Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"What is it with Mexicans and death!?!"

The title is a line from the animated movie "The Book of Life."
From Guillermo Del Toro comes a tale set around the Mexican culture and traditions associated with Dia del los Muertos, translation, The Day of the Dead.

On November 2, Mexican families gather at the cemeteries of their loved ones and offer gifts, food, even full flung picnics around the graves of the dead.

The dead. Dead.

People who have died.


The word itself throws people. People can barely bring themselves to say it. As if saying it would invoke the actually effect. Dead. Died. Deceased. That one is a more formal cheat around the actually word(s), seems more polite. No wonder the British use it. Reading it so many times now has probably made you a little uncomfortable.


"The Book of Life" illustrates the foundation of this "holiday." I put the word in quote marks cause of the fact that it's a day to celebrate dead people. But it's to celebrate and most of all remember them and their life. As long as they are remembered they will always exist. Just not in a walking-around-breathing-kind-of-way. It's at a point in the film when yet another major character dies, and one of the kids this tale its being told to blurts out "What is it with the Mexicans and death?!" (And everyone in the theater did laugh.)

As a parent we try to protect our children. It seems at times we over do it. But we don't want "unpleasant" things in their life. And death is high on the list (right after thinking of other words for "penis" and "vagina" during potty training). Years ago, Sesame Street actually tackled the subject. After Will Lee, the actor of the beloved character Mr Hooper, died, the producers thought how to treat it. They finally decided out of respect for him and the viewers, they would have the characters, including Big Bird, deal with his death. When Big Bird comes looking for his friend, the adults tell him flat out, "Big Bird don't you remember, Mr Hooper died. He's dead." Big Bird says he'll just wait till he gets back and they add, "When someone dies, they don't come back." It was the simplest, most honest, and still touching way for an adult to tell a child about death. I was there the day it was recorded and it was wonderful. Really.

Seeing "The Book of Life" with my 9 yr old son was fun. It was also interesting. Two weeks prior, my mother, Edna MacNeal, his grandmother, who had moved in with us for the past year, died. She had been in the hospital and then taken to rehab to rebuild her motor skills (aka walking) when she had to be taken to the ER. Her breathing was compromised. I got there and she was awake. She had an oxygen mask on but she knew me and I joked with her, even got her to laugh. As we waited for a room after the decision was made to admit her, I was sitting with her and she kept dozing and then waking up. Then finally she went to sleep. And that was it. She died.

Years ago she told me her wishes and every now and then would re-iterate them: "I want to be cremated. Then go find the nearest bar, have a drink, and then move on." And that's exactly what we did. We had a toasting at a local restaurant, and invited friends who knew her. And through the magic of Facebook, people who knew her and couldn't come and even those who only knew her through the stories we'd share of her, posted pix of their glasses, from all over THE WORLD, toasting the life of this amazing woman. A woman, a single mom, who helped shaped me into the man I am today.

That's why I loved seeing "The Book of Life." The Day of the Dead holiday and the movie celebrates life. That's the fun of day for the dead. And more importantly, it reminds us to appreciate and enjoy life, right now. YOUR life. YOUR story. Right now.

Friday, October 25, 2013

DIY, Baby!

My career has been two-fold; as a puppeteer and as a stay-at-home dad (and being a stay-at-home parent is a career onto itself; but that's another posting). These two jobs have often intersected, even collided with each other in terms of what I can create for my son (and, let's be honest, for me too). I have made puppets and things out of cardboard ever since I was a kid and now have done it for and with my son.

I have been very blessed and spoiled that I have had this opportunity with my son. Not every parent can. So many parents I know, both, set off to work and don't get to have full family time until the weekend. It's one of the reasons for my book "10 Minute Puppets" (from Workman Publishing) and my new book "BOX!" (from Globe Pequot Press). The puppet book was the idea of my wife (author Susan Elia MacNeal of the how-to-make-your-own-infused-liquers, "Infused" among other books; yeah I'm cross promoting
She said, "You know how to be a puppeteer and you know how to be a dad. Why not combine them to show other people how easy and fun making puppets can be. But," she added, "Don't make it 'crafty.' Make it for people like me. You are not married to Martha Stewart." So now part of my career is showing others that DIY-ing crafts is simple. And cheaper. My new book, "BOX!" is all about how NOT to buy every single toy for a child. YOU CAN make them yourself. Really.

