Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Brookdale Animals: original photos

Put a bird on it!

I can never tell how my projects are going to "trend" -- for forever it seemed like my Game of Thrones-inspired House Sigil Banners fabric was going to be the only thing that was selling at my Spoonflower shop.   But now, all of a sudden, there's been a couple sales of my Brookdale Animals design.  My very first Spoonflower upload, from last summer!  The one that's behind these words you're reading right now!

This is as good a time as any to show off the original photos I took a year and a half ago of the parking lot signs themselves, because most of them (or at least some of them) are gone.  I haven't entered the Brookdale "complex" since they started work on the new Wal Mart, but from what I can tell from the highway, there's only a few signs still up on the south side: I see the fox and kangaroo, and a couple others further down.  There might be more on the west side, but the ones along the north and east side, facing the highway -- the iconic owl and the rooster for sure -- are torn down and gone.

Put a bird on it!

So click here to see the Flickr set I made of these original photos -- all 15 are there.  Enjoy!

(Update: I just realized that someone else took pictures -- better ones -- of the same signs, six days after I did, and put them up of Flickr also.)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Troll that lived less than a day on Etsy

I've been posting less new puppets on this blog than I had been, because they tend to just go up on Etsy sooner or later anyway.  But I wanted to share this lil' guy, because there's a good chance you never saw him -- I posted him late last night, and by this afternoon he had sold!

Here's my description of him from his Etsy page...

Creepy Cute Troll Goblin Imp Hand Puppet

I'm not sure what kind of creature this little guy is, but he's got big frog eyes, big bat ears, and green fur. He's perfectly cute and perfectly creepy -- he'd be up for performing as a cheerful imp or hobgoblin, or even as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. The "rags" he wears as clothes are patchwork quilt pieces that have been stitched together (there's a liner of felt inside his shirt, so it's not actually "raggy").

Availability: Unavailable.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Purim Clown Puppet (and Purim Fabric)

This is my Purim Clown Hand Puppet, currently available over at m'Etsy Shop.  It's made from a swatch of my Purim Kawaii Fabric from my Spoonflower designs (it's also available in pink and blue), a vintage clown doll head, a stripey fabric (I think it's just from Hancock Fabrics or something), some ribbon, and a button.  Spoonflower's 8x8 swatches aren't quite big enough to cover an entire puppet, but I don't like anything in my fabric pile to go to waste, so they make nice enough shirts for certain puppets.

Purim fabric -- it's not Hanukkah, but...

OK, here's the deal: I'm not actually Jewish.  But, for not being Jewish, I'm at Temple Israel in Minneapolis quite a bit.  While spoken Hebrew doesn't do anything for me aesthetically, I've always been attracted to the letters themselves, so I took both years of the Hebrew class that they offer at Temple Israel.  Since then I've taken a Monday night class every time they've offered a batch of them (JL@TI, as they call it), I attend Torah Study here and there on Saturday mornings, and I'm starting to become a regular at Rabbi Glaser's once-a-month Kabbalah class.  

Getting into all of this might be a job for a different blog, but I'm probably as positively, actively interested in Judaism (at least in the way it's presented at a progressive-minded Reform temple) as someone who isn't actually interested in becoming a Jew can be.  My "research project" (which has nothing to do with puppets, is a completely different project than my puppets, and definitely has no place on this blog) has led me to read Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews and similar compilations, books of midrash and kabbalah, and even big chunks of the Torah.  I don't really get into my whole story with people I've met at Temple Israel; I'm pretty sure it's not even a big deal that I'm not Jewish.  Part of my reticence is that I'm incredibly shy; part of it is that I'm not sure what's worse: being an outright anti-semitic bigot, or appropriating somebody's entire culture to gussy up your own.  I don't want anyone to ever get the idea that I'm some kind of Jew for Jesus, or Jesus for Jews, or whatever it would be, and that I'm just biding my time before I start handing out pamphlets.

To make a long story short, I decided that Purim is my favorite Jewish holiday.  Hanukkah is such a pedestrian, obvious choice, and I'm too much of a punk-rock contrarian to go with that.  Purim doesn't have a whole lot of deep meaning to it, like Hanukkah does; Purim, for the most part, is just about fun.  I don't feel like I'm stepping on too many toes in enjoying it -- that is, I enjoy it for what it is, I don't feel like I'm missing too much of the experience for not being a Jew, and I'm pretty sure my being there isn't ruining anyone else's experience of it either.

