Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Puppet On (and Off) a String

Top row (left to right) : War Horse; Terri Rogers and Shorty Harris; Big Bird; Elmo; Beaker.
Bottom row (left to right) : Ronnie Burkett with two of his marionettes; one of Jeff Karsner’s marionettes; Wayland Flowers and Madame; Peter Minshall’s giant puppets at the Atlanta Olympic opening ceremony.
Today is World Puppetry Day. Here in Nottingham we are celebrating with a whole week of puppet-related performances and workshops. I have always been interested in puppetry. It’s in my blood. During World War II my mother and her siblings performed in many concerts in their local area to raise funds for the war effort. My mother was 8 years old when war broke out. The driving force behind these concerts was my grandfather’s friend who lived with the family, Uncle Bill Hayes. He was a professional music hall entertainer.

Uncle Bill could tell jokes, sing, do magic, performed comic character acts and operate puppets. My family and other local amateur performers were roped in to help with his concerts (several tricks were performed in the UK for the first time by Uncle Bill and my mother, his magician’s assistant). As I was growing up I heard many stories about those concerts. They gave me a love of puppets, performance and magic. I still have the marionettes my parents bought for me in the 1970s. I even made some “Star Trek” hand puppets in the 1980s for a youth concert.

It is only in past few years that I have realised how many lgbt puppeteers there are. There are organisations and Facebook groups, and puppeteers who specialise in lgbt issues such as coming out and anti-bullying. It would take a long time to go through them all, so I’ll present a selection of lgbt puppeteers to celebrate World Puppetry Day.

I’ll start with something which is high-lighting the puppet festival here in Nottingham and is making its debut in the city. Its one of the most famous of contemporary puppet performances – “War Horse”.

Andrew Kohler and Basil Jones are a married gay couple from South Africa. They met at art college in Botswana and quickly recognised their shared love of puppetry. In 1981 they formed the Handspring Puppet Company. Andrew and Basil created puppet shows for schools and later for adult audiences which also included themes tackling racism and human rights. In 2007 their reputation came to the notice of director Tom Morris who was mounting a theatre adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel “War Horse”. Tom approached Adrian and Basil to create a realistic horse puppet and the other puppets for “War Horse”. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Another talent my Uncle Bill had was for ventriloquism. One of the more distinctive ventriloquists that I remember from British television in the 1970s was a woman called Terri Rogers (1937-1999). At that time there were many ventriloquists on tv and I recall only two of them being women – Shari Lewis and Terri Rogers. Little did I know at the time that Terri Rogers was transgender. As well as being a talented ventriloquist Terri was a magician. She wrote several magic books and developed tricks and illusions for stars like David Copperfield and Paul Daniels.

Perhaps the most famous puppets in popular culture, apart from Punch and Judy, are the Muppets. Throughout the career of Muppet creator Jim Henson he used various types of puppet. An early collaboration was with Kermit Love (1916-2008), an openly gay costume designer and puppeteer who pioneered the use of the full-body costume puppets that made the Muppets famous. Perhaps the most famous is Big Bird from “Sesame Street”, the first and most enduring of the many puppets Kermit Love created. Incidentally, Kermit the Frog is not named after Kermit Love. They are both named after the son of President Teddy Roosevelt, Kermit Roosevelt.

Kermit Love was mentor to another Muppeteer, Kevin Clash. Kevin had a childhood love of puppets and, like myself, was making puppets at the age of 10. In his teenage years Kevin contacted Kermit who in turn put him in contact with Jim Henson. For almost 30 years Kevin Clash was Elmo in “Sesame Street”. This ended with his resignation in 2012 after unfounded allegations of under-age sex were made. However, the incident led to Kevin coming out to the media as a gay man.

Kevin’s reign as Elmo came after the brief tenure of Richard Hunt (1951-1992). Richard came from a show business family and puppetry was an early interest, fuelled by the early Muppet appearances on tv. He began working for Jim Henson in 1969 and was the original puppeteer behind (or underneath) many popular Muppets, including Scooter, Beaker, Statler, Sweetums and several Fraggles. For the year before Kevin Clash’s arrival he was also Elmo. Richard Hunt died of AIDS at the age of 40.

Ronnie Burkett is a Canadian marionetteer. His self-written performances often have adult themes. He founded his own company in 1986 and has toured the world. One of his more recent successes, “Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy”, was a semi-autobiographical piece about a young gay puppeteer. It toured internationally for 2 years.

Jeff Karsner (1961-2012) was a gardener by profession – Head Gardener of the Children’s Garden at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. He was also a board member of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry. He used inspired imagination in his garden designs and even used plants to create puppets. Other puppets were made out of rubbish, trash, discarded objects and bits and pieces you might find in a cupboard or drawer. Jeff was also a swimmer and won a bronze medal at the 1994 Gay Games in New York. He died accidentally at his home and donations in his memory were made to the International Puppetry Museum in Pasadena.

Wayland Flowers (1939-1988) was a familiar face on television on both sides of the Atlantic. So, too, was his famous creation Madame. In many ways Wayland paved the way for some modern puppeteers and ventriloquists who, like Terri Rogers above, often used outrageous and adult content in their cabaret and club acts which became the staple content for recent popular adult puppet musicals like “Avenue Q”.

Peter Minshall is a Caribbean carnival costume designer. His expertise was used to great effect in the Olympic opening ceremonies of Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, and the closing ceremony of Salt Lake City 2002. Carnival costumes became giant puppets with his creations of 20-feet-tall stick people. It is said that he is also the inventor of those inflatable dancing figures you often see on car dealer forecourts.

And these are just a few of the lgbt puppeteers and puppet creators who have enlivened many minds of children and adults alike. There are many other areas which I have no space to go into – shadow puppets, Punch and Judy, the puppets of stage shows like “The Lion King”, and children’s tv favourites like Thunderbirds.

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