For me I just learned to. Being the child of a single parent who worked two jobs to keep our mouths fed and a roof over our head, I learned early that if you want something done, do it yourself. Cleaning? That was us.  Shopping? Us. Laundry, cooking? Us. Us. Cause you can't pay to have someone do it ALL for you if you only have enough money for yourselves. We did live in an apartment house so we could call the maintenance man to fix the sink. But being a kid I watched him. And asked questions. Then when I was old enough, I tried to fix a leak---and it worked! I felt so proud that I was able to do it myself. Showed off to the rest of the family, too. Then one time here, in our own home, the pipe under our sink burst; completely rotted away. So we did call a plumber for an estimate. I won't print it cause you are already imaging the cost. So I wondered how I could do it. Went online; took pictures and showed them to the guys at our local hardware and they set me up. Done. I did. I. Did. It. AND got my son to help. (And yes the sense of pride got passed down to him; bonus having a lesson taught and a dry kitchen floor.) So I was certainly not raised on a sense of entitlement in our home. (Thanks mom.)

Today, with the internet there are so many sites and resources to help YOU do those jobs around the house. Major chains such as Lowes and Home Depot have courses online and even in the store themselves; workshops to help you do what needs to be done.

And of course there is the hub of how-to, Youtube. You can fix a leaky faucet, install a shelf, even re-do your kitchen or bathroom with SO many people giving video advice on...well.... EVERYTHING. I installed our ceiling fans myself after checking (and cross checking) how to do it. My friend, artist Jon Stucky (@stuckyart and showed me how easy and cheaper is was to paint one of our bathrooms with a couple sample cans you can get at Home Depot. I usually make my son's halloween costumes. One year after saying he wanted to be a vampire (with the cape and make-up standing by), he told everyone, two days before Halloween, "I'm going to be Anakin Skywalker!" Huh!?! Then he said to me, "It's easy dad. WE can make them!" (How do you say "no" to that? To the internet!) A friend figured out not only how to replace his counter top, but do it with a resin and set antique silverware in it (he's good and an over-achiever). And a neighbor of mine is a passionate biker. He and wife and kid all ride. On bikes he made. Yep. HE MADE THEM. Got the parts and put them together, maintains them and they are so much lighter and more durable than anything he could have bought. (Feel that sense of pride again?)

But you are already DIY-ing; cooking! You can't eat take out or go out every night. So you whip up dishes, easy recipes, tried and true meals, even ones that can be frozen and served again. (And if you're not, well go onto that "inter-web" and there is an endless supply of cooking/baking sites and videos.) I learned from my grandmother and I and my wife are passing it down to our son. And all his b-day cakes and parties were home grown. WE just did it.

My son is into fencing, taking it for after school. Explaining to him that the foil is a tool, part of his equipment, and not a toy, he still wants to practice. So I made he and I "foils" from dowel rods and cardboard (with foam safety tips). We practiced in our courtyard, even giving "lessons" to his friends on the proper stance. One little friend came to me and asked, "Where did you buy them?" I told her I made them. "Wow," was her reply. Then I said, "Maybe your dad could make you a pretend sword, too?" Then in a melancholy tone said, "No. He couldn't do that." I told her to bring hi by and I will show both of them how.

So just try. Just try. That's all I'm saying. You will always amaze yourself what YOU
can do.

(Now please excuse me while I go install a chandelier.)

Monday, April 8, 2013

"No Puppets, Please"

There is a dearth of puppetry on TV right now. Let's review:

Thanks to PBS Kids and Sprout, two of the 24 hr kid networks now available, the classic - nay - now the landmark, standard bearer of children' television, Sesame Street, can be seen every day, almost at any given hour. On Disney XD, the 24 hr tween channel from the House-of-Mouse, there is the prime time series, Crash & Bernstein, (starring my friend and colleague in puppetdom, Tim Lagasse) about a young boy's doll come to life and thus, hilarity ensues.

