Tuesday, February 14, 2017

We Hear Voices...

By C.J. Hirschfield

Last week the puppet show “The Three Wishes” opened at Children’s Fairyland. It was the first time the show – a classic German folk tale – had been mounted here in 21 years. In our telling, a woodcutter is rewarded with three wishes after aiding an elf. Things quickly get out of control.

We often use the original soundtrack of the show, using voices and music that were recorded long ago. It may seem sad to hear that all of the voice-talent artists who recorded the show have passed away, but to Fairyland’s master puppeteer Randal Metz, it’s a comfort.

A youthful Randal was at the recording session for “Wishes” back in the 1970s, and for most sessions after that. Here’s the way it worked:

Adult and child cast members would meet in Fairyland master puppeteer Lewis Mahlmann’s stately, historic Oakland apartment for a homemade dinner. Everyone would have received their scripts beforehand, and Lewis or Randal would direct. All would do a read-through together, and then take suggestions and talk about emphasis. The show would be recorded, all would listen and then try again. There would be much laughter and, after the kids left, some drinking.

Left to right: master puppeteer Randal Metz, David Jones, and Liesel and Brian Weimer record the puppet show soundtrack for "Brer Rabbit" in 1995.

Afterward, Randal would add music and sound effects. He’d physically edit out pauses using scissors – remember, this was before digital technology was an option. If the tape didn’t later have to be altered to reflect changing societal values (sexism, calling characters “stupid,” over-exaggerated accents, for example), it would live forever in Fairyland’s vaults.

And just as Disney brings back its classic films every seven years or so, that’s typically how long Fairyland will wait for a replay.

Over the 60-year history of our puppet theater, dozens of voice actors – some of them well known, all of them interesting and talented – have helped make our puppet shows special to literally millions of children and adults.  

A Fairyland summer camper with puppets from our current show, "The Three Wishes."

The pioneering stand-up comic Phyllis Diller, who lived in Alameda before her fame, voiced the witch in “Rapunzel.” Don Ingraham, who worked in the office of the Oakland district attorney and wrote kids’ plays and drew cartoons in his spare time, voiced the elf in “The Three Wishes.” Shakespearean actor, artist, TV star (The Wonderful World of Brother Buzz”) and puppet designer Ralph Chesse played several roles, including the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland” and a crew member in “Treasure Island.”

Former park director and actor Darryl Ferreira (“Golden Girls,” “Hill Street Blues”) voiced many shows, including the king in “The Emperor’s New Clothes “and Long John Silver in "Treasure Island." Local TV character Bruce Sedley (Sir Sedley; Skipper Sedley) was known for his comic roles.

A young Randal Metz (left) with Tom Royer (center) and John Gilkerson at a Fairyland Puppet Fair.

Lucille Bliss, who voiced one of the evil stepsisters in Disney’s “Cinderella” as well as Smurfette, played Goldilocks for us. Mike and Frances Oznowicz, the parents of Frank Oz (Yoda, Miss Piggy) played Little Red Riding Hood’s parents and two nosy neighbors in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Talented local actor John Gilkerson, whom Tom Hanks acknowledged when he received his Best Actor Academy Award for Philadelphia, was amazing with accents; he voiced Bre'r Fox and a number of sorcerers.

And members of the delightful Lamplighters musical theater troupe were always happy to show up and sing for us.

Then there was Lewis Mahlmann, whom Randal considered not only his mentor but also his father figure. Lewis played scores of roles over the years.

Randal Metz and Lewis Mahlmann in 1989.

“He had one of those voices—a genuine voice, from the heart,” says Randal. “Kids are drawn to that instinctively.”

When Lewis died in 2014, he left Randal more than 150 shows and countless memories. Randal started meeting all of the voice talent who came to Lewis’ place when he was 10 years old. “It’s so nice to hear their voices,” he says. It’s up to me to make new memories for people who apprentice with me now.”

Randal spoke to Lewis during his final days and told him, “You will always be by my side. Your puppets, your voice will always be part of my life.”

So the next time you attend a puppet show at Fairyland, think of all the camaraderie, talent and good times the recorded voices represent. That’s the way we hear it.


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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