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25 Nov 2011

Wayne Martin: An Exceptional Mastery Of Puppetry Skills (Part One)

Today it’s a very exciting day. I am sure that, when you were a child, you had a lot of dreams to fulfill. Almost me: I had mine. But it’s hard to follow your dreams, and not much people could say they reached their child purposes. But the man over here did. He has an amazing life, a kind of tale story. A tale with princess, frogs, witches, dragons... and Elton! He created his own Elton. All of them are part of his magic world. His professionalism and affable personality have made him a joy to watch. He recreates a spectacular and colourful performance, outstanding for all ages. Eltonites, welcome to the weekend of the illusion, the weekend of fantasy, the weekend of dreams!!! Everybody, please, get up, stand up to receive the magnificient and incredible: Wayne Martin!!!!!!!

Hi Wayne. I would like to thank you effusively for your acceptation to be here. It’s really an honour. We were talking about childhood, so the question is easy: Which are your most beautiful memories of your childhood, Wayne? And how it was growing up in Cincinatti?

My favorite childhood memory is Christmas Eve when I was 4 years old and my mother and grandmother made me a hand puppet witch as a gift from Santa! The puppet was based on a television puppet character named Hattie the Witch, who was created and performed by legendary Cincinnati, Ohio puppeteer Larry Smith (Who would become my mentor just a short time later). Thankfully the moment was all caught on film by my father that Christmas; me walking into our living room and finding her there. I was so excited to have my own Hattie puppet that I refused to remove her from my hand. Apart from eating and bathing I would keep her on my hand all the time, even sleeping with her still on my hand. Within several weeks my index finger became infected from being inside her rubber head and not getting any air. I had to be taken to the doctor several times to have the finger lanced and to receive antibiotics and as soon as it healed I put her right back on.

Hahahaha It’s nice!!! Well so it seems this was the way you get into Puppeteering, isn’t it? Were you already inspired by puppet shows or ventriloquism?

I saw Hattie the Witch on television when I was three years old and was fascinated not only by Hattie but also the many other puppet characters that Larry created. He had an early morning show televised at 8am weekdays and then he would also appear at 9am daily on the famous "Uncle Al Show" (which would go one to become the longest running children's series in the world, before Al's retirement in the mid 1980's) and a third daily program televised at 5pm. This was the late 1950's and early 1960's and the heyday of live TV! These programs were all produced out of Cincinnati, Ohio and at various times ran on the networks across the U.S.A. So I would sit in front of the TV just waiting for Larry's shows, watching the other programs in-between his and acting them all out using my puppets.

This was before receiving my Hattie and my puppets consisted of suckers that I had received "Trick-or-Treating" on Halloween the year before. People would cover suckers with white paper napkins and draw ghost faces on them and hand them out as treats. Instead of eating mine, I used them as "rod puppets" (i.e., Puppets on sticks) to act out all of the TV shows I'd watch. I also made some puppets of my own out of paper bags, socks and anything I could find around the house.

I also began to discover other puppets on television such as "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" created by puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, Bil Baird ("Snarky Parker Show" as well as "Charlemagne Lion" who co-hosted "The Today Show" for a while and who later created the famous puppet scene "The Lonely Goatherd" in the motion picture "The Sound of Music") the Paul Ashley Puppets and Jim Henson's Muppets "Rowf the Dog" on "The Jimmy Dean Show." All but Paul Ashley, who I never met, would become good friends of mine. Twenty some odd years later I would even work with Jim Henson on his "Muppets Take Manhattan" movie.

“(...) Being picked on, harassed, beat up and ostracized by classmates and my peer groups at various times for being “sissy” and “playing with dolls””. You said in an interview with Paul Eide. It’s terrible to see how some kids could be so unjustice. I guess that your parents and grandmother support meant everything for you. I admire the way you followed your dream with faith. No one could say that, maybe other could have turned it down.

Many children go through a "puppet stage" in their youth, but very few follow through with it. Peer pressure is terrible and whenever a child is interested in something that is outside of what is considered "the norm" it is very difficult. Gifted children interested in any of the arts (dance, theatre, music, etc.) are all faced with a very difficult road during their school career and only those that are truly passionate about their calling follow it through. I've known a couple of very talented individuals who possibly could have gone on and had successful careers as puppeteers, but they just couldn't handle the pressures and chose "to be like everyone else."

That’s a pity, really.

In the late 1970's I was hired by a man living in a very small midwest town to open for the Henry Mancini Orchestra whom he had also contracted to play. I didn't understand why he had hired me, let alone Henry Mancini to play this little town. Turns out he had spent twenty years of his life as a trumpet player touring the world with several of the leading great jazz bands of the era. He quit music at the urging of his friends and family to get married and raise a family. He went on to work for a large corporation and became a multi-millionaire. He told me this story after my performance and admitted that he viewed it as the biggest mistake of his life. He loved his family and the life they created, made more money and had more security than would ever have been possible as a musician but said he missed performing terribly and if he had it to do over, he'd never have quit. Hiring entertainers and paying for it out of his own pocket once a year, was the only way he could still be a part of the arts in this little town where culture was nonexistent and where he felt frustrated and unfulfilled. I have often thought of him during tough times and it's been all I needed to continue on.

