LIFE WITH PUPPETS
London street crowd watching a Punch and Judy show
Believe me, I was not alive when this Punch and Judy show was performed on a London street, but as a child I watched wildly comic shows at the seaside. That is where I first became fascinated with puppets.
Puppets exist in every culture around the world. In Europe, countries have their own versions of the Punch and Judy characters: Polichinelle in France, Kasperle in Germany, Mester Jeckel in Denmark.
The Traditional portable stage was carried from pitch to pitch by a busker who was called "Professor." He had a little dog called Toby who sat on the play board. The pup hardly acted but was there to help attract a crowd. During the performance an assistant, called a "bottler," worked the crowd, collecting money.
Puppets in Africa
In the sixties I was living in Zimbabwe, the country formerly known as Rhodesia. I worked for Rhodesia TeleVision directing studio programs and freelance film productions. To amuse myself and my three children I began to make puppets. I volunteered to take part in a children's program on RTV. The first puppets i made were spitting images of two of the station's on-air personalities. I called them Horriss and Morriss. They were made of papier mache and wood. Each week I performed skits about five minutes long. It was the sixties, so one week I put Beatles wigs on the puppets and gave a rendition of I Want To Hold Your Hand with an out-of-control microphone stand.
Horriss and Morriss with guest artist Pengy
In advertisements for Union-Castle Lines, Central African Airlines and Rhodesia Railways these puppets had multi-stranded wire joints on their limbs and filmed in tiny movements at thirty frames of film per second. Here are Ray and an advertising executive manipulating 12 " high puppets on a miniature set in a studio in Harare.
During my time in Rhodesia, I went to work for a Government educational television studio. As a Government employee, I found I had more time on my hands than usual. I made a small string puppet called Billy Bush who was a safari cameraman.When I pulled a string, a little camera came up to his eye so that he could film things, mostly animals.
It was a neat trick for a marionette. I wish I still had him. And the film I made. Around this time, I also got involved in making and manipulating figures for film animation.
Horriss and Morriss (and Pengy) on Canadian TV
Moving with my family to Canada, I again found work in television, first as a stagehand for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Vancouver, British Columbia, then as a producer at CHBC-TV in Kelowna.
Every morning over the Christmas period, I performed for fifteen minutes. The set for this show was an igloo built of Styrofoam. A show a day is quite a task. I found I was good at improvisation, often coming up with a plot a few minutes before air time. My boss paid me a token $15 for each show. Fortunately je paid me for my day job as well.
A career change in Canada
I loved working in television and film for twenty five years. Puppetry was supposed to be a hobby, but suddenly, my passion became a full time occupation. My initial plan, not popular with my wife at the time, was to perform Punch and Judy shows in schools. My sister in England sent me a vintage Punch and Judy scenario. which I planned to adapt for an authentic performance. Bright colours in the traditional style were used to paint and costume the puppets. Putting Horriss and Morriss on one side, I made a completely new set of ten traditional Punch characters. Instead of wood, I used Styrofoam for the heads, smoothing and coating them with bathroom caulk. I built a stage, rehearsed, and rehearsed until I was ready.
BUT . . .
Punch and Judy unacceptable in schools
Punch with Baby
Baby's role is to be thrown down the stairs
Punch's best friend gets killed, in the traditional way.
From Punch to Ogopogo
I needed a different show to take to schools so I was compelled to produce a story of my own. I made a new cast of puppets, a solid stage for touring , composed music and wrote a story featuring the place I was living - Okanagan Lake in British Columbia. I dramatized the story of its mythical monster, the Ogopogo.
Sunday afternoon show at Butchart Gardens
Taking the show on the road
For the first years of my puppet career I toured schools, festivals and gave concerts with The Ogopogo's Tale
The first shows were performed in Kelowna City Park. Each day I set up bleachers for the the kids. To encourage the parents to attend, tickets were two dollars for children, one dollar for adults.
I moved once again and created new shows – The Treasure of Grizzly Mountain and Anna Conda Of tThe Amazon. At the same time, I was approached bythe director of a children's camp on SaltSpring Islant to make a set of puppets for a Narnian story The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Out of this came several years of spring, summer and fall employment as puppeteer, programmer for Camp Narnia. I had a wonderful time.
This rod puppet was operated from above and designed to dance between two chorus girls in a stage musical. I was never paid for it. Ah! Show business.
I include these construction views because they remind me of the intense pleasure I derived making them, rather than in their end use. It's true, it's all about the journey, not the destination.
I confess that I did write a watered-down version of Punch and Judy. Much later, I found myself performing as a Professor of Punch and Judy at a Puppeteers Of America Festival in Seattle. There were fifteen Professors performing all at the same time. A noisy business!
I continued to perform Punch and Judy but restricted it to medieval fairs, Halloween and as part of an educational program about story telling. Strangely, I got one engagement at a Christian college on the strength that at the end of the play Mr. Punch takes on the Devil and disposes of him.
I took my show The Ogopogo's Tale also known as A Quiet Day At The Lake around Victoria and other towns on Vancouver Island, the Okanagan Valley and many other places in British Columbia.
Here you see Horriss and Morriss, repurposed as elfish woodcutters in the bear-strewn wastes of British Columbia. A secret cave revealed hidden treasure and chain saws.
This was a great novelty stage to use for busking or at intermissions. The whole thing sat on a backpack. It was quite tiring and kids used to look underneath to see how it worked.
Way back, in Rhodesia, I built a string puppet for a short film. Billy, a wildlife explorer, carried a camera instead of a gun and had adventures with African wildlife. A tortoise carried his gear. There was a polka-dotted lion in the stor.
Twenty years later, I find myself performing a puppet show called Anna Conda Of The Amazon.
Billy Bush was again the wildlife explorer. His adventures were with agiant snake, a dinosaur egg, and a venus flytrap.
To introduce Anna Conda Of The Amazon, I wore a body puppet – a thirty foot monster snake with moveable head and mouth - to frighten – no, to entertain the children.
I joined puppetry guilds in Victoria and Puppeteers of America and went to several marvellous festivals including Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Among the wonderful puppeteers I met was Mary Johnson. Mary ran a factory called Puppet Safari, specializing in fine animal characters. Thanks to her, I was able to get a visa to work in San Diego. It was a joke really. My job description on the visa was management consultant!
I often gave shows in public and school libraries and, on this occasion, in a Barnes and Noble bookstore. Question and answer sessions were always popular.
Backstage and front.
When I was a kid I was often sent out to play by myself. That sometimes included watching a puppet show unattended by adults. Nowadays, there are always parents and other adults along. While I regret that children are not able to be as independent as I was, I like it because I can include material for the grown-ups as well as for the kids.
I have done several "last puppet shows" as my children remind me.This one was in, 2009, I think. I gave away several puppets to friends, and one enemy. My stage has vanished so I suppose that went, too.
Despite my dislike for heavy metal music, I used this Metallica poster to give myself more importance than I deserved. It seemed the right thing to do at the time.