Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: Let's Start a Puppet Theatre by Benny E. Andersen

This isn't going to be so much a book review as it will be a look-see at one of my favorite (if not my absolute favorite) old puppet books in my collection.  As you can tell from the front and back covers of my ex-library copy, shown above, the aesthetics of the puppets and the illustrations in this book are very, very cool.

The super-blondness of the girls on the cover, the weird green room, the "theatRE" instead of "theatER" in the title, and the je ne sais quoi of the illustrations on the back are leading you to one conclusion, right?  We're "across the pond" with this book.  But let's not assume that this dubious "Benny E. Andersen" is from the United Kingdom.  Take a look at this small notice, tucked away on the copyright page:

Ah, the Danes!  My wife's people!  

So there is no Benny E. Andersen, but rather the Forlags of Copenhagen (I'm calling them the Forlags because I don't know how to write the crossed-out-O's in their first names on a keyboard).  I'm not Danish, but I think in some strange way, the Forlags are my people too.  I've always wondered if there's a common thread between all the weird music I like: the Ramones, Frank Zappa, Faith No More and Mr. Bungle, Gentle Giant, Nomeansno... my wife would say that the common thread is that it is weird music.  But sometimes I like to focus on one factor I've noticed: all those bands are much more popular in Europe than they are here in the USA.

Take a look at these goofballs and tell me they're not my kindred spirits.

The photos and illustrations are really the best part of this book, so it's easy to just pick it up and flip around.  The text is trying to tell this story of the "prima donna" puppet, as she keeps adding parts to her puppet play as she discovers new ways to make and perform puppets -- for example, the authors show you how to make a puppet out of a loofah, and a puppet out of old glasses or whatever, and then she adds them to her puppet play... yeah, it's kinda goofy, so don't waste too much time reading it.

 the "prima donna" puppet

Part of the reason I skip stuff like this in the text is because I could probably have figured out how to make a puppet out of a loofah on my own if I wanted to.  Joe Soucheray, a local sports writer and talk show host here in the Twin Cities, has a bit on his radio show called "Who are they writing this for?"  In one of these bits, he drew his scrutinous eye upon an article printed in the Star Tribune about the excessively hot temperatures we had been having.  Within the article was a little infographic thing, giving tips on what to do to "beat the heat."  One of the tips was something along the lines of, "if it's uncomfortable in your home, and you don't have access to air conditioning, open a window."  Joe rhetorically wondered "who they were writing this for," because, obviously, if you have the basic wherewithal to obtain and consume a newspaper article, you already have the common sense to open a window if it's too hot.  Well, the same applies to this book (and others like it): I can make puppets out of stuff in the junk drawer on my own time.  I came to you to see pictures of really kick-ass puppets and puppet theaters.

...and this book provides that, more than enough to make up for its goofy narrative.  Again, the illustrations are pretty fun, in their non-accurate, free-hand way.  By the way, this really is the best way to make a pattern for a basic glove puppet, like the ones I make sometimes:

In the few years after I had gotten this book, I made a few puppets based almost entirely on the aesthetic of the puppets in this book: papier-mache heads with glove puppet bodies.  They actually take a while to do... or at least they did when I was doing them; I may have been -- actually, I was -- much lazier back then.  I like this next picture of one of the puppet makers' work table: in case you've ever wondered what my work table looks like, just picture a far less tidy version of this.

This book, a Danish work being filtered through a British translation, has its quirks.  I feel like enough of a dork running around the suburbs of Minneapolis -- going to Michael's, Hancock Fabrics, etc. -- invading the little old quilting ladies' hotspots with my weird puppet-making needs.  But imagine how awkward and strange it would be if I tried to use this book's "Where to get materials" appendix.  For example:

Piano castors: Can be obtained or ordered from ironmongers.

Trestles: Can be bought from timber merchants.

Gauze: Sold by the yard in shops that sell nursing supplies and also from chemists.

Net: Can be bought from drapery shops.