I was also fortunate that my parents were always supportive of me. My parents worried about me being able to make a living and didn't understand show business at all, but they recognized my talent and saw my passion and thankfully they always encouraged me.

Did you have any special training or classes for this art?

I majored in art at college but I never had any formal training as a puppeteer, per se. My training came from watching puppets on TV and seeing as many live puppet performances as possible.

It was a few months after receiving my Hattie puppet that my dad took me to see Larry Smith perform live in person at a local department store. To see his TV puppets up close and in color for the first time (Remember, televisions were black and white at this time) just blew me away! I was very shy and only four, but I walked right up to Larry and introduced myself after his performance that afternoon, showing him my Hattie puppet and asked him dozens of questions. My father was in shock (as was Larry) but both saw my passion and when I was ten years old, Larry began recommending me for all of the smaller shows, that he didn't have time to do. I had gone professional when I was eight, but with Larry's recommendations, my career really took off. It became so big and so fast that in 1970 when President Richard Nixon's wife Pat came to Cincinnati on official business, I was the one hired as her entertainment. I was a few months shy of my 12th birthday and there I was on the front page of the mornings newspaper pictured alongside the presidents wife!

I'm also gifted with a photographic memory and I could see a puppet show live and take one look at the puppets up close back stage and be able to go home and figure out the stringing and animation on my own. I would also watch Larry build some of his puppets as well as the Muppets and others through the years. The person who taught me the most though was Judy Heiken of the "Heiken Puppets." Judy and her husband are now retired but I've known them since the mid 1970's. Judy is a wonderful puppet builder and sculptor and worked in many different mediums during her career. Watching her create was my true college. She has also made numerous molds for me over the years and continues to do so when I need her help, even in her retirement.

Fantastic! How do you make a puppet? Could you speak a little bit about the process of creating a puppet? And do you remember the first puppet you created?

I don't remember specifically the very first puppet I made. It would have been a paper bag or a sock. For the first several years I would come up with the ideas and my mother and grandmother would make them for me. After a few years though it started to become too involved and time consuming for them so somewhere around the age of ten or eleven my grandmother taught me how to use the sewing machine and I was off on my own.

I work with hand puppets, rod puppets and marionettes as well as humanettes (Large costume/body puppets) and most all are made out of Celastic.

It's a long process and each puppet takes anywhere from seven days up to a couple months to complete. I start with either a photograph or sketch a life-size drawing of the puppet I wish to create. From that I build a form using chicken wire, styrofoam, foam rubber or more times than not, sculpt it in clay. I then make a 2 or 3 piece plaster mold of this structure. When the plaster dries I take the pieces off the structure. The mold is then soaked in water over night. The following day the mold is lined with a release agent and it's ready for the Celastic.

Celastic is a discontinued heavy-felt like material that when soaked in Acetone becomes pliable and hardens into a very rigid plastic. Celastic and Acetone are both toxic and the German manufacturer that made Celastic discontinued its production in the mid 1980's. My American supplier let me know in advance and I bought all that he had and have managed to buy out the supplies of two other retiring puppeteers over the years. There are many new products on the market that younger puppeteers now use out of necessity, but none are as durable nor meet my needs as does Celastic. I've said time and again that whenever my supply runs out, I'm done building. And I'm serious.

I tear the sheets of Celastic into squares, dip them into the Acetone and then place them into the molds. Celastic dries within an hour or two and I remove the now hardened plastic pieces from the mold and place them together using additional Celastic squares. When these dry the head is ready to be animated (Eyes, eyebrows, mouth etc., made to move) Using a razor blade these are cut out and then put back in place with typewriter springs. (Animation is tedious, time consuming and hardest part to do correctly of the entire process) I then cover the entire head with wood putty and allow it to dry overnight. The following day this is sanded down to the desired smoothness required for the particular character and it is then ready for painting and wigging.

This entire process is repeated for making hands, feet and body and is then costumed.

Right! When you finally learned how the puppets actually worked, was there anything that most surprised you?

Just how time consuming and expensive it was.

Hahahaha sure, understandable! You worked as principal manipulator for Heiken Puppets and in feature films with Jim Henson's Muppets, for example. Over your time spent working with Henson, what are one or two of your more memorable moments?