I occasionally search out different kinds of fabric prints, online and in stores, and it's no surprise that there's tons of choices for Hanukkah.  But I was completely surprised to find that there's NO Purim fabric out there. Come on -- kids (and adults!) dress up in costumes for Purim: no one's ever gone against the grain and put out a Purim collection?  Well, I thought the main characters in the story would make cute Japanese-esque cartoons, so I drew them up and laid them out in my collection of Purim fabrics.  I think it's hip, it's cute, and it's absolutely in the carnival spirit of the holiday itself (at least as far as I've experienced it).  No one's "bit" and purchased some yardage yet, but I haven't advertised it much until now either.

Purim character cheat-sheet:
Esther is the comely lass, Mordechai is in blue, King Ahasuerus is the kingly fellow, and Haman, the villain, is the lecherous one in purple.

(Fabric available for purchase here)

So here's the best part: Temple Israel does their Purimspiel every year as a parody of an appropriate pop cultural phenomenon of the time.  Last year it was Glee.  This year... oh, this year...

March 4
10:30 a.m.
'The Muppets Take Purim' Shpiel and Service 

Grab the entire family and throw on your costumes for a Purim service and Megillah reading, led by our clergy. You won’t want to miss this Muppet filled celebration!
March 4
11:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Family Purim Carnival
Join us at the 2012 TIPTY Purim Carnival for food, games and prizes. It’s a treat for the whole family! Tickets for games and food can be purchased the day of the carnival. 

Seriously wettin' my pants.

Predictions for the Purimspiel, assuming they're basing it on the most recent movie:
-- The oil-baron from the movie, Tex Richman, will fill the Haman role.
-- I'm not sure who the king will be, but possibly Rashida Jones' TV producer character will do.
-- Kermit will be the Mordechai character, and will be called "Mordekermit."
-- Miss Piggy will be Esther; I'm not sure what her parody name will be, but there will be kosher jokes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Flickr Group is up and running!

Everyone who owns a puppet (hopefully from Peter's Puppets, but I'm not picky): there's a place to show off your puppet!  Snap a photo of your puppet and upload it to the Peter's Puppets Flickr Group:

I really hope people take advantage of this.  It'd be great to see where all these puppets end up in the world, and I hope people share their puppets' stories -- what's its name?  What's it up to?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sea Dragons

I've got a fabric design in the Weekly Contest over at Spoonflower -- go vote for it if you're so inclined -- called Ditsy Sea Dragons:

It's already the most popular thing I've done (something like 17 views in just this first day of voting!), so I wanted to show people this video I took of real live sea dragons at the Minnesota Zoo.  If you've never seen sea dragons, I'm sure my design might seem awfully fantabulous; but they're actually much weirder than I've drawn them.

Now I'm just wondering when Spoonflower will have a snow monkey-themed contest.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book Review: Toy Store in a Book by Shari Lewis

So why doesn't Shari Lewis get the puppeteer accolades that the guys in the Muppets do?  Is it because she was a ventriloquist, and therefore kind of a "novelty" act?  Is it because she specifically targeted a little-kid audience without any adult appeal?  Is it because her puns were so bad?  The bottom line is that back when Jim Henson was trying to grow a wispy teenage beard, Shari Lewis was already kickin' out the jams puppet-style.

It's always kind of a treat to see Muppet performers work their Muppets, if only because they're usually hidden.  But it's kind of awkward, too.  You're not sure if you should be watching the puppeteer or the puppet, and you're not really engaged with either of them completely, and you end up feeling like you missed the magic of the performance.  But now watch about seventeen seconds of anything Shari Lewis has ever done with Lamb Chop, and realize that she was out there, on-screen, just her and her puppets and the camera rolling, engaging her audience in her puppets and herself.

She's equally engaging -- when she's not even there! -- in Toy Store in a Book (1979), which I picked up at Booktowne in downtown Aitkin, Minnesota.