And what do these two series have in common. Of course....


Both use this art form to entertain their viewers, slipping in a lesson or two while doing it (well the Street does, anyway), all the while using tricks and techniques first perfected by the Muppets and that guy who started it all, Jim Henson. Jim once said that his characters were "made for television." Meaning, that the TV, itself, is the traditional proscenium his puppets used. Thus no need to hide behind anything; the camera just cuts the puppet off at the waist (and hiding the naughty bits, aka puppeteers underneath). Crash is the freshman on the air, with it's first season under its belt, while Sesame just wrapped it's 429th season on the air. It feels that way. I mean, at this point, when wasn't Sesame on TV?

These two shows have one other thing in common.

They are the only two shows featuring puppets, nationally seen on networks, in the United States.

And that's it.

Zip. Nada. Zilch.

No puppets.

I think there should be more puppets on TV. I grew up with puppets on my TV, on a daily basis. Sesame, of course. But also, Shari Lewis and Lambchop (and how many shows did they do duirng the course of Shari's career?); Kula, Fran & Ollie with the incredible Burr Tilstrom doing all the characters (save Fran, the token human to be the puppets' friend, confidante and assistant); Mister Rodgers' Neighborhood and the  the cast of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, brought to life by Fred Rodgers', himself); and Saturday mornings had many a Sid & Marty Kroft show.

When I began my career in puppetry thrived in TV and commercials and even movies. Remember Alf? Spitting Image? D.C. Follies? All those Chuckie movies? Gremlins? Gremilns 2? I could keep listing. Puppets were naturally used. When Nickelodeon created its' first kid show it was Eurreka's Castle (paid from the profits the network got from its game show Double Dare. Remember that?). And I was fortunate enough to work on it. This new puppet show Not a cartoon. A puppet show. Nick then had other shows with puppet sin the 90's; Allegra's Window and Gullah Gullah Island. Shows with humans and puppets. Nick loved puppets right through Jack's Big Music Show and up to Oobi.

Disney too had its original puppet driven program in the 90s, Welcome to Pooh Corner (ok, puppets is a stretch with this show, but it comes close). But then in 1997, Disney announced that it would create a new daytime block called "Playhouse Disney," and the "flagpole" (network-eese for the central, main draw) would be a show called Bear in the Big Blue House. An all puppet show, with puppets created by The Jim Henson Company (making Bear et al un-official "muppets"). In 2005, the channel produced the spin-off series, Breakfast With Bear, with the walking-talking Bear out in our world visiting kids in their actual homes. (And let me tell you; human doors aren't designed for the girth of a bear.)

Now that's all changed. Yes, due in part to the advancement in computer-generated technology to create 3D characters. And I have nothing against good shows that use this medium. Sid the Science Kid, on PBS, mixes puppet techniques and computer animation to create Sid and his world. This new form brought to by The Jim Henson Company. In Jim's words, again, these characters "were made for television." It's a good show but, is it's success due to Sid & company not looking like "puppets?"

Networks don't want puppets. Period. It's true. In fact, one children's network actually has it written in its letter to those pitching show ideas to them. "No puppets, please." I've had execs at two different pitch meetings at a kids network tell me that "the problem with puppets is that they screwer too young," "puppets tend to be for young children." But your networks are for YOUNG CHILDREN! And another network actually let me know that if I could come up with a cheap 3D show where the characters had to collect things that kids at home wanted to collect (wink, wink: buy), that would work. Networks have a bottom line and once again I am reminded: there is a reason why this is called "show business."

Well that doesn't work for me. And I intend to do something about it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On TV, 'Tis the Season.... to get EVEN

I've noticed lately that TV seems to be showcasing series with a certain lean towards comeuppance. Aside from the attempts towards "MadMen" era driven shows, family comedies, and another round of formulaic procedurals, three new series have appeared with the central character bent on exacting their own brand of justice. Two of these are even on one network; ABC. The network Walt Disney helped to create (it's true) and now owned by his company, has two shows focused on revenge. In fact, it's the straight-to-the point title of one of them.

