Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Forbidden Puppets

By C.J. Hirschfield

The year was 1956. The average cost of a new house was $11,700. Elvis appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the first time. The Warriors—the Philadelphia Warriors, that is—won the NBA championship.

And Children’s Fairyland’s puppet theater opened to the public for the very first time.

The Storybook Puppet Theater in 1957.

Sixty years, 150 productions and close to 50,000 performances later, the Storybook Puppet Theater is the oldest continuously operating puppet theater in the United States. We think it’s a great time to celebrate this landmark institution, the place where literally millions of kids were first exposed to live performing arts and where the talents of many young puppeteers – including the Muppets’ Frank Oz – were nurtured.

And what better way to celebrate than to do something our theater—and the city of Oakland—has never seen before?

On the evening of Saturday, Aug. 27, Fairyland will waive its “no adult without a child” policy to offer one special night of Forbidden Puppet Cabaret, a showcase of some of the most accomplished puppeteers in the Bay Area and beyond. This very special adults-only event, sponsored in part by Folkmanis Puppets, will give grownups a two-hour taste of puppetry’s wide range of styles and content.

Mary Nagler's Whorls of Wonder is one of the featured acts at Oakland’s first-ever Forbidden Puppet Cabaret, celebrating 60 years of Children’s Fairyland’s iconic puppet theater

The cabaret is one highlight of a full Fairyland weekend of 60th-birthday puppetry events for the whole family: craft activities, guest performances and a visit from former Storybook Puppet Theater director – and Hollywood puppet artist – Tony Urbano.

We couldn’t be happier that one of the region’s most accomplished artistic teams in this art form—MagicalMoonshine Puppet Theatre (MMT) of Vallejo—will serve as the cabaret’s producer and emcee. Founded in 1979 by Michael and Valerie Nelson, MMT has performed throughout the United States and in 15 other countries, in eight different languages.

It was Michael who came up with the idea of a Forbidden Puppet Cabaret about five years ago, after many years of creating successful shows for children. “I was going through a midlife crisis,” he says, “but instead of buying a Harley, I decided to explore adult puppetry  The first Forbidden Puppet Cabaret, which featured a number of gifted puppeteers, was held behind a strip mall in Vallejo. “Nobody could find it—not even the performers,” Michael recalls. Since then, he’s hosted a number of other cabarets in more easily findable venues, to the delight of audiences around Northern California who’ve called the performances “sophisticated,” “surreal,” and “side-splittingly funny.”

The puppet characters of the Limberjim Bartz Band.
Michael says he’s extremely pleased to bring the show – appropriately titled “Never Grow Up” – to Aesop’s Playhouse in Children’s Fairyland. “It’s an intimate setting where the artists can really connect with the audience,” he says.

Besides MMT, the innovative performers who will appear at Aesop’s Playhouse include Whorls of Wonder Puppet Theater (“dedicated to making visible the diverse wonders of nature, and encouraging interest in the sciences”); the Limberjim Bartz Band (heart-thumping music featuring an array of highlighted hand-made limberjacks, or clog-dolls as The Limberjim Bartz Band calls them. Clog dolls are entertaining American folk art stick puppets as well as rhythm instrumentshighlighted hand-made limberjacks, or clog-dolls as The Limberjim Bartz Band calls them. Clog dolls are entertaining American folk art stick puppets as well as rhythm instruments.stick puppets and rhythm instruments); of show-stopping clogdancing characters Obtainium Works (steam-punk influenced, and appearing with a mechanical horse); Brian Narelle accompanied by Warren Peace, Canine Poet; Bernie Beauchamp Puppets (marionettes that incorporate blues, jazz, rock, and opera in a musical variety format): and, after the sun has gone down, Fred Riley III with his elaborate shadow puppets.

Warren Peace, Canine poet.

These puppeteers have wowed at Burning Man, toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, written and animated for “Sesame Street,” and performed at Lincoln Center in New York City.

During the intermission, audience members will be invited to design and make their own puppets. And of course, no Fairyland celebration would be complete without a few surprises!

Bernie Beauchamp and marionettes.

Puppetry has been around for about 3,000 years, and we hope that Children’s Fairyland is helping in some small way to keep it around for at least 3,000 more.

We open our fairy gates for Forbidden Puppet Cabaret at 6 p.m. Aug. 27. A limited number of tickets are available on the Fairyland website; advance registration is required. For a donation of $60 or more, you can also win special puppet-themed rewards. Because we’ll be serving alcohol, no one under 21 will be admitted.

-- C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park.

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