Puppeteers of America
Puppetry Journal Columns
by Gregory P. Williams

Column One Fall 2004

Column Two Winter 2005

Column Three Spring 2005

Column Four Summer 2005

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Column One - Puppetry Journal, Fall 2004

I was stunned, momentarily of course, when Paul Eide proposed this column. And get this, he sees its appointed writer as “the voice of the West Coast puppeteer.” My jaw hung. Just this weekend I sat for a full six hours of HBO’s Angels in America. Emma Thompson totally captured my imagination as the Angel of the American Continent. I didn’t understand the “I, I, I” of her pronouncements until now.

I, I, I am the voice of the West Coast puppeteer. I, I, I strive for the nobility of art as it wades through a morass of mindless greed and shameless self-promotion. Integrity and divine inspiration light the torch and guide our way.

I, I, I’d just as soon lay low. Get too close to the sun and your wings burn, that Icarus thing. But Paul said the voice of the WC (don’t go there) didn’t have to be a permanent position. Just try it out, he says.

First off, we have four more years of Bush and I am a little… What Paul? Avoid politics and what? Oh, gosh, I bungled right out of the box. Actually, this is my second column. The first one got blue-penciled as having a bit too much of my fire-breathing dragon side. It’s my Chinese calendar birthright.
So I, I, I begin again.

Now there are all sorts of things I could address in this column and, Eide willing, I will address them. But as a typical puppeteer, the first thing I need to do is satisfy a deep-seated urge for shameless self-promotion.

My favorite puppet to make and perform this year was Keys the Dog. The producers asked for a white Labrador hand puppet (my favorite dog breed) performed as Lou Costello (a comic hero). We shot two episodes for the NAPTE convention in January 2005 (that’s a TV sales event in Las Vegas). Keys is a hand and glove puppet. I based a lot of his shape and feel on White Fang from The Soupy Sales Show. (Can I add another comic hero?) Those who don’t know White Fang, try to find out. He was funnier than funny. In fact all the puppets on Soupy’s show serve as a splendid example of how puppetry can lift the spirit and spread joy. I slipped into Keys very easily and waved a furry paw at cameras and actors. It was my kind of heaven.

I also enjoyed taping, animating and posting several productions here at the Puppet Studio. We used our onsite stage to spoof the Kerry/Bush debates. Up online now are two Streisand vs Schwarzenegger debates that introduced us to new voice actors. The good news is that every client who left Puppet Studio this year was a happy one and said kind things about our work. Isn’t that a first measure of success? Hey, if Bush can keep this going, I won’t cause problems.

Just as important was what I didn’t do out here on the West Coast. This spring, I pulled a Nancy Reagan and “just said no” to Team America. Ultimately, I really couldn’t figure out whether the film was about bad puppetry or was attempting good puppetry pretending to be bad puppetry. Certainly the creators Parker and Stone of South Park go on public record as the most prominent of Hollywood’s creative elite to bash puppetry in a vicious manner. I saved every comment. Was that good publicity or bad publicity when these two celebrity pottymouths said unprintable things about the art of the puppet before their film’s release? This included “We #@%&ing hate #@%&ing puppets.” Talk about your Puppet Slams. In most every interview, Parker and Stone recounted how they never got the shots they wanted, nothing edited well and the puppets couldn’t even walk. Did they want the puppets to walk well? So I figured I did a smart thing for once and avoided a puppet production that had its director tell Entertainment Weekly, “Puppets can’t do [sounds-like-spit].” Put that over the portal of your puppet center and ask for donations.

And as sour grape is a favorite flavor, I can say when Team America did not hire Rene Zendejas back after hiring him for the first camera test and never consulted Bob Baker, good puppetry was obviously not their main objective.

My brief flirt with the film did allow me to see again the talented Peter Baird who conducted the first audition and died during the making of this film. Sad to say, I saw no acknowledgment of Peter’s passing in the film’s credits. So, I dedicate this first column to the memory of Peter Baird. Rent or buy his feature film of Davey Jone’s Locker and enjoy some good puppetry.

