By C.J. Hirschfield
In the 15 years that I’ve run Children’s Fairyland, we’ve presented more than 100 puppet shows. My absolute favorite is “Puff the Magic Dragon,” which we premiered last year in honor of our Storybook Puppet Theater’s 60th anniversary.
Casting the voices to be recorded for the show was not easy. Although Puff is not the main character – he doesn’t cause things to happen; he merely advises and guides – his voice was critical. It had to be a voice that was warm and soothing yet conveyed enough credibility and love so that you really wanted to listen to and believe in him.
It was abundantly clear to Fairyland puppet master Randal Metz whose voice it had to be. Ron Zeno, Fairyland’s Santa for two decades, was the only person he ever considered for the role.
Ron first came to Fairyland when he ran Safe Exchange, where he oversaw court-appointed visitations with kids who were in extremely troubled family situations. Since his office was just down the street, we offered him free passes to bring family members whenever he needed to. It was Ron who, over a decade ago, told me something I’d never realized: that Fairyland is a therapeutic environment; that its gardens, gentle animals and even puppet shows can help kids and families who’ve experienced trauma.
|Ron Zeno and Khoa Sands record the soundtrack for Fairyland’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” puppet show. Photo: Robin Brady|
He was right. Since that time, the park has greatly expanded the work we do with foster kids, refugee families and kids with special needs.
Randal says that Puff was an extension of Ron the professional social worker: guiding, suggesting; a best friend, a pillar. Ron, for his part, was ecstatic to get the role. He called his relatives in Alabama to read them the script, and each time he did it he’d cry at the end, when Puff has to let his beloved friend grow up and separate.
Ron recorded many voices for our puppet shows over the years: the African sky god in “Ananse, the Spider Man,” the dragon king in “Urashima,” the doctor in “Velveteen Rabbit,” the head monk in “The Magic Tea Kettle.” His voice was always teacherly and fatherly – “the kind of voice,” says Randal, “that would be nice to listen to in the middle of the night.”
Ron eventually joined Fairyland’s board of directors. He always took the time to walk around the park and get to know all of our employees. He’d visited Fairyland when he was young, and it tickled us when this large man said he used to be afraid to go down the stairs into Willie the Whale’s mouth. His love for the park was unsurpassed.
|Ron enjoys some camel love at a Fairyland event. Photo: Maria Rodriguez.|
When “Puff” premiered at the park last year, I was standing next to Ron. We both had tears in our eyes when the show ended.
For this year’s Puppet Fair, to be held the last weekend in August, we had planned on presenting “Three Brave Deeds,” a popular favorite. But we’ve decided to change the program.
Ron passed away last week, and our hearts are broken. He was one of the kindest, funniest, most caring people I’ve ever known, someone whose life was spent serving others and bringing joy. Literally thousands of Bay Area kids remember a Santa whose deep voice was always warm and friendly, and who reassured them that there was much good in the world.
So in Ron’s memory, this year’s Puppet Fair will feature performances of “Puff the Magic Dragon.” It’s a perfect fit for the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, and perfect for Ron, who wore tie-dye shirts when he wasn’t wearing Hawaiian ones.
|Ron was Fairyland's Santa for nearly two decades. Photo: Maria Rodriguez|
Some people might find it upsetting to hear the voice of someone you love after they’re gone, but not I. Ron’s distinctive, velvety, FM-radio-station voice—and beautiful spirit—will live on in the many shows he graced us with.
There was one more character Ron played for us, and it’s probably how I’ll always remember him. The role was in our production of “Alice in Wonderland,” and the character’s name was the perfect description for Ron Zeno: King of Hearts.
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.