Many stage actors and theater productions are having a break over the holidays, but not the puppets. Santa Monica-based puppeteer Steve Meltzer won’t give them one.
Christmas Day performances of Puppetolio! are scheduled for 1 and 3 p.m. Saturday, December 25th, at the Santa Monica Puppetry Center, 1255 Second St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $6.50.
Currently, Puppetolio! alternates with performances of Many Little Voices. Both shows are “two different episodes of the same nonsense, neither with a message,” says Meltzer.
The shows are regularly scheduled for 1 and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and 1 p.m. Wednesdays weekly.
Puppetolio! is a one-man show where Meltzer does all the voices and singing, and controls all of the lighting and mechanical functions. The shows combine ventriloquism (hand-held puppets with a thrown voice that make it appear as if the puppet is speaking), marionettes (puppets manipulated on strings) and magic tricks.
Meltzer says he owes the format of his shows to the so-called 10-in-1 variety shows of the age of Vaudeville, even combining the Vaudevillian term “olio” with “puppets” in coming up with the name of his show, Puppetolio! Olio was a program of variety acts.
Meltzer is also a puppet historian and the Santa Monica Puppetry Center houses a puppet museum with a 20th century collection of about 400 puppets, marionettes and ventriloquist figures dating from 1904 to the present. A demonstration and tour of the puppet museum follows each performance.
Meltzer has been known to mechanically rig some of his puppet creations causing some feisty puppets in the show to sass him and say they’d rather do part of the show alone, which Meltzer obliges.
The shows also include audience sing-alongs, and Meltzer even finds creative ways to harmonize vocals with the puppets.
The uproarious short acts that make up the show include puppets arguing amongst themselves, puppets hypnotizing each other and a multi-talented guitar-playing puppet named Woodrow.
“Puppeteering is the ultimate multi-tasking,” says Meltzer, who controls all movements and voices of his cast of characters.
Meltzer says one of the biggest challenges in puppeteering is simply for one person to be able to juggle all of the duties of a full stage production, including lighting and recorded sound.
Puppetry is not children’s entertainment, it’s for all ages, Meltzer says.
“Viewing puppetry as children’s entertainment is a uniquely American thing,” he says. “In European countries its considered entertainment for everyone, just like theater is.”
“Plus, little kids look to their parents for things they like. They love hearing their parents laugh. If my show isn’t amusing to the parents, that’s going to hurt the kids’ interest as well.”
Meltzer was heavily into puppetry as a child, he says, but by the time he was a teenager he had grown out of it and had other interests.
It wasn’t until years later as an actor that his interest re-emerged when he found a marionette at a swap meet that he was checking out near a playhouse that he was performing at.
He eventually bought a few more puppets and his interest flourished.
These days, Meltzer makes his own puppets from scratch, rather than relying on found items at swap meets.
“I’m not a puppet, I’m a ‘Wooden-American’,” is a joke Meltzer’s puppets often tell on stage, referring to the traditional days when marionettes were carved out of wood.
But now, the process is more sophisticated and includes sculpting a head in clay, creating urethane molds and adding mechanical features to the puppet creations.
In the early days of Meltzer’s career in puppetry, he started out with a pushcart selling puppet and magic items on the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade.
About eight years ago, he was able to open his theater, shop and museum, where he worked on adding a theatrical punch and production values to his puppet shows.
Puppetry is often viewed as a dead or dying art, but Meltzer challenges the validity of this viewpoint.
“Puppetry has always been an obscure art form, but in fact puppetry is probably bigger now than it’s ever been,” he says.
He cites the successes of modern day stars of puppetry, including Phillip Huber, Ron Lucas and Jeff Dunham.
The 1999 Spike Jonze film Being John Malkovich thrust puppetry into the mainstream, portraying it in a more respectable manner than had films such as the 1978 film Magic, starring Anthony Hopkins. Magic portrayed a psychotic and devious puppet that takes over the mind of its master.
Many children have passed through the Santa Monica Puppetry Center taunting and calling the puppets “Chucky,” after the evil doll in a horror film series, says Meltzer.
Though the puppeteer in Being John Malkovich wasn’t the brightest, smoothest or most sociable guy, he was a step above the “insane ventriloquist” type of character, says Meltzer.
This is the stereotype that Being John Malkovich and the recent Trey Parker and Matt Stone film Team America (on which Meltzer worked as a puppeteer) are beginning to shed, he says.
What has died since the 1950s is the television show where a ventriloquist host works a dummy to the delight of an audience.
Edgar Bergen and Paul Winchell (who recently performed at one of Meltzer’s events) were the shining stars of this genre.
Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd routine was probably the most well-recognized puppetry act of the 20th century, says Meltzer.
What killed this kind of programming?
“The Muppets,” says Meltzer. “Jim Henson realized that puppet characters translated best on television on their own and that there was no need for a visible host like in Bergen’s day,” he says.
“The most ironic thing is that people say that the classic 1950s puppet show is dead, but I’m asked all the time by people, ‘Why don’t you have a television show?'” says Meltzer.
Marionette puppetry became a popular form of entertainment in aristocratic homes in the 1700s, but ventriloquism was kept underground until much later.
“Ventriloquism was considered a black art, and it wasn’t until the 1870s that it became more accepted,” says Meltzer.
Soon afterward, the age of Vaudeville gave a tremendous boom to forms of variety entertainment, including puppetry.
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