Puppetry has provided entertainment and education for children and adults alike, dating back as far as 2,000 BC in Egypt. Today, most think of shows like The Muppets or Sesame Street, but do they know the faces behind the hands controlling those puppets?
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Michelle Ansdell-Frazelle, 52, pictured above, is an American puppeteer working on her own kids show “Shelly And Her Puppet Pals,” starring her puppet character “Shelly Blue.”
Frazelle has worked in entertainment for over 40 years, acting in 80s TV classics like The Fall Guy, or Simon Says. In 1994, she, along with her ex husband Allen J. Ansdell Jr, built the “Adventure City” theme park in Anaheim California where Frazelle became the Board of Directors Treasurer and Entertainment Director.
As director, she was in charge of every aspect of the park’s shows. This included puppetry-a medium she previously had no interest in due to having no experience in entertaining children. Eventually she divorced Ansdell Jr, eventually marrying her current husband Steven Frizelle. Since then she’s been working as a freelance puppeteer, performing in private shows.
You might ask why Frazelle’s still working as a puppeteer making very little compared to what she could be making running a company like Adventure City? “My vision is encouraging kids, to give them good morals and prepare them for life.” Frazelle said. “It takes a village you know? To raise kids I mean. We all need to chip in”
Frazelle’s show is one of several success stories in the past decade, a poor decade for the art of Puppetry, mired by the rise of technology.
Telling a story about an early preview of the Virtual Reality device “Oculus Rift,” Frazelle sheds light on the competition new technology presents for modern puppeteers. “Actors were there in the conference, they were freaking out. They were freaking out because all they could see is motion capture and animation taking their jobs.”
For years, puppetry’s been on a decline from growing interest in animation and the internet to entertain kids. As Thom Fountain, president of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry says, “It has to do with exposure, popularity” (sic). “Computers were a big battle that [puppeteers] had—When computers became more economical, accessible. Puppeteers were losing jobs in television and film because of them. [Computers] were able to do it cheaper. Puppeteers are in a union, at least here in Los Angeles and New York, and because we were protected by the unions we cost a little bit more to do and once they got the production cost down with the computers they were able to let that take over; and its easier to have one animator work on a computer than to have four puppeteers work to move one puppet.” Fountain, having worked on the Childs Play films, said it took 7 puppeteers to move Chucky the doll.
If puppetry is at a low point now, when was it succesful? What was the golden age of puppetry like? The names Bob Smith and Howdy Doody might sound familiar to those who lived through the 40s to 60s when Howdy Doody was on the air. The show brought an American renaissance of puppetry in the united states, paving the way for The Shari Lewis Show, and Jim Henson’s The Muppets. Puppetry was successful, but what happened? “All the icons started dying,” said Frazelle. Smith, Lewis, and Henson all died over three decades ago, leaving the world of puppetry in a lull that TV and film struggled to fill, with the last blockbuster movie featuring puppets to turn a profit was Team America: World Police which released in 2004.
These words of gloom and doom from puppeteers may make it sound like the death knell of puppetry is on the horizon, but these puppeteers say the art isn’t going anywhere.
“It may have had low points, but [puppetry] has never died” said Fountain.
To Frazelle, the popularity of other mediums does not mean the death of puppetry. “Its an art like painting, it wont go away, but people can still love animation,” Frazelle said.
The Muppets, the 2015 attempted revival of the late Henson’s puppet show proved to be a great success economically, pulling in nearly 11.7 million viewers for its pilot episode. The show was later canceled due to declining ratings attributed to the show’s office-like adult themes which it received both great praise and great criticism for.
“With today’s mediums, puppetry has been a great reflection of the times. Back in England with Punch and Judy, those stories were really political satires trying to disguise what the plebeians really felt.”
Punch and Judy is a popular puppet show in England, but also a very violent show which popularized the stereotype of a puppet beating another puppet with a comically sized club.
Above is Fountain’s performance of “Caprice Egyptian” at a puppet slam in 2015
Shows known as “Puppet Slams” organized by groups like the Guild of Puppetry are one of the biggest sources of exposure for puppetry as entertainment, functioning like poetry slams where any artists presents their own acts. These acts vary in content and styles of puppetry.
Puppet slams are a great representation of the diverse nature of puppetry’s fan base. The slams often have traces of adult themes, and as Frazelle’s husband Steven says, “they can get dark.” So puppetry is a kind of entertainment adults and children alike can enjoy.
When asking Fountain what he thought needed to be done to attract younger generations to puppetry as an art medium, he declined to comment because “I’m too old to answer that question. You’re going to have to ask the millennials because they’re the ones who are going to have to carry [puppetry] forward and they’re the ones who are going to be the one to recognize how it needs to move to survive.”
Artists like Pam Severns and Jared Ramirez are frequents of poetry slams, both millenials whose work is based off Henson’s style of puppetry, a style which has the puppet act as a separate entity from the puppeteer.
Above is Severns performance of her act Bunny Love, credit: Pam Severns.
