“I Know How You Did That!”

From a series of essays on my life in puppetry

Puppetry is an art form and I wanted to perfect it. I knew I would never perform in public unless I trained with a professional. I found Hans Schmidt who had a studio in Lincoln Park. A beloved performer, educator, and teacher, Hans gave me insights into hand puppet plays, movement, and business tips. Encouraged by his enthusiasm for my work, I studied with him for quite a while and became enamored of the art.

After months of lessons and practicing on my children and their neighborhood friends, I thought I would begin my semi-professional work with puppet shows for children’s birthday parties. I assumed younger children would be receptive to the fantasy world I would bring into their homes. Although I often used a small, portable stage consisting of a playboard, a stand and curtains, usually I let my young audience see my puppets attached to my arms. I was comfortable animating my puppets directly in front of an audience, like a storyteller. For example, I modified two plush rabbit toys, one skirted and the other dressed in denim overalls and created a skit for the duo followed by my conversation with the girl rabbit. Seated in front of my audience without a stage between us, I would chat with her: “How are you today, Ms. Bunny?”

The puppet would answer and we’d carry on, joking and asking each other riddles. Although my puppet had no moving mouth, children watching our interplay believed the rabbit was talking with me. In a way, I was using the techniques of ventriloquism to produce that effect. Ventriloquism is all about illusion, misdirection, and sound substitution. I managed—usually—to speak for the puppet through slightly parted lips and I always looked at it while the puppet was ‘speaking.’ We in the illusion business call that technique ‘misdirection.’ During my turns to speak, I faced the audience. When Ms. Bunny ‘spoke,’ I looked at her. Visual cues created the illusion that we were engaged in repartee.

Later and many years into my puppetry career, I often entertained at two or three birthday parties a weekend if I wasn’t otherwise occupied. One afternoon I arrived at a Chicago suburban home with several sets of puppets and materials for a puppet-making workshop. A five-year-old boy was having a birthday party and his parents had hired me for an hour-long program. I spent some of that time setting up and answering children’s questions about the show. When all my equipment was in place, I gathered my audience together and began the program. I started with my version of Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf was rather sympathetic, did not really eat Grandma, and everybody won in the end. Next, I brought out my rabbit friends who danced and did a silly little routine with blocks. When that ended, I sat and brought Ms. Bunny closer to me and began the voice-throwing bit. The kindergartners seated close to me were fascinated, and I thought how much fun it was to bring a little magic into their lives, directly without the mediation of television. Suddenly, from the back of the group an older child’s voice rang out. “I know how you do that!” he shouted. I spotted the child, a little boy somewhat bigger than the other birthday guests. “Of course you know how I do this. I’m a puppeteer and I bring these puppets to life.”

“No, no,” he said. “That’s not how you make Ms. Bunny talk.”

“Ah-ha. You have discovered my secret. What’s your name and how old are you?” He stood up and proudly declared he was Brian and six-and-a half, almost seven-years-old!

“And,” he said, “you’ve got a radio strapped to your chest. That’s what makes the puppet talk.” He smiled and lifted his chin in triumph. The other children stared at my chest. “Well, I’m happy you were watching so carefully. Let’s see what else Ms. Bunny has to say.” I shifted Ms. Bunny closer to me and continued my show. Happily, the boy’s outburst had no effect on the other children’s engagement with Ms. Bunny’s antics. They applauded enthusiastically as she and I ended our conversation. We bowed and I moved into the puppet-making segment of the event.

I have often thought about that day and the differences in children’s development and perception of the world. My critic had been thinking deeply about the way I made Ms. Bunny talk. He was at a new stage of discovery in his life and needed to know how it all worked. The other, younger children were not at that point yet, or perhaps were not as willing as Brian to voice their doubts. I imagine they wanted to linger in the fantasy a little bit longer and I enjoyed bringing it to them.

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