I first met Jim Henson at a Puppeteers of America convention when I was around twelve years old. Like I had done with my mentor Larry Smith years before, I walked right up to Jim and introduced myself. He was one of the nicest people I have ever met and a true genius. He was also terribly shy and speaking with him one-on-one could sometimes be difficult due to this shyness. But he was always very kind to me and told me to call him if I needed anything and to keep him posted on my career. Now he was probably just being nice to this precocious 12 year old kid when he said to "call him" but I took him literally and did call him a number of times. He would always get on the phone and answer all of my questions and he even wrote me a lovely letter once in those early years thanking me for some remarks I had made regarding one of the early Muppets TV specials.

In 1982 I produced "The Magical Christmas Of Michael J. Peabody" my Emmy Award Nominated holiday television special that was syndicated around the U.S. in 1982 and again in 1983. Henson saw it and asked me to come to New York to work on a project. That project turned out to be "The Muppets Take Manhattan." This was at the height of Muppetmania and was great for my career. As it was one of the very few Muppet projects actually produced in America during those years, (Most were being produced in Canada and the UK) I did not have an opportunity to work with him again until 1990 when his company asked me to assist on a new TV series "The Little Mermaid." They had already shot a pilot episode based on the characters from the Disney movie and Disney had ordered an entire seasons worth of episodes. Two days later Jim died suddenly and that was one of the many projects that were dropped.

What kind of skills do you need to succeed? And what do you find most rewarding about your work?

Puppetry is the one art form that truly incorporates all of the other arts.

Language Arts
Visual Arts - (Puppet design and construction; Sculpting, painting, etc.)
Drama Theatre
Science – (Gravity, tension and balance are all key rolls in how puppets are used by the puppeteer)

It's also most importantly a business. Someone once said "Show business" is 10% show and 90% business. And if you expect to make a full-time living at it, you better be able to approach it as such. I have never had any other job apart from being a puppeteer. I formed my company in 1966 at the age of eight and went professional. By my mid teens I was working full-time and thanks to my dad who always made a point of reminding me that I had to make money at it if I was serious about this as a career, I always approached it as such.

What I have found most rewarding is the feedback I receive from performing to a live audience. I also love the lifestyle its allowed me and the people that its allowed me to meet, (Including Elton John) and to work with and become friends with. Its opened many, many doors for me and given me a lifetime of experiences and travels that I never would have had without.

“Each program features a cast of beautifully crafted and costumed hand puppets and marionettes”. Your shows are not only for kids but for all ages. Also you toured US, Canada, Europe and Australia. What type of shows are you programming? And what’s the difference between a show with puppet, or a marionette or hand puppets? Do you create your own stories?

My touring act is a one-man musical variety presentation that incorporates hand puppets, rod puppets, marionettes (Marionettes or "string puppets" are my favorite) and on occasion shadow puppets as well as humanettes. I prefer musical variety as opposed to stories because it allows me to utilize all of these different styles in one show and I'm personally bored by most "story" type shows I see and find them tedious to perform over and over again. Well-known stories are easier to market to theatres and schools so I do occasionally offer stories such as "Hansel and Gretel" or "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" when needed, but even with these I usually tag on a short variety show at the end. When audiences see my variety show they love it and by performing mostly to music I avoid language barriers and am able to entertain all ages. I want to entertain the parents every bit as much as the kids and thats what makes my act unique and successful.

I've also done educational videos and a lot of TV work and oftentimes these will be story related (Either familiar tales or specifically written original story-lines for the given project) and these are usually done using Hand puppets (i.e., Glove or mouth puppets) similar to the Muppets, as these work best on camera. On stage I prefer to work marionettes and they make up about two-thirds of my live touring act.

The term "Puppets" is all inclusive. Marionettes, Rod, Shadow, etc. are just names given to differentiate styles of puppetry, but they are all puppets.

And you created li’l’Elton. Why the reason of this character and what does the film “I Want Love” consists of?

I've made a number of Elton John puppets over the years. Most all have been marionettes for my touring act. The little film I made of "I Want Love" came about by happenstance. I was working on an educational television project and had built a series of "Anything Puppets." These are hand/mouth puppets that you can temporarily apply different eyes, hair, noses, etc., holding them in place by double-faced tape, velcro or pins, creating different characters as needed. It's the way I approach most of my film work. Unlike my live touring act where each puppet will go through a thousand or more performances and everything must be sewn or glued permanently in place and be made to last, TV and film you only need the puppets for the shoot. So I make these to use over as different characters as needed.

One of the characters for this project was a little over-weight boy. One night my wife walked into the studio and upon seeing him observed he looked like Elton. Several days later there was a lull in filming and I just started fulling around with the character. By simply removing his eyes and replacing them with a pair of my own eyewear I had on that day and slapping a Versace logo on and old dancers jacket and then adding an actual Elton John earring that came with a Bob Mackie designed costume I own from Elton's 1986 tour, he truly became, as you call him, lil' Elton. I quickly spliced together a 60 second soundtrack from two different EJ recordings and we shot the film in one take! It was just a lark, but it turned out well and became a hit with members of Elton's organization as they became aware of its existence.

(To Be Continued)

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