Next year, Fairyland’s historic puppet theater will celebrate its 60th anniversary with a number of wonderful programming firsts. We’ll be presenting a show created by master puppeteer Frank Oz (famous as the voice of Miss Piggy and Yoda) that was written when he was a teen. We’ll also debut a new version of “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
One first has special significance for us. It’s the first show in our history to have been created by a puppeteer working outside Fairyland.
The show’s creator (and narrated voice) is well-known to Bay Area audiences: Nick Barone, who died last December, at 47, of lung cancer. Nick had performed the sweet and funny “Tricks & Treats” puppet variety show at our park over the years during our Halloween Jack o’Lantern Jamboree, and guests of all ages loved it. The show featured Nick’s signature character: Kreepie the Cat, a feline who tries to control everything and everybody.
Nick created eight shows, but this is the only one that will continue to be performed. “I just can’t see anyone else doing it,” Nick’s widow Rose told me. The couple used to wander around Fairyland, she said, appreciating its rich history and lack of cynicism. “And the theater is kind of a puppet temple,” she said.
Nick designed his first puppet when he was 8. His grandmother stuffed it for him, and Bob the Dog was born. Over the years Nick earned his living in Hollywood as a scene painter, but he decided he didn’t much like working for other people. He and Rose met at a puppet conference in San Diego in 1996, when she was a web developer interested in using puppets to teach kids about online safety and security. “It turned out to be a festival of love,” she said.
The two of them eventually moved to San Jose, where Nick earned a great living performing at libraries, schools, country clubs, parks and private parties. He was even recognized occasionally on the street by his fans.
Nick loved hanging out with other puppeteers, which is how he came to meet Fairyland’s master puppeteer, Randal Metz, at a gathering of the Bay Area Puppet Guild in the 1990s. “He was Mr. Rogers with a sense of humor,” said Randal, who added that Nick was always generous in helping his friends out. “He would share ideas and talk through your problems. He was that type of guy.”
Randal recognized just how special Nick’s shows were. “Nick had a childlike innocence. I mean, this is a man who had a whole room of Legos.” Nick’s shows resonated with kids, Randal observed: The strange-looking creatures were never scary, but they sure were funny. According to Rose, Nick was inspired by Bugs Bunny’s ability to entertain both kids and adults—entertainment that can be enjoyed by the whole family.
It will definitely feel strange to have someone else perform the show that was Nick through and through. We’ll hear his original music and his voice – actually over a dozen voices that he created – on the soundtrack, and see the Muppet-style puppets and delightful monsters that have given so many people such joy. And, of course, Kreepie the Cat will live on at Fairyland and delight future generations of kids.
“Many puppeteers die, and their work is gone,” said Randal. But Nick influenced a generation or more of puppeteers through his workshops on building puppets, creating mouth mechanisms, using fabrics inventively.
Randal speaks for all of us when he says he feels honored that Nick’s family felt comfortable enough with Fairyland to entrust us with Nick’s legacy show. We’re proud to include it as part of our theater’s 60th celebration next year.
By the way, although the cat is named Kreepie, Rose said the puppet’s is far from creepy: the show is all about characters learning how to care about each other.
As for the performing troupe of puppets we’ll be welcoming soon, Rose said: “We know they’ll be in very good hands.”
C.J. Hirschfield has served for 13 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry. C.J. is former president and current board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District. C.J. writes a weekly column for the Piedmont Post and OaklandLocal, where she loves to showcase the beauty of her city and its people. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.