It’s up to us to make America a better place. We get to do it with puppetry.

Column Two - Puppetry Journal, Winter 2005

I’m baaaack.

One of four columnists for the Puppetry Journal, I hope this isn’t going to be like a season of Survivor.

Scene West sounds so Mr. Fabulous who, by the way, is chomping to do one of his name-dropping Hollywood-Is-My-Beat columns. I told him the national puppet world isn’t ready for his kind of stupidity. Paul Eide expects something more from me, I figure. But what? Pensive, lyrical, opinionated? Nathanson’s got the funny column. In my dilemma, Lea Wallace advised me to keep writing. So here it is, Lea, my second column.

Coming off Team America, we’ve heard no word from the Screen Actors Guild Puppeteers Caucus. The caucus was supposed to meet in October. That didn’t happen. SAG and Producers did come to an agreement in January 2005 for the next three years. The big fight over DVD residuals went unresolved. Performers (e.g. SAG puppeteers) get nothing from DVD sales (a small percentage goes into the pension fund, but nothing is paid directly). It’s the same deal with writers and directors. Actors (with puppeteers in tow) start the fight again in three years.

My concern in the Caucus meeting came more on issues of second-tier performers on Team America. Second-tier meant puppeteers made concessions and took less than full-scale benefits. If second-tier puppeteers worked from the bridge even as background, it totally diminishes the skills of working puppets high off the ground and damages future chances for negotiating above-scale salaries for bridge work.

Any concessions given in this contract should have been brought to the SAG puppeteers first. One problem is that the majority of the puppeteers on the set (and on the Caucus Committee) are signed to the same agent. One agent trying to represent all the film/TV puppeteers does performers no good. I hope the agent did not take full commission off second-tier clients in lieu of getting them full-scale work rates. Scale is supposed to be minimum, and certainly should be for working on a bridge.

NOTABLE NOTE: A Bob Baker marionette control will appear in the film’s DVD promotion. The art directors felt that the control used on Team America was unidentifiable as a marionette control. I am still amazed that those marionettes cost $20,000 each and walked as they did. Some legacy.

CHANGE OF SUBJECT: Paul Mesner is president of PofA. Is he nuts?
Probably. This should be fun. The position of president is often a thankless job. So right off, Jean Hasselschwert gets a big thank you for her service to Puppeteers o America.

As for Mesner, I first met Paul at a national festival in Cincinnati where I became an instant friend and fan. We’ve put some miles under our tires since then, and Paul has become one of our country’s top puppeteers. He is also an astute business professional. Wouldn’t it be great if PofA started writing grants for festivals, or even better, obtained health insurance for professional puppeteers?

SPEAKING OF FESTIVALS: The Phoenix Guild reports that the 2006 Regional Festival will be shared between the Pacific’s Southwest and Northwest regions in Puget Sound in August. Jean Mason (PNW) and Steve Meltzer (PSW) will co-direct. Best wishes to them.

National Day of Puppetry comes in April. That’s no surprise. The LA Guild did hospice work instead of a full Day in 2004. This year, they hold a Puppet Slam. Word is that the guild targets new membership between ages of 18- 30. I’m all for that as long as they do potlucks.

Maria Bodmann plans a family-friendly puppet festival in the northern part of San Fernando Valley in May. She does it with the Optimists of Sunland and other co-conspirators.

LILIAN OWEN: Last year, I spent some time with author John Saul who told me about his aunt, Lilian Owen. Lilian Owen performed her marionettes in two Broadway shows in the 1920s. Saul said Lilian’s celebrity look-alike marionettes inspired the Yale Puppeteers. Alan Cook has a Maurice Chevalier marionette in his collection made by Lilian who abandoned puppetry later in life for painting. I’d love to see more information and photographs assembled on this puppeteer. If you know anything about Lilian Owen, or have any mementoes, please let me know.

