“Hello, Susan Marcus?
“Yes, who’s calling, please?”
“This is Karen Smith. [name changed to protect myself!] You’re the puppet lady?”
“(Clears throat) Yes, I am a puppeteer.”
“And you do birthday parties?”
“All the time, but I’m booked up for a few weeks.”
“Oh, that’s OK. My husband’s birthday is next month and I want to surprise him.”
Mrs. Smith was calling to arrange a performance of my Punch and Judy show. Her husband was turning forty, a big milestone for the couple, and she was planning an elaborate dinner party in a private room of a North Shore restaurant. Every party needs some kind of entertainment, she said, and to impress her guests, she imagined an adult puppet show would be the coup that would keep them talking for weeks.
I hesitated. My birthday party audiences were usually children age eight and younger. Most children behaved well because my shows engaged them thoroughly, and I worried that Mrs. Smith’s guests would be less well-behaved in the absence of “grown-ups” to restrain them.
“Thank you for considering me, Mrs. Smith—”
“Call me Karen.”
“Karen. I will check my calendar. I’m not sure that date is open, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. What’s your number?”
Once I had her contact information and told Karen my fee, we ended the conversation and I stewed about the offer the rest of the day. I’d doubled my normal fee, but she happily agreed to it. So much for that disincentive. My calendar was open on the date Karen planned for the party; lying about my bookings would make me uncomfortable so that excuse was out. My Punch and Judy was a silly, raucous set of skits and I could not say it was unsuitable. My anxieties multiplied until I forced myself to consider the gig’s advantages. It might bring me more business; most of the guests probably had kids in my audience demographic.
I needed some back-up. Stephen, my husband, listened to my woes that evening and suggested we hire a baby-sitter for our two children so he could accompany me and keep the audience under control. In effect, he’d be the party’s grown-up. My anxieties melted away. With his help, I’d have no distractions while setting up and performing. Everything would go well and I’d add the gig to my list of successes. After a few days, I returned Karen’s call and secured the booking.
Over the next few weeks, I rehearsed with my adult audience in mind. Punch became especially mischievous and Miss Polly Peachum, a hussy if ever there was one, strutted and slunk her shapely self across the stage, to Judy’s chagrin. I gave the Baby puppet more bawdy and disrespectful lines, and Punch’s foes—the policeman, a judge, a hangman, and the Devil—succumbed miserably to Punch’s tricks. By the date of Karen’s party, the show was smooth, clever, naughty, but nice, and I felt more than prepared for the event, especially with Stephen by my side.
We parked in front of the restaurant, a steakhouse with luxurious pretensions, and began to unload my cases and the eight sections of my stage. A flustered waiter rushed out as we piled my gear near the door.
“What is all this?” he said. “You can’t bring this into S___’s.”
“I don’t know what you mean. Mrs. Smith engaged my show for her private party here and all this gear is part of it.”
“Oh, Mrs. Smith. Of course. Sorry. Let me get a dolly and we’ll bring you in around back.”
My husband and I exchanged “oh-boy” glances. The waiter returned with a dolly and together we stacked the stage’s pieces—the base, proscenium, playboard, scrim, and supports—and rolled them to the deliveries door, through the chaotic kitchen, and into the room reserved for Mrs. Smith’s party.
Karen rushed to meet us and showed us where she wanted me to set up the stage. With a forced smile, she wished me good luck; bursts of laughter punctuated her guests’ conversations and raising her eyebrows she added, “I hope they pay attention.” While we were putting the stage together and setting up lights and sound equipment, no one in the party seemed to notice us.
At last I was ready. Puppets were hanging upside-down on their hooks backstage, prepped so I could thrust my hands in quickly as one character exited and another took its place. Lights were focused and warmed the stage. My microphone was in place and the intro music primed. My husband gave me a thumbs-up and I walked around to the front of my stage to give an introduction.
“Hey there, pretty lady, when does the show start?” slurred one man seated at the end of the long table closest to the stage. “You’re in the way. Tell the puppets to get going.”
Momentarily, I was flummoxed, but soon countered his Royal Rudeness with, “They’re busy getting everything ready and will start as soon as you all are quiet.”
Silence. Not one burp or wisecrack from any of the 20 or so diners. Karen stopped wringing her hands as I smiled and waved to her before going backstage. Once settled, with Mr. Punch on one hand and Judy on the other, I hit the boombox ‘start’ button and the show began. Mr. Punch rose from below the playboard, the flat area used to hold props and give the puppets a base, and in his squeaky voice he sang while prancing back and forth and banging his slapstick. The audience must have sensed his volatility and mischief because I heard their nervous laughter and “Uh-Ohs’ accompanying his every prank and series of puppet-cides (almost every scene in a Punch and Judy show ends with another character succumbing to the force of Punch’s slapstick).
For a less violent interlude, I brought up Miss Polly Peachum. Punch flirted with her, eyed her décolletage, the appreciation of which he shared with the audience, and pleaded with her for just one little kiss. Outmaneuvering her suitor, Polly managed to snatch away his slapstick and smack him not with a kiss but a blow before exiting stage left.
The show ended with Punch paying for his sins in the belly of a crocodile. Karen’s dinner guests applauded with enthusiasm and when I came front of stage to take a bow, some of them were sober enough to give me a standing ovation.
With relief, I thanked them. Karen introduced me to her husband and I wished him happy birthday. Tucking the check she handed me into my jeans pocket, I said good-night and went backstage to break down my equipment and pack up the puppets.
“Polly-ee. Oh, Polly. Come up. I want to see you.” A slurring male voice accompanied a fist banging on the playboard. “Polly, you are so pretty. C’mon. Gimme a kiss.”
Did the voice belong to Punch in the flesh? I called from backstage, “Polly’s asleep now. She can’t come up.” I bent below the scrim and, looking up, saw the same forty-ish man—with curly brown hair, his tie askew and his collar open—who heckled me during my intro. The playboard bounced each time he hit it with his fist.
“I want Polly,” he bellowed. For the first time, I was encountering an audience member who was a true believer but not a little kid.
My husband, an accomplished trial lawyer, in calm, measured tones, reminded him now that the show was over, the puppets were gone. Polly wasn’t alive; she was packed away with her troop, resting in a box until the next show. The man became thoughtful, then quietly walked away, muttering, “Polly’s dead. Polly’s dead.”
I can’t recall packing and transporting my gear back to the car, but I do remember vowing never again to perform for an adult birthday party, not even with my husband-protector, where the audience could be just as unpredictable as Mr. Punch.