Shortly after moving to the Santa Monica area I was pleased to discover a local paper, “The Santa Monica Daily Press.” Aha! Here was the perfect vehicle to introduce my candid reporting to all the uninformed neighbors! The paper’s articles were dull and lacked a much-needed edge (thoughts of Des Moines’ “Juice” came to mind). On a Friday, a few weeks later, I was meandering home from the grocery store when a cartoon-like character, peeping from a window, caught my attention. I turned to my right and gaped, open-mouthed, at the gem in front of me. A quaint building displayed the words, “Santa Monica Puppetry Center,” which casted a shadow over the narrow sidewalk. I peered closer at the strange images in the windows. Photos of puppets and what I presumed to be the puppet master filled the two large panes. The door read, “Puppetolio, LA’s Longest Running Puppet Show.”
This would be the story that would make my name known in the circulating small paper world! What would my angle be? “Puppets, Santa Monica’s Silent Neighbors… A Real Boy, the Local Pinocchio… Puppet Masters Vs. Hollywood…I’ve Got An Arm Up My Ass, I Must Be a Puppet…” I needed to see a performance of this Puppetolio and if I was lucky maybe get a behind the scenes tour. It was then that I noticed a Saturday matinee performance posted on the entrance. I skipped home with visions of puppets and journalism awards dancing in my cerebellum.
The next day, the BIG day, I woke early and began my in-depth research via Google. The center’s webpage, www.puppetmagic.com , introduced me to Steve Meltzer, Puppet Master, maker, owner and friend. Normally open-minded, I had to focus on my un-biased data collection (fighting off labels such as; pervert, weirdass, loser, puppet-lover). I invited a few girlfriends to join me but they all graciously declined (their loss!). This was probably for the best since I was on a job, after all.
I walked the sunny four blocks and was surprised to see a line of people outside the door. For some reason I had assumed I might be the only patron or that there’d be no more than three or four of us. The line had at least 8 people: a few grandparents with their grandchildren, a mom and dad with an unfortunate looking child, and a girl who appeared to be around my age. What the hell was a twenty-something doing by herself at a puppet show on a Saturday day (we were so close to the beach)? Maybe she was on assignment as well… competition, bring it skank. The door opened and the excitement I experienced was nothing short of a Christmas morning. Tickets were only seven dollars to my surprise. Steve, the puppet master (whom I recognized from the photos and website) stood behind the ticket counter and asked me if I was meeting a friend. Nope, just taking in a mid-day puppet show solo, but thanks. I looked around and was overwhelmed with puppet décor. Framed photos of puppets and puppet masters lined the walls. Puppets in un-opened packages were mounted next to antique characters on strings. The room to the right was packed with puppet paraphernalia and I was slightly frightened. Where was I? What did I just willingly pay money to see? He opened a velvet curtain and we were all ushered in the theatre. The stadium seating was impressive and it appeared that maximum capacity was twenty or so. I took a seat in the back row and took out my yellow legal pad and pen. I began jotting down detailed descriptions of my surroundings. I looked to the right and saw that a middle-aged woman had joined the young twenty-something. I suddenly felt alone. Some of the other audience members peered up at me scribbling on my paper. I ignored them and sat upright with journalistic pride.
The puppet master introduced himself and made a small political joke, which impressed us adults. The main puppet, used ventriloquist style, was Freddy Mingo. He led the group on a few songs. The music in the show was previously recorded and featured the voice of Steve Meltzer, puppet master. After Freddy, Steve danced a few string puppets on the stage to the delight of the children. I found myself singing along to “On Top of Spaghetti,” with vigor. I loved puppets! I was reminded of my childhood days watching “LambChops.” My only real criticism was the husky voice used for the girl puppets giving the audience the impression these “ladies” on strings had smoked most of their lives and quite possibly had a hormonal imbalance. The show ended after about forty-five minutes, which was perfect for the small attention span of children. Post-show he unveiled the “workshop” (a small corner of the theatre with puppet body parts strewn about…slightly disturbing) and a giant animatronics puppet that he turned on and made sing for us all.
I heard an elderly couple tell their grandchild that they’d come back in a few weeks. I held my notepad and continued to take notes. Steve watched me with curiosity. I felt powerful. Finally everyone began to clear out. Steve turned to me and asked, “I hope you’re not auditing me.” Haha, oh Steve…
“Heeheeheee Who me? No, just writing a little piece on your setup here,” I replied.
“Oh really? What are you writing it for? What publication?” He asked, smiling.
This is when I lied. “The Santa Monica Daily Press.” Well, it wasn’t exactly a lie because I had every intention of getting my story published in there.
“Oh fantastic, you guys have always been so good to me. Please come have a seat.”
I couldn’t believe this! I, Leah Josephson, was going to have a one on one interview with the puppet master himself!
“Let me give you your money back, I never make press pay.”
“No, no, I want to contribute,” I said guiltily. I began to ask him questions pre-rehearsed from earlier in the day. We discussed his beginnings, the love he immediately felt for puppetry, his struggle to make a living from it, all of the festivals he had appeared in and the current recession setbacks. He told me of old puppet legends he had met and worked with (including LampChop’s lady). He told me, off the record, about just how hard the economy was on the show (which I won’t get into in order to respect his off the record wishes). The shows were still drawing a crowd but his main source of income was school performances and this year all of the schools cut out their entertainment funds. He told me to make sure to include this in my article so everyone could be aware of just how critical school funding is.
Before I left he gifted me a DVD of the show and asked when the article was set to appear. I told him it was completely up to the editor (liar, liar pants on fire).
I was filled with adrenaline from my puppet journalism experience and called my nana to tell her that I was the next Barbara Walters (minus the lisp).
The next week I kept trying to write the article. I would start and then get stuck. I sat there at my office and in between clients I’d write a sentence or two, only to read it back and delete it. I sent the DVD to my nephew. I began to panic. Who was I kidding? I couldn’t write a full feature article that would be good enough to be published, especially by the Santa Monica Daily Press. And poor Steve! I had duped him. He’d be waiting and waiting, picking up the paper and searching desperately for our in-depth interview. Maybe he’d call the paper and ask for Leah and they would say, “I’m sorry we have no such writer here.” Maybe he would cry. Maybe he would slam his fist down and lament all his woes to his puppets. I felt terrible but it was done, I couldn’t write it, I was a puppet journalist failure.
A month later I walked past the puppet center and read the notice on the door, “Puppetolio CLOSED.” I crept away from the door, shaking my head. Closed? It wasn’t possible. I immediately checked their website after I got home and there it was, “PUPPETOLIO IS CLOSED. We thank all of our friends for their support over the years. Unfortunately the economy and other factors has made it necessary to close the Santa Monica Puppetry Center and Museum.”
“Other factors?” Like lying, fake journalists!? I had ruined the puppet center! I had ruined Steve’s life! I wanted to write a large check out to him and give him back his life and dreams… but I had no money.
I kill puppets. So, now I carry this burden on my back. Like a camel with humps I traverse this desolate world secretly crying out, “I’m sorry Steve, please forgive me.” A scarlet letter burns on my chest. And so this blog now serves as a sort of repentance.
Puppetolio lives on! here in my blog, and here in my heart.