Monday, June 7, 2010

For the love of puppets

I love puppets.

I know that's creepy. And unusual.

I've just always loved them.

Back in '66, when I was born, TV was fast becoming the babysitter of choice for my generation, but the choices for kids' TV were still pretty limited. Moms were working more, and staying home less (at least mine was), adults were preoccupied with the world that the TV brought into their living room at night, and while they maintained a front row seat for the war, and the moon landing, and the rising national debt, and the climbing divorce rate, and women's lib and bra burning and hippie uprisings and desegregation, TV also (and rather insidiously) filled in large blocks of kids' time that would have otherwise been spent interacting with the big people in their house.

Looking back, my early years (66 - 76) were a kind of golden era for kids' TV, and in those days before CGI and cheap cartoon rendering, puppets often filled in the gap between reality and imagination.

My first puppet was a Romper Room Do-Bee puppet, and I remember being absolutely mesmerized by having the Do-Bee puppet ON MY HAND while I was WATCHING IT ON TV! I was not quite 2, I think, and was pretty convinced that the people I saw on the screen lived IN the screen, and I remember excitedly showing my Do-Bee puppet to Ms. Bonnie (who NEVER saw Rita through her magic mirror, by the way).

No matter, I spent countless hours happily animating my Do-Bee puppet and playing with my Scoop-A-Loop and occasionally tottering around on my Romper Stompers.

I was also already pretty heavily invested in Mr. Rogers by this time, too. Anyone that knows me knows how much I loved Picture Picture, and the trolley, and the Land of Make-Believe. It seemed completely seamless, the transition from real life in Mr. Rogers house to the land where puppets lived and worked and played and ran kingdoms and lived in clocks and talked even though they were platypuses or tigers.

By the time I was 3, the wonder that was (and is) Sesame Street flooded my little world with bright happy friends that taught me how to read, and count, and begin to understand humor, and see kids that looked different than I did. I felt a kinship with Big Bird, being able to see his imaginary friend when those around him couldn't, and I always wanted to see what Oscar had in his trashcan, and I wondered a lot about what it was like IN the trash can, whether he had a chair, or a bed, and I remember feeling a scary-but-not-too-scary thrill when The Count came on to exclaim his glee and conjure lightning with his laughter. It felt ok to think that the puppets were my friends, since Mr. Hooper and Maria and the other big people on the show visited and talked with them every day. Ernie and Bert and Cookie Monster and even that guy that wore a raincoat and asked in a whisper if you'd like to buy an "O" were real to me.

Wonder of wonders, I received an honest-to-goodness Ernie hand puppet for Christmas when I was 5. It looked EXACTLY like Ernie, with his striped shirt, and his crazy hair, and his three-fingered hands. It even had a little rod that you could attach to his arm so that you could make him point and gesture at things. Never has a child loved a toy more than I loved my Ernie puppet.

As the late 60s gave way to the 70s, my tastes matured just a bit, and my show preferences began to expand. While I still loved Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, I began to become enamored with all things Krofft. I distinctly remember watching The Banana Splits and assuming that they lived at Six Flags (it was filmed at Six Flags over Texas, as were some of the intros for the Kroffts' other shows, like Lidsville.) It was about this time that I actually got to GO to Six Flags over Georgia for the first time, and lo and behold, there were actual Krofft characters at the park, greeting us as we entered the gates - more proof that the people that lived on TV were real! Whee!

This coincided with my entry into public school. To be honest, I wasn't crazy about school. I had served time in crappy daycares, and this seemed like just another flavor of that, but one thing that I DO remember with great fondness are the magical days when The Vagabond Marionettes visited our school! How lucky I was to live in metro Atlanta, where the great Vincent Anthony (who later formed the Center for Puppetry Arts here in ATL) had chosen to come after the 1966 World's Fair in New York City where he had worked on Sid and Marty Krofft's Les Pupees de Paris and began the Vagabond Marionettes. I remember sitting on the cool linoleum floor of our elementary school's lunchroom, breathlessly watching the stage curtains draw back and hearing the music starting as those magic stringed puppets brought stories to life.

As amazing as all of this was for me, it paled in comparison to the day that I heard that The World Of Sid And Marty Krofft was opening at the Omni International in Atlanta.

Here. In Atlanta. Opening May 26, 1976. An amusement park with ALL THE PUPPETS!

It was almost unimaginable . . . I remember nearly stuttering with amazement as we gripped the handrail of the HIGHEST ESCALATOR KNOWN TO MAN and rode seemingly up to the heavens to witness The World atop the breathtaking Omni International. The experience was very nearly like arriving at the gates of heaven . . . the glass ceiling illuminating the cloudless sky, the whole place abuzz with happy, busy characters. Billy Barty himself was there to greet us, and I remember standing there eye to eye with him and realizing I was exactly as tall as he!

You'd think I would have grown out of the fascination as I got older, but I didn't. When PeeWee's Playhouse hit the airwaves in 1981, I was just as enchanted at 15 as I was at 5. Globey, Chairry, Randy, Pterri, Magic Screen, the singing flowers, The Puppetland Band, I loved them all. My Saturday mornings were spoken for (this was in the days before DVR). I had a standing date to discover the secret word (AHHHHHHHHHHHH!) and disappear into the Playhouse, where real people and puppets were equally awesome.

I'm not sure I would like puppets if I had been born sooner or later than I was. Any sooner, and I would have likely written off puppets as silly and childish. Any later, and I would have rolled my eyes at the low-tech experience of seeing a puppet brought to life and suspending my disbelief long enough to step into another world for awhile, courtesy of some wood and string.

Glad I was at the right place at the right time.

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