Hey, let's zoom in on her photo on the back cover:

This isn't the 80's/90's perm-fro phase of her look that I remember most vividly; but it's basically how she looks in a DVD I have of The Shari Show from 1975 (which I might review later, once I figure out how to take screen-shots of a DVD).  I might be kind of naive, but she couldn't have had any "work done" in the late 70's, could she?  I ask because she's got that exact face that connoisseurs of extreme plastic surgery seem to be aiming for (I'm thinking Michael Jackson, Joan Rivers, etc).  Even in the 80's, when she certainly could have had a lift or tweak or two, she was completely expressive in the way that plastic faces are incapable of.  Who knows.

Toy Store in a Book is a masterpiece of what I called the "rainy day" genre of kids' books in an earlier review.  Lots of art projects, stuff to cut out, stuff to glue and tape together and stick paper clips into, etc.  What's great about my copy is that, despite the big chunk of printing torn off of the back cover, whoever owned this book didn't alter it in any way -- each page is completely innocent of scissor or crayon.  That means that the previous owner either loved it or hated it: he/she loved the book so much that he/she couldn't "destroy" it and decided to simply admire it, or he/she begrudgingly thanked grandma for the neat-o book from the gas station and promptly stuck it on a shelf underneath a Troll doll.

The Introduction pretty well spells out what Shari was going for with this book:

Notice, about mid-way down, she mentions The Kids-Only Club Gang, and lists off a bunch of kids' names.  What's interesting about this list is that I know exactly who Mally is.  (Sorry, that probably sounded creepy.  Even though there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for my knowing who Mally is, there's certain things that don't sound right when adult white males say them.  Maybe the italics weren't a good choice.)

In 2010 we went to the Target Children's Book Festival, and one of the performers was Mally Lewis, Shari's daughter.  I know what you might be thinking, but she was actually really good.  She had the puppets' voices and characters down perfectly, sang exactly the kind of songs that Shari would sing to entertain kids, and even added some between-song banter aimed at the parents who grew up watching her mom (which I guess would be us).   It was a really good balance between "tribute show" and doing her own thing, which I'm sure is a difficult pitch to strike -- I think Zappa Plays Zappa would be a good comparison.  While Amy and Ez watched the last ten minutes or so of her performance, I got in line like a nerd-bergler to be one of the first to get Lamb Chop's autograph.

Anyway, remember when you'd have something you could cut out of a coloring book -- like a paper doll -- but you had to really consider what was on the other side of the page before you started hacking away?  What if there was a really cool picture of Grover on the other side of your Big Bird finger puppet?  What then my friend?  Well, Shari's got your back.  In a book filled with things to cut out, there's never a page where you'll ruin a different project by cutting something out.

This book must have been a nightmare to paginate and layout.  In some of the more complicated projects -- like the hang glider above -- there's actually things printed on both sides of the cutouts.  The quality-control staff at the printers were at the top of their game, because I've held these pages up to the light, and they match up either exactly, or close enough.  I could lay these pages out in a PDF for you, but I'm not even sure your home Desk Jet printer would line it up well enough.

I mentioned earlier that Shari Lewis is engaging in this book, even though it's just text.  In introducing the instructions for Nosey Rosey -- where you poke holes in this noseless face, thread string through the holes, and pull the string to make crazy nose shapes and sizes -- she says "Meet Nosey Rosey.  At least, she used to be called Nosey Rosey.  But she has lost her nose and would like you to make a new one for her."  She finishes off the instructions with, "I don't mean to be nosey, but did you enjoy helping Rosey pick out a nose?" Is it just me, or did you read these words in Shari Lewis' voice in your head, too?

As is evident by now, the illustrations are pure 70's gold -- like blacklight posters ordered from comic book ads, hung up next to your Milton Glaser illustration of Dylan.  One of them in particular -- "The Joker" -- wins the "Sign of the Times" award, and I don't have to explain why:

I'll end this review with something you'll thank me for later, when it's stuck in your head:
This is the song that doesn't end
Yes, it goes on and on my friends;
Some people started singing it not knowing what it was;
And they'll continue singing it forever just because 
This is the song that never ends...