"Revenge" stars the remarkable Emily Van Camp, fresh from her time on "Brothers & Sisters" (another ABC show), as Emily Thorn, who can be charming one moment while hiding a truly icy demeanor beneath. Emily's dad was accused and sentenced for a crime he did not commit and died in prison unable to prove his innocence. But he left behind for Emily a small box containing all the names of those responsible for destroying their lives, plus a lovely group photo, suitable for framing or in Em's case, systematically crossing out each week's victim of her anger. To date, Emily has eliminated a stock broker, a psychiatrist, a senator, ----- this is one busy girl who's spent years carefully plotting out each move. Well, not exactly, as things do happen out of her control. When the mistress of the South Hampton queen bee's husband gets killed, Em quickly is both appalled and innocent. "This is not my fault," she declares, knowing that she did not mean for the said queen-bee (Victoria Grayson played with relish by Madeline Stowe) and her husband's security guard to silence the woman. It was a result of Em's tightening noose around this duplicitous couple, the chief architects behind dear old dad's disgrace and imprisonment. Oh, and their son is Em's fiance.... or was cause in the pilot, because he's killed,too. The show so far has been a flashback leading up to this point. Is THIS part of her plan? We'll see. There's still a lot of folks in that photo to cross off.

"Revenge" is based on the classic novel, "The Count of Monte Cristo." ABC's other show of I'll-get-even is "Once Upon a Time." This one is not based on one story; it's based on ALL the stories we know, namely, fairy tales. "Or think we know" as the pilot helps set up for us. From the producers of "LOST" (which is already a warning sign), the town of Storybrook is actual the living prison of Snow White, her prince, Jiminy Cricket, and a host of other folks from story time, thanks to a curse set upon them by Snow's Evil Queen. From the first two episodes, we learn there's a deeper history between Snow and the Queen, more beyond the "Heigh Ho" story we've already know. Yes, Snow re-states to Prince Charming the danger of this woman who "poisoned me with an apple because she thought I was prettier than her" and the curse is not to be ignored. See? It's about the Queen and her Our World-version, Regina Mills, the mayor of Storybrook. Lana Parrilla isn't just chewing the scenery as her malicious majesty. You can she the glee she's having in every line, every glare, every chilling smile she gives. Her adopted son has found his birth mother who, by sheer pixe-dust coincidence, is the daughter of Snow and the Prince. But it's about the Queen's need for revenge against Snow and whatever-the-heck-she-did. She is so bent on making everyone's happily ever after ruined, she even killed the one thing she loved the most (and a very "WHOA!" moment for this show as well as primetime in general) to get the job done. It's about Regina's need to not let this curse be broken and the lengths she'll go to do it. (And this chick does not have issues; she has a subscription.)

AMC has now brought us "Hell On Wheels," which is the name of the town that moves with the construction of the new Transcontinental Railroad. Oh, yeah, it's right after the end of the Civil War. Vengeance is never bound by time. Anson Mount plays the dark, stoic Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate solider who's wife was brutally murdered by Union soliders. Thus,.... revenge! And he tracks down the ones responsible to Hell on Wheels, which gets complicated by a tribe of Cheyenne who want to destroy the linking of East and West. And along with other characters trying to find their way in this frontier, Cullen, (according to AMC's site for the series) though driven, gets qualms by his quest to exact justice. Which is something we have not seen yet from "Revenge" or "Once." Emily simultaneously, can create ever so slightly the coldest/hottest smile when a piece of her plan falls into place. And Regina/The Queen is a woman with no regrets for what's she's done, and will continue to do, to so many.

Do these three shows reflect anything that might be happening in real life? An underlying need by us viewers to see not only good triumph and the bad punished but, the very act of enacting accountability? Who wouldn't want to conjure a curse to sweep over all who have wronged us; to check off each being who deliberately made our lives that much harder to cope with? Do they reflect the movement still continuing in Lower Manhattan? Occupy Wall Street and its nationwide and world wide spin-offs (Occupy Fill-in-the-Blanks) are common people, "the 99%," who are angry at the banks and the execs who helped create the financial quagmire we are all stuck in, and want.... revenge? No. Justice? A sense of "this-is-not-fair-and-things-have-to-change-because-we-won't-stand-for-it-anymore? Yes. But these three shows, their pilots, were created, pitched, cast, and shot long before Occupy ever happened.

