him at the opening of the Reno/Sparks Convention Center in the early 1980’s. He greeted people as they came into the facility. I wore a headset and was supplied with information about the guests who came in.
During my early days at QVC, I got into a lot of trouble (what else is new?) when I created a Q-Bird Puppet and did some product presentations with him. He was the mascot of the Q in those days. The executives were upset that I made him male. They said his mystique was that he had no specific gender. Wow! QVC was ahead of the transgender curve in the early 1990’s
When I lived in Nashville, I bought and customized an old man rod-and-glove (think Kermit) puppet. I called him “Talk to the Hand.” I did a regular Internet show with him in the early 2000’s on the old Now Live video service. Some shows we had as many as 30,000 viewers. Sadly, online technology was in its infancy and technical issues with Now Live made it impossible to continue with the show.
I used Talk to the Hand for some music and comedy videos that I put on YouTube. Haven’t done too much with him lately as writing and music take up most of my time these days. But I may revive him in the near future.
Puppets took me on quite a ride in my life. I owe them a lot. Like many puppeteers, I sometimes wonder if they’re real and I’m the “Person of Cloth” (“puppet” is their word). I might want to get my medication adjusted.