When I was a kid, nothing got me going like puppets. I was crazy for them. I couldn’t get enough of them. I wanted to live and breathe puppets. It was to the point that I still, to this day, think about the obsession fairly regularly. Mostly in the “I was so weird” sense. But sometimes in the “whatever happened to that” sense. It kind of haunts me, actually. Let’s start with a little background first.
It’s no secret I was an odd child. Much of my time was spent figuring out what could come after the phrase, “Hey, wach this!” And even if I didn’t have anything planned, I couldn’t be stopped. I would just spew nonsense and gyrate until someone looked at me. And I played like all kids, of course – but it was on a different level for me in some way. It was like an early childhood career choice. And I don’t think it was my fault.
You see, my father and his two brothers were serious about playing.
Pathologically serious about it.
When they were kids, they built elaborate sets for turn-based war games played with hundreds of tiny, meticulously painted lead figures (wash your hands afterwards!), they once created a giant underground fort made entirely of an elaborate network of tunnels dug by hand in their backyard (with sandy Michigan soil – deathtrap anyone?), and they also invented snowboarding (actually called “snurfing”). Their childhood was like if Boy’s Life Magazine and Opie Taylor had offspring. And it didn’t stop after adolescence. My dad has spent the greater part of my life thus far building a professional-grade model train set and once berated me to the point of tears because I didn’t make good enough exhaust sounds while playing with Matchbox cars.
His younger brother, however, was the king of playtime. Nothing was off limits for Jamie. My mother once had to very firmly put her foot down as he plotted to put me into a climbing harness and hoist me to the top of a hundred foot tree just for the hell of it. To me, though, he was like some kind of magical wizard that only ever had the coolest ideas anyone could ever think of. So, of course, he gave me one of the best gifts I will ever receive – he built me a puppet theater.
At age 5 I couldn’t think of anything holier in this world than watching and playing with puppets. I had a whole cast of characters in my basement and they would get dragged out for a few weeks at a time while the puppet theater was in business. And thanks to my dad, they all had names and distinct personalities. There was the plastic dinosaur that was some Pizza Hut promotional item from the original Land Before Time. There was a troll doll puppet dressed as a policeman who, in a throwback to comedian Bill Dana (I later learned), only said one thing: “My name is Jose Jimenez.” There was also the shy green finger puppet that looked like a booger, and a pink snake-looking thing made of felt with yellow yarn glued to its head that my sister’s Bible School teacher let her have since she was just as obsessed with this shit as I was. Its recurring bit was to gag and heave until it eventually turned itself inside out.
Sometimes I try to think how this even came about. We’re all products of our environment, right? So who was telling me to obsess over puppets? I mean, I guess it makes sense. In the late 80’s and early 90’s they were everywhere. I was raised on Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Eureeka’s Castle, The Neverending Story, Mr. Rogers, and a worn out VHS tape of classic Muppet Show segments. It’s no wonder that I was making sense of the world by continuously talking to my own hand.
Was it healthy?I think that still has yet to be seen. It certainly played into my “you can be anything when you grow up” child of the 90’s mentality. I would watch hours of behind-the-scenes featurettes taped off of network tv specials where Jim Henson would lovingly explain how animatronic Doozers worked and think to myself – “This is a totally reasonable life-pursuit.”
Somewhere in there I decided that I would rather be the puppet and got two laborious degrees in acting, only to discover later what I knew all along – I would much rather be the one with the hand up the ass than the ass-hand-recipient. No one wants to be Kermit. At the end of the day Kermit is just a felt sack of reticulated polyfoam.
What we actually want is to be Jim Henson – Kermit’s heart and soul.
I want to be the one that can suggest the iconic humble-pie-eating-gulp with a slight shift of my knuckles. I want to make Lady Elaine piss you off with one jerky twist of my wrist. I want to be the one who undercuts Billy Baloney’s self-centered movie pitch with shifty eye movements, revealing his own deep seated insecurities about being a lowly ventriloquist dummy (deep cut for all you puppet lovers).
It’s funny because, as I continue to tread my path towards being a proverbial puppeteer, I can’t help but notice that maybe I had it right from the beginning – even if I was simply making Count von Count tally his own farts.