Expanded Polystyrene: Can be bought from firms dealing with the materials for window decoration, insulation and packing.

Expanded Polystyrene Balls: Sold by craft material stockists.

"Excuse me, is this a craft material stockist?  Yes, I'm looking for expanded polystyrene balls.  I'm sorry, I'm in a bit of a rush, I still have to hit a drapery shop and a timber merchant.  And maybe an ironmonger.  If there's time."  Oh, and don't forget to pick up this valuable puppet-making item:

Loofahs: From chemists and department stores.

But don't take my word for it!  There's a weirdly jarring, but oddly sage, bit of advice randomly placed among the book's final pages.  If I was the kind of person who cut out uplifting, philosophical quotes to tape to my bathroom mirror or computer monitor, this would be one of mine:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Vintage Puppet: Nightmare Army Jacket Man

OK, I probably shouldn't be doing this, because it's just reminding my wife that this thing is in our house.  It's probably the creepiest vintage puppet I have.  I think I got it at an antique store -- I can't imagine someone selling it on eBay.

So, what we've got here is a puppet with a strange, hand-painted clay or papier mache kind of head (is this what the old puppet-making books call "composite"?).  There's a pretty well planned out -- if not well-executed -- army green jacket of felt, and a thin black fabric shirt.  Something weird is going on on top of his head, which might indicate that there was a hat or something that hadn't survived by the time this lil' guy got to me.

His face is all kinds of wrong, and it's too early in my analysis to conclude whether this was purposefully done or not.  His bulbous nose and anatomically vulgar baggy eyes make him look like Lady Elaine Fairchild's drunken, lecherous cousin.  His rectangle of unnaturally red lips look like he put on lipstick backhandedly with his fist.  His jaw is supposed to wobble up and down as you move him, but it's too tightly sprung.  You can move it up and down with your finger, but it's not going to do it on its own.  That's probably a good thing, because his mouth is sparsely dotted with horrible skeleton-like teeth made of tiny pieces of balsa wood.

Here's the thing that really gets me: check out how much time was spent on carving these tiny hands:

...but contrast that with the feature of this puppet that kinda gives me the chills -- like suddenly realizing you've been wandering through a garage sale that's being run by a serial killer: the head is attached to the fabric body with two tiny nails, one in front and one in back.

It's possible that these were attached by someone other than the original artist, after the head came loose from the shirt.  It's possible that some teenager made this in an art class, and spent just enough time making tiny hands and a gruesomely detailed head to get a decent grade and then nailed the thing together.  But I've got this awful feeling that this puppet was made by a genuinely insane person.  

I'm not a psychologist, or forensic pathologist, or anything, so I can't piece together who this genuinely insane person might have been.  But I'll choose to believe that this puppet is a self-portrait.  And that he's dead now, and neither heaven nor hell would take him, so his tortured soul inhabits this puppet. 

Now that I think of it, maybe I'll keep it in the garage from now on.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I've Been Tumblr'd

Last night I noticed on my Etsy Stats that I was getting a lot of hits from "".  I spent an inordinate amount of time on the Internets -- all the while running my thumbs up and down my suspenders, adjusting my tiny round spectacles, and fanning myself with my flat, white straw hat -- trying to figure out exactly what Tumblr was, and where I was being discussed or posted about on there.

Today I figured out that my Brookdale Bear Hand Puppet was posted on Stuff About Minneapolis, a blog on Tumblr.  So, I believe that this, combined with some exciting non-puppet-related news last night, officially makes me Minneapolis Cool.  Am I part of the Minneapolis tastemaker elite crowd that the guy from Howler was complaining about?  Yes, I assume so.

By the way, in case you're somehow reading this through the Stuff About Minneapolis blog, I really have to mention that my Brookdale Animals fabric is available for purchase by the yard.  There's only the one bear puppet -- and someone may have bought it by the time you read this -- but you can have as much of the fabric as you want for your own projects through Spoonflower.

P.S. I'm aware of how goofy it is that this is a blog post about a blog post.