WRAP IT UP WEST: Recently I got an email from the casting director of ABC’s Extreme Makeover. She seeks a puppeteer for the show’s fourth season. I asked if there were any age limits. She replied no and added, “We are looking for personality, sparkle and a desire to have multiple plastic surgeries on both the face and body. I encourage anyone who is in the puppet industry to send me their information.”

I had first thought one of our senior guild ladies could win a free facelift, but apparently she'd have to get her breasts enlarged too. And possibly liposuction. Forget that. Besides, if you have personality and sparkle, all you need is a bath and a comb and you’re presentable. Here’s a tip to Extreme Makeover: Puppeteers can look like Quasimodo and it doesn’t matter. Now maybe there is that old Japanese Bunraku guy, the one who doesn’t have to wear a hood. Imagine if he had that cockeyed, balloon-lipped, stuffed cheek facelift look? You’d want to put a hood on him. But if anyone is contemplating a sex change, I can get it for you free.

QUOTE FOR THE QUARTER: “The key to success is going from one failure to another while keeping your enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill

Puppetry Journal, Spring 2005

I have found myself recently asked again to run for the board of Puppeteers of America. It is both an honor and a dilemma for me. I have always happily given my time and effort to a good cause with defined goals. And certainly when I am sharing the task with talented people whose work (and work ethic) I admire, a natural enthusiasm bubbles. But I currently suffer a case of volunteer burnout and figure this column might give me a chance to ponder the why of it.

With a volunteer board of directors, it’s a lot like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. For homespun groups like a local puppetry guild, the quality of volunteers is not an issue. You do a puppet event, eat some cake and go home. For nonprofits and national organizations, quality becomes more important and even critical.

Able volunteers are the key. They speed the progress of any organization and polish its image. By able, I mean people who follow through competently on tasks they accept with self-direction as their guide and who are honest.

Boards are only effective as the ratio of able volunteers to chair fillers. Chair fillers take up a space where no one else wants to sit. Typically they’re notching another position on the resume, an accomplishment on par with a certificate from the Wizard of Oz. Another type of chair filler is the lonely soul who seeks some company and a chance to be useful. Now I love the chair fillers. Generally, they’re nice people and good intentioned souls. Most boards have them and muddle along just fine.

The problem comes when one single individual with a darker side volunteers. Usually, this person has backstabber qualities, or maliciously becomes an opposer, or pulls a power play out of pettiness or jealousy. Trying to accomplish a common goal with this sort of conniver is impossible and makes for a very bad experience. If the chair fillers sitting with this misguided soul play the “see-no-evil” monkey act, a lot of bad feeling can ensue. I regret the list of first-rate puppeteers who have stepped back from Puppeteers of America. Usually the disenchantment came when a considerable volunteer effort ran smack into a bonehead act.

So my dilemma is that I love to work with able volunteers and can handle a few chair fillers, but a not-so-talented conniver ruins my volunteer experience.

These are from Alan Dundes, 1934 – 2005, a UC Berkeley anthropology professor, author and urban folklorist. His books include Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes (1987) and Folklore Matters (1989).
“For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism.”
“If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.”
“It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.”

Puppetry Journal, Summer 2005

Puppet Fest 2005,St. Paul, Minnesota is now a fond memory for many. A big thanks goes to Kurt Hunter and his volunteers for creating this national festival from scratch. Kurt has now earned the stripes of a veteran festival director. I bet he was as tired as he has ever been with that head-nodding, to-the-bone exhaustion that feels like narcolepsy. Nobody gets much sleep at a festival and directors get least of all. Jim Gamble says that a festival director’s job would pay $50,000 a year minimum in the marketplace and he’s right.

Although I regrettably was unable to attend the festival, Lea Wallace shared her program with me on her brief visit to Los Angeles. The wide-range of events the festival staff had assembled was awesome. I also got to decipher Lea’s performance notes in the margins and decided that they ought to give Lea a session at the end of a festival where performers receive her program notes. (Just so you know I was not excluded, I got notes from Lea when I showed her work in progress here at the Puppet Studio. Thanks, Lea.)

