Many artists lead lonely, misunderstood lives. Steve Meltzer doesn’t have that problem. He’ll always have Fred Mingo.
Meltzer is the lone ticket taker, performer, puppet maker, janitor, producer and writer at the Santa Monica Puppetry Center. Mingo is his ever-uppity puppet.
But according to Meltzer, Fred Mingo, “of the Long Island Mingos,” is not just Meltzer’s puppet; he’s also his alter ego.
“See, Fred is really just me if I talked like an idiot,” says Meltzer, much to Fred’s chagrin.
“He seems to know what I say, even before I say it, that’s very annoying,” quips Wingo.
While Mingo is self-admittedly a special puppet, he is by no means the only puppet working at the Puppetry Center. Every day at 2 p.m.throughout the holiday season, the center presents the variety puppet show Puppetollio!
“It’s not a special holiday show, necessarily, which is what makes it special,” says Meltzer. “It’s a nice place to go for the holidays that doesn’t lean on anyone’s holiday expectations. We find there’s a lot of kids who need another option other than the pageants.”
The term “olio,” from the old carnival and tent shows, describes a somewhat small-scale variety show featuring every conceivable type of attraction and performance. Which pretty much sums up Puppetolio!’s musical revue of comic vignettes accompanied by songs and old-time music.
Puppetolio! may be a puppet show, but it is by now means for kids only. “No show is worth watching unless every age can enjoy it,” says Meltzer. “It’s fun to watch a 70-year-old and a 7-year-old laughing at the same joke.”
Of course, what makes this “olio” different is the cast of eccentric ventriloquist dummies and marionettes. “Usually 12 puppets are working in the show on a regular basis, but we probably have about 400 puppets on display. Most of them are just ‘hanging out’,” says Meltzer. (Warning: beware of the pun in Meltzer’s presence.)
Meltzer makes every puppet himself in the center’s workshop. His work has found lots of airtime in film and television, most recently on the NBC show Heroes. His puppets have also been seen on the shows Married With Children, Blind Date and Good Day, L.A.
Meltzer shares his expertise by offering an ongoing workshop at the Puppetry Center. The workshop specializes in the creation, repair and restoration of marionettes and ventriloquist figures.
Along with the workshop, the Puppetry Center is offering a new Puppetry Class, starting January 8th. The class is for anyone interested in learning the art of puppetry or ventriloquism. It covers construction, voices, marionettes, ventriloquism, history, performance technique, music and everything else under the big top.
Much of Meltzer’s handiwork is on display at the center’s museum, including a nine-foot-tall clown marionette and a 22-puppet animated display, which features a puppet show within a puppet show. Now that’s extreme puppetry.
The Center has been in Santa Monica for 12 years. It was originally located behind Goucho Grill, then spent ten years at a space on Second Street. The rent was raised by nearly 60 percent, which prompted the move to its current 1014 Broadway location about a year ago.
“We made it to Broadway!” says Meltzer proudly. “The place finally looks as best I can envision it.
“Too many puppeteers end up traveling around with a puppet in a box. I wanted to make it a destination, a family-friendly live theatre. I think our mission is as much that as it is puppetry.”
While that mission is very much accomplished at the Santa Monica Puppetry Center, Fred Mingo thinks Meltzer had a different motivation for keeping the show off the road.
“Most of these ventriloquist’s are cheapos,” Fred says. “You got a team here, you gotta buy two rooms.”
Fortunately for local puppetry fans, Steve Meltzer stayed put.
Holiday show times, December 20th to January 4th, every day at 2 p.m. including Christmas and New Year’s Day. Tickets are $7.50. Information, (310) 656-0483, www.puppetolio.com/.