So how do Severns and Ramirez feel they attract younger audiences to puppetry? “People knowing the styles of puppetry and going to things like puppet slams and seeing short form puppetry, I think thats what inspires people.” Severns said. “I recently did a show... and as I was leaving there was a guy leaving behind me and walked by me and said ‘I was about to get in an Uber, when you went up and I waited and I’m glad I watched your bit because I had no idea I loved puppetry.’”
“Its just an extension of character work for us...and one thing I’d like to do is open people’s eyes up a little bit more about where puppetry can be or what it can be,” Ramirez says.
Every year, puppeteers and puppetry enthusiasts within the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry meet at the Bob Baker Marionette just off of 1st Street in Downtown Los Angeles. At this holiday party, they present shows like “The Sound And The Furry,” an improvisation show where six millennial puppeteers improvised a “Broadway-style musical with one word from the crowd.” the show then followed with a song about pudding, singing the words “smooth and tasty” as a chorus verse.
Nights like this which include donations to the Guild and the theater are how the business survives. Bob Baker was a puppeteer founding the theater which opened in 1963, making it the oldest marionette theater in Los Angeles, and one of the oldest in the world, second to the Salzburg Marionette Theater in Austria which opened in 1913.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater was designated a historic landmark by the LA city council in 2009, but today the lot struggles to maintain its presence in the town. Baker died in 2014, but the site had economic troubles for many years prior his death. Burdened by mortgage payments and taxes, Baker had to sell the large parking lot adjacent the theater simply the keep the lot, and were it not for Eli Elimelech purchasing the theater in 2013 for about 1.5 million dollars, the theater was on track to shut down.
Now, under the management of puppeteers like Ramirez and stage hands like Alex Evans, the theater is surviving with the business it gets within its theaters.
To Frazelle, the theater is an important part of puppet history. “Its the puppets from Disney, its the Pinocchio puppets, its truly the history of puppetry in America... they have puppet festivals, puppeteers of America has festivals, they have a big festival coming up... I don’t think that nothings being done to save it but in order to help... if someone wants to proactively participate in saving [puppetry and the theater] they need to just start using it in their storytelling... If anyone is going to keep the puppet industry, or that art alive, its going to be the entertainment industry. Its cheaper to pay for a voice than it is to pay for a star. So its cheaper to pay for a voice and a puppeteer to lipsync that voice. Thats why also animated films—animated films are very expensive to make but its cheaper to pay for a voice than a movie star or a movie star with a puppet.”
The theater is surviving, but is the medium growing? “People don’t know where to look for [puppetry],” Said Severns. To Severns and Ramirez, the lack of interest in puppetry is not a lack of interest, but a lack of awareness. “Its there, and if people knew how much more kind of more tangible it was then everyone would be doing it... Its like stubbing your foot on an artifact and unearthing it more and realizing ‘oh there’s a whole underground community here,’” Ramirez said.
Thanks to people like Frazelle, the medium is on the rise. In 2007, Frazelle worked with the Mariners Church in Irvine California to train High School students to entertain kids with puppets. Those students then went on a trip for the program to Peru where they entertained local children, introducing the kids and high school students to the medium.
Frazelle says that although small gestures like this help, its up to younger generations, her reffering to Severns and Ramireze, to inject puppetry into mainstream media, or rather into Hollywood. “Right now the flavor of the month is technology, commercially,” Frazelle said. “We need to put money into places like the theater and films and money will come back out.”
Severns also sees the need for puppetry in mainstream film.“I think its starting to surface again people are going back to practical effects... like in film you see CGI—it looks real but does it feel real? Whereas if you see practical effects of puppetry it may look a little fake or look a little stiff but it feels real because the people in that scene are interacting with something that’s really there.”
“Practical effects” is a term often thrown around in criticizing film, but what practical effects are is often left out. The overuse of CGI in modern films is a great point of contention in both the film and puppetry communities and the question of when it works and when it does not is difficult to say. One of the most famous uses of puppetry in film is one often forgotten: George Lucas’ Star Wars. Both Yoda and Jabba the Hutt were puppet characters, Jabba being a giant figure operated by multiple puppeteers. A later edit of The Phantom Menace Star Wars film removed the puppet version of Yoda in place of a CGI model.
Despite the efforts of people like Lucas, practical effects are being used increasingly in modern films. Criticize him all you like, a large part of Michael Bay’s films are the implementation of practical effects—namely the explosions being mostly real. When executives pushed for Jurrasic World to be entirely CGI, director Colin Trevoroww convinced Universal to allow for one animatronic dinosaur, the apatosaurus.
To puppeteers like Frazelle, animatronics are another form of puppetry. “You’re animating something. Anything [inanimate] you animate is a puppet.”
Explosions and animatronics haven’t taken center stage however; 2015 saw the release of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, a stop-motion film made entirely with puppets. The film received critical acclaim, with a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film was nominated for 30 awards, winning 6 awards and a nomination for an academy award for best animated feature film.
Anomalisa, with a budget of $8 million only made $5.5 million in the box office as of august 2016, but the awards show there is still a demand for the art of puppetry.
To Frazelle, puppetry is an art that should be loved and about fun, as well as making money. “Its not just an art form, its a fun form.”
Frazelle’s show Shelly And Her Puppet Pals is shooting its pilot in February 2017. Whether the show will be aired as a web-series or on TV is undecided.
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