Congratulations go to my friend and colleague, Rene Zendejas, for receiving the President’s Award at the festival. Keep pulling those strings, Rene.

In Praise of West Coast Puppet Centers
I had the pleasure of visiting Great Arizona Puppet Theater in June. In a temporary lack of good judgment, they hired Mr. Fabulous to headline their June Puppet Slam. What Nancy, Ken and staff have done to transform the historic Mormon church is inspiring. The theater space is now in the church’s former social hall that has a proscenium stage and even a projection booth. I got to see the Saturday matinee of The Frog Prince that played to a sold-out house. Great Arizona’s former theater space in the building, once the sanctuary, is now a beautiful exhibit area with a store. Alan Cook had installed an excellent exhibit of Asian puppets when I visited. Great Arizona plans another display of Alan’s collection soon.

Another favorite puppet center of mine, the Carter family’s Northwest Puppet Center, continues bringing puppetry to the general public. Their website is a family collaboration as well. They currently have an exhibit of International Folk Puppet and Masks with artifacts from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe. Included are pieces from Northwest Puppet Center's own collection. The Carters embrace all the forms of puppets in their performances with shows that range from folktales to opera. I love that the theater often features two favorites of mine, Oregon Shadow Theater and Paul Mesner, only the best for the Northwest.

In May, a tribute to Bob Baker ran in his Los Angles puppet theater. Charles Phoenix was the catalyst for this production. I was honored to co-produce it with him as well as perform in the show. Charles Phoenix has made his mark in Southern California with retro slide shows assembled over the years from thrift stores, yard sales, and donations. His narrative with the slides is very funny and original. For Bob’s tribute, Charles and I produced a short documentary featuring clips of Bob’s work and interviews with Bob and associates. After the documentary ran, Charles narrated a slide show about Bob where he featured people, puppets, designs and more. Then, after an intermission, Bob and eight puppeteers performed a 60-minute retrospective of shows that have played in the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. We had a sell-out run of mostly adults and may do it again.

Celebrating Puppetry in Los Angeles
Maria Bodmann created this festival and, through her skills at grant writing, received a grant from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs for it. Maria asked me to co-direct this one-day event we held in May at a beautiful woodsy arts center in Sunland, California. Our performers were Bob Baker, Icarus Puppets (Rosemary Tyrrell and the very funny Mark Robertson) from San Diego, and Buddy Big Mountain. We produced the event in conjunction with the Optimists of Sunland. Both Maria and I thank COPA’s Alan Cook, Evey Brown and Beth Fernandez for running a booth at the event. And we would like to extend super-sized thanks to Buddy and Diana Big Mountain who really made the event extra special. They represented Orange County and Los Angles Guilds who did not attend. Buddy performed both his beautiful marionettes and Wendell. Maria has received a grant to do Celebrate Puppetry again next year, and we may make it an evening event.

And while I’m thanking Diana Big Mountain

I need to give Diana a special acknowledgment for her work as PSW Regional Director. Diana has left the post as she and Buddy are moving to Canada. We will miss them very much, but no doubt, they will visit us often and share their work and progress. As of now, our region is rudderless. Diana and Buddy, come back soon and often.

More Cookie Tidbits
Earlier this summer, a friend contacted me about a beautiful Sicilian rod puppet in full armor that needed a home. In less that a week, the puppet found Alan Cook. Mary Decker reports that Alan Cook had an awesome exhibit at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in San Francisco. It's closed August 28.

The travels of our peripatetic president
Okay so he doesn’t wander on foot and he’s not poor, but I couldn’t pass on the alliteration in describing Paul Mesner’s traveling around the country to meet with the local guilds. On August 20, the S.F. Guild had its annual Puppet Faire at Children's Fairyland in Oakland and Paul Mesner made a visit. Earlier this year, Paul visited guilds in Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Sad to report that attendance at the LA Guild event was very low.

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