Monday, February 6, 2012

Vintage Puppet: Vegetable Gnome

So I'm just going to put it out there that, not only do I make handmade puppets, but I also have a soft spot in my heart (and wallet) for puppets that are vintage, or handmade (by someone else's hands), or -- best yet -- vintage AND handmade.  I used to search for them pretty often on eBay, and they'll turn up in thrift stores here and there.  I've got quite the little stash of them now, and I figured I might as well show them off.

I don't know what to call this guy, but check it.  Look at the top half of his face, and he looks like a vegetable.  I don't know what, specifically -- maybe a pale squash or rutabaga or something.  Now look at the bottom half of his face, and he's definitely a gnome (or dwarf, or leprechaun, etc).  He's ready to party in the Halls of Khazad-dum with that ratty tuft of orange beard hair.  Altogether he looks like a creature from a level of Super Mario Bros. 2 that no one's discovered yet.

I know I got him from someone on eBay, but I really don't remember where he came from -- I wasn't as careful about provenance back then (probably about ten years ago).  If the seller gave me a back-story, I would have remembered, so I'm pretty sure that the seller wasn't connected to this puppet's original context or maker.  I'm super curious, though; always have been.  My guess is that there was some kind of play, at a church or a school, that called for... a vegetable gnome?  Was it a play about eating healthily?  Or did this puppet start out as something else, and just organically started becoming vegetable-like in the creative process?  Or was Captain Beefheart involved, and after he shouted "vegetable gnome puppet" in a stream of consciousness rant, somebody made one?  What I like about these old, handmade puppets is that there's surely a story behind each one: a puppet is half toy, half tool; it entertains and it (often) serves some kind of dramatic function.  No one accidentally makes a puppet -- but the qualities that make it charming can be very accidental.

I should mention that the "root" on his head had broken off by the time I got him, so I had to make a restorative repair.  The part above the deep crack is Sculpey clay; I mixed a green in acrylic paint as closely as I could to the original artist's.  The whole head is papier mache, and pretty well made -- it's nice and sturdy.

Right under the head, the maker got a little nuts with the hot glue.  He or she probably hadn't made a ton of puppets before, but he/she got the job done -- it hasn't fallen apart on me.  And I'll cut him/her some slack, because that's the most stressful part of putting a puppet together.  You need hot glue, because it sets really fast, but if you've pulled the fabric a little too far one way or the other, or you haven't left yourself enough slack on one side or the other, the whole thing's tattered, and you've got really noticeable hot glue blobs stuck to everything if you try to take it apart and start over.

So cheers to him/her, whoever you are!  In the mind-blowingly unlikely event that you're reading this, let me know why this little guy exists!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Book Review: A Puppet Corner in Every Library by Nancy Renfro

My last blog post has gotten me waxing rather nostalgic, so I thought I'd take another trip down memory lane, this time under the pretense of a book review (which may or may not make more sense as we go further along).

Yesterday Ez and I went to see the animals being fed at the Springbrook Nature Center here in Friendly Fridley.  They were feeding the snakes and turtles -- the snakes get live mice, ranging from newborn mice to full-size white mice, depending on the size of the snake I guess, so there was a lot of kid- and mom-shrieking going on whenever one of the mice would meet its timely-enough doom.  The Nature Center staff put a bunch of minnows in the snapping turtle's aquarium.  I saw the turtle lunge and snap at one of them: "Oh, he didn't get it!" I said, as I saw the minnow flip, slap its tail and dart away.  But then the minnow fell apart, into two neat halves, right in mid-swim.  He was like a guy in a ninja movie who thinks the ninja's sword missed him somehow, and then two seconds later the top half of his head slides off or something.

Anyway, that leads me to one of my earliest memories of puppet enthusiasm, which was going to field trips and birthday parties at the Westwood Nature Center in Saint Louis Park -- according to the Internets, it's now the Westwood Hills Nature Center.  Maybe it always was, but I don't remember the "Hills" part being in there before.  I remember thinking, as a kid, that the Westwood Nature Center might have some vague connection to the city of Westwood, the rarely (if ever?) seen home of Mayor Maggie and Chuck Aber in the Make-Believe portions of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.  There were certainly puppets in both.  I'm almost positive that every event I attended at the Nature Center featured a puppet show of some kind.  I remember that the scenery curtain behind the puppets had cut-out felt designs of trees and stuff, with little holes out of which smaller puppets could pop.  Was it always the same Nature Center staffer that did these puppet plays -- some 80's dude that was really into nature AND puppet theater?  I was at the Nature Center so often that I remember knowing the staff by name; but now, when I try to think of any of them, all I can picture is Neighbor Aber.

