People seem fascinated by origin stories. There’s a whole subgenre for superheroes. I love to read actors’ and artists’ biographies up to the point where they “make it.” After success comes, so many of these biographies start to sound more like name dropping than anything of real substance. I’ve been a puppeteer for thirty-eight years now and the most frequently asked question posed to me has always been, “How did get into doing puppets?” or some version of that.
I guess puppetry is rare enough that many people are surprised to see adults devoting so much creative energy to the art. Of course, that’s just my nice way of wording my fear that people view me as a grown-up who plays with dolls. Perhaps less cynically, people honestly want to know how someone would go from not performing with puppets to having a full blown production that hopefully educates, enlightens, and entertains. These things don’t just happen overnight.
When someone asks me how I became a puppeteer, here’s the story I tell. When I was twelve years old, my family moved from Chesapeake, Virginia to the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. We moved in the late spring. When summer rolled around, I made friends with a guy I met at the neighborhood pool. Johnny Hester was my age, and we shared a lot of laughs. We rode bikes all over the neighborhood. We played sharks and minnows in the pool with other neighborhood kids. We talked about Kiss, Saturday Night Fever, and Saturday Night Live. Johnny could play the piano and would reenact Bill Murray’s lounge singer bit. Two images stick in my mind when it comes to Johnny: him singing “Star Wars, Nothin’ But Star Wars” while playing our living room piano and me discovering him one day in the crawl space of his house holding on to the tail end of a king snake while the head end had disappeared into a gap in the foundation.
Johnny and I became great friends that summer and fall. When Christmas came around, he asked if I wanted to exchange Christmas presents. Not thinking much of it, I said sure. I didn’t put much thought into the gift. I got him a Micronaut action figure (Google it.), and he gave me my first puppet. It was a Knot-kneed Knuffle. This puppet was from a line of puppets that could be found at Pier One Imports on a rack with other equally, cleverly named creations. The puppet’s body and head were one, made of cheap faux fur, and about ten inches long. The mouth was an orange felt beak lined with yellow felt. The eyes were attached to the beak and also made of felt. The knot-kneed characteristic was expressed in the puppet’s slender, orange felt twelve inch legs complete with knobby knees. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to make of this gift. “What do I do with it?” I asked Johnny. He told me that he had puppets and liked to perform in front of the bathroom mirror as he made the puppets lip synch to his favorite albums.
The Muppet Show was popular then, and I loved to watch it. I gave puppetry a shot. I bought my second puppet at an after Christmas sale from a pile of stuffed animals on a shelf in JC Penney. It was a Fisher Price version of Sesame Street’s The Count. I couldn’t do the Count’s voice; so I put sunglasses on him and named him Tom. I voiced him like a hippy. My second puppet was a Fisher Price Grover from a yard sale. His voice I could do. (My vocal flaps still bear the scars.)These puppets spent long hours in front of the bathroom mirror singing lead and background vocals from the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack.
Not too long after these acquisitions, I offered to do a skit for the third grade Sunday school class at my church. I asked Johnny if he wanted to join me, but he said he had a dentist appointment (on a Sunday in the ‘70’s). I didn’t believe him then, but understood that some people didn’t want to perform in public. I went on without him. I have no idea what that first skit was about or how I felt about my performance, but I never looked back.
The Knot-kneed Knuffle was voiced with a Southern accent and adorned with a small, plastic baseball cap that had come from Dairy Queen. His opening line was always, “Hi my name is Bubba. I’m from Montgomery, Alabama, and I’m a knot-kneed knuffle.” Throwing his legs over the stage, “See the knots in my knees?” I wore holes through the beak. My mother rebuilt it. I wanted to add arms and rods. My mother made the arms and I straightened out some coat hangers. I’ve long since retired this puppet, but his character lives on in other “Bubbas” I’ve performed over the years.
Such a seemingly simple gift was that puppet. A whole world, however, was opened to me. When the gift exchange was made, I had no idea what it would mean for my life. I had no idea that thirty-eight years later, I would still be performing. I had no idea that the gift from Johnny Hester would figure so prominently in my life. I lost touch with Johnny. His family moved away about two years after that fateful Christmas. Well, wherever you are Johnny, “Thanks!” I wonder if that Micronaut guy changed his life at all. Doubtful.
– Scott KuechenmeisterHall