Chuck Aber: he and Mayor Maggie were more than just "neighbors," right??

Later on -- fifth or sixth grade? -- a bunch of us guys went to an overnight at the Nature Center.  One of the raddest activities (besides decorating our t-shirts with animal paw-print stamps and screenprinting ink) was that we could go behind the puppet booth and play with the puppets.  I don't think we were EVER allowed to do that on any other field trip or event.  Looking at current photos of the Nature Center online, I see that the puppet theater (or a new one, at least) is still there.

But even earlier than all that was a distinct memory that took place at the good ol' Saint Louis Park library.  There was (still is?) a multipurpose room, just to the left as you walked in the main entrance, where they'd have kids' programs, stories, movies, whatever -- I remember watching a lot of stop-action Paddington Bear films, in which the British accents were so thick that I had no idea what was going on.  One time there was a puppet show; a real "professional" one -- I don't think it was just one of the librarians or anything.  At the end of the show, the big deal was that you could go up and "look with your eyes and your hands" at the puppets.  I must have been pretty darn young when this happened, because my proprietary sense wasn't very developed: I had some vague hope that they meant that we could have one of the puppets.  Of course I was wrong.  (Does the empty hole left by this childhood disappointment have something to do with my current making and amassing of puppets?  The world may never know.)

What was neat at the library though -- and, after having talked about it with Amy before, this was at her library growing up too -- was that you could check out puppets, just like you could a book.  They were in hanging, transparent plastic bags; they hung by a white plastic hook at the top, and the hook could snap open or closed, to either open or close the bag.  They had the same set-up for checking out cassette tapes and things like that.  When I reserve CDs through MNLink, they sometimes arrive at my library in the same kind of bags, only smaller.

Ah, to be a child in the 80's (or at least, not now, when they don't have things like puppet-lending any more)!  When the library was as magical as a butterfly in the sky, as charming as LeVar Burton's smile!  When I started making puppets last year, and began thinking about selling them, I considered getting those same kind of bags to package each puppet.  (They're actually kind of expensive, unless you're buying them by the thousands, and I'm not sure that each of my customers would get the same nostalgia-buzz to warrant the added cost.)

So all this finally leads me to the book that I'm ostensibly reviewing: A Puppet Corner in Every Library by Nancy Renfro.
The cover of my copy (ex-library, natch)

While this book has all the usual puppet book yada-yada -- hand-drawn puppet patterns, script ideas, how to build a theater, etc. -- what sets it apart is that it's written to persuade librarians to adopt something of a "puppet philosophy" to connect with their youngest patrons.  The copyright is 1978, which means it could be the basis (or at least a link in the chain) of the puppet-lending system that I remember.  Included in the illustrations are ideas for doing just that:

Circulation card, and card pocket "attached to Monaco Hang Up bags with fiber tape"!

Suggested information to attach to puppets' bags

This whole book has a certain quality that I love about nonfiction kids' books from that era, especially the art project / "rainy day" kind of genre.  There's this fast-fading, graying-hippie bulwark quality, being set up against impending yuppie cynicism.  It makes you feel that it's perfectly reasonable to loan kids puppets for a week and expect to see them again; that you're strengthening the community by putting on puppet shows in the library's puppet corner.
I'm pretty sure my mom wore dresses just like this, and I'm very sure they were homemade.

There's a series of photos featuring librarian Marie Wilson, showing you how much energy and emotion you (as the storyteller) should put into your interactions with your puppet co-host.
I've got a great caption for this one, but I'm going to keep it to myself.

I'm not sure what to make of this guy, identified as librarian Thomas Hudson.  Now personally, I'm a puppet maker, not a puppeteer -- my "theater person" quotient is statistically near zero -- but I can even imagine myself as being far more likely a person to put on a puppet show than this guy.  "Hey, the board approved this puppet corner stuff, so I'm darn well putting on my disco shirt and jangling my janitor keys and putting on this puppet show!"
But what do I know?  His puppet plays were probably as awesome and influential as the Velvets in the Factory days.

The text describes one particular library with a puppet corner, for which one of the patrons, Irene Heiland, sewed fifty (!) puppets; her husband Bob Heiland built a portable puppet stage; and "our local vo-tech students" designed a "colorful puppet tree."  This photo is handmade puppet nirvana.  It's hard to identify all the puppets in the small black-and-white photo, but I'll try:
left side, top to bottom: eagle?, witch?, Raggedy Ann, some sort of Sinterklaas or elf, dolphin; right side, top to bottom: a very X-ish owl, clown, no idea, another X-ish owl, generic girl with hat?, cat or jack-o-lantern?, baker or generic lady with hat.

But the price of admission on this book is worth it on this picture alone.  My man is double-fistin' it puppet-style, and he's totes losin' it.  Slow down buddy, you're just at the library!  "Yeah, I'm at a library -- with a PUPPET CORNER!"

Inside back cover of my copy -- I'm not sure which of the contributors this person is, or if it's any of them, or what's going on at all.  The date stamp on the card pocket reads April 18, 1983.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Why The Muppets is my favorite Muppets movie.

"There's not a word yet for old friends who've just met"
-- a line from Gonzo's song "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday", 1979

So a lot of people in the Muppet-fan webiverse (weblaxy? websmos?) have put in their three cents about the new Muppet movie, and, while generally liking it, they hedge their praise with really nitpicky critiques.  "Kermit was a bummer through the whole thing!" "That one part didn't make sense or wasn't done very well!" "My favorite Muppet [insert Muppet name] didn't get enough screen time!"  (For the record, my own favorites, Kermit and Bobo, got exactly as much screen time as their characters warrant.)

To boil down their critiques, they're basically saying this: "My perception of this movie isn't exactly the same as my perception of  the old movies I've been watching all my life."

When Amy and I first saw the movie (opening night), I decided that we should take Ezra sometime during its run to see it for his first movie in the theaters.  I guess I'm kind of sentimental about stuff like that; some people of my generation take pride in saying "my parents took me to see Star Wars as my first movie in the theaters" and wear it like a badge of honor, proving how much bigger Star Wars fans they are than everyone else.  Well, if my son is going to say anything like that, it's darn well going to be about the Muppets.  The house this kid grows up in -- he's actually said "Mommy's favorite is Miss Piggy, and Daddy's favorite is Kermit, and mine favorite is Animal because because he plays drums and I play drums because Santa brought me drums for Christmas."  So a couple weekends ago we dressed him up in his Kermit shirt and his Muppets hoodie and we went to see The Muppets in the bargain theater.

There's a part early in the movie where Walter is visiting the dilapidated Muppets studios, and he's wearing a Kermit shirt.  Seeing this, Ezra got up and unzipped his jacket.  He looked up at Walter wearing his Kermit shirt, looked down at his own Kermit shirt, and back again.

There it was.  Palpable, electric Muppet magic.  We have a Walter doll at home; now Ezra says "HE was in the Muppet movie theater and he was singing with Kermit [or, as he pronounces it, KAIR-mit]!!!"  Now my son has memories of the Muppets that will give him the "warm fuzzies" every time he sees Kermit or Piggy OR Walter, whether it be a few years from now or thirty years from now.  I guess what moves me -- and this might be selfish or something, but whatever -- is that now he's a Muppets fan in the same way that we are.

That's the thing: I can't go back and be a kid again, no matter how many times I watch the old movies.  Let's be honest, there's a lot of boring and/or cheesy stuff, even in the "Big Three" (the Jim Henson-era movies: The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, Muppets Take Manhattan).  It's what you put into those movies that counts, and I put myself into them many, many years ago.  But I can share pieces of what I thought was magical when I was a kid with my son.  And what's great about that is that he weaves his own kid-magic into it, and it retroactively brightens my own wellspring of that magic.

In the movie, Walter is one of us, the old die-hard fans; but in the bigger picture, he's the new guy -- the two-year-old Muppets fan -- the "old friend we've just met."  That's why The Muppets is my favorite Muppets movie.

Plus the music just plain rocks.  "Life's a Happy Song" is right up there with "Movin' Right Along" and "Together Again."