I suppose the need to seek revenge is just human nature. We can be complicated and yet so simple in design. "That's not fair" is the knee-jerk reaction in all of us and one these three shows feed into with complete abandonment. They've just started their trips down the dark side and so far, I am enjoying the ride. (But to the producers; don't disappoint us..... if you know what's good for you.)

Friday, August 12, 2011

"If He Can Do It, I Can Do It"

Lately, I've noticed more and more friends and just people in general with a lack of faith. OK, wait! I am NOT talking specific religion. No deities, no Hail Marys, no atoning of guilt. I'm talking about a lack of faith within us about.... us.

A friend of mine, one of several actually in the puppet community, is feeling quite down about his chosen profession: puppet builder and performer. He like so many of us, started back in the 80's and 90's when TV and the occasional movie puppets. I remember the 80's (Ah the decade of money and no CGI) were great for puppets in TV ads. I worked on the original Snuggle commercials as well as Crispy Critters, and the short lived Swedish Chef cereal Croonchy Stars. And Henson had a full staff here in NYC, Los Angeles, and in London. That's where my friend started his career.

But then, when the clock chimed midnight and rung in the 1990's everything changed. The man who so many of us got the inspiration to pursue a life long love of puppets as a career, died. Certain projects did appear but then never lasted or had a specific cast/crew/staff/workshop with no room for newbies. And now well into the 21st Century, cheap CGI rules and puppetry, which I now call the "original 3D animation," is scarce. So my friend is depressed and wondering what to do next with his life since this career, he believes, is over.

This is the lack of faith I'm talking about. The lack of faith to believe in oneself and the resources and strength to keep it going. And its hard people! Staying positive. Holding onto the dream. Being optimistic during these times, it's hard! But then it's always been hard. There's never been a golden easy era where everything was perfect for everyone. My wife says that puppetry runs in cycles and that people are sick of cheap CGI that is not on a cinematic level. Something "old school" like puppets will come back.

One good sign is the new movie from Kermit and the gang coming out this Thanksgiving. "The Muppets" is basically about how the characters' careers in show biz get resurrected. Pretty much the behind the scenes story of the Muppets themselves, with this big screen return hoping to bring the gang back into mainstream minds the way they were over twenty years ago.
May it break box office records. Cause if it does, puppets will be seen as money makers. Yes, that's crass. But that is a reason why this is called "show BUSINESS."

I myself "sold" a show to a PBS station who will off-set the costs of studio and crew. I just have to get the rest of the funding. And that has been quite the homework assignment. Going online and seeking companies, any corporation, that would like to sponsor a kids show. Now I know I will get the money, somehow. I don't know exactly how, or when, but I will. In fact, I see the money getting as the easy part; selling a show and having someone say "yes,' THAT is hard. Plus, when I get my show, I can maybe hire my friend to work on it. Lots of my talented friends to work on it. (Because I have now reached the age where I want to work with people I WANT to work with NOT HAVE TO work with.) And just like in the song the Muppets sang, Just One Person, "If he can do it/ I can do it." For me the "he" was Jim (Henson).

But I will make this happen.

I have faith.

My mother always told me "Don't get a job; get a career." My wife believes in me with all heart. Coming up on twelve years of marriage, I mean, hey, the woman married a puppeteer! Specifically, a guy who used to dress in a bear suit!

Now that's faith!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Calling "Dr. Puppet!"

Teachers are our greatest resources. They don't get paid what they're worth. They don't get the celebrity status that's due them. Yet these are the people entrusted with our children's minds and spirit. And THAT'S what makes the job both rewarding and daunting. Let me explain.

I've been puppeteering and (casually) puppet making since I was really little. When I was in the sixth grade, I got to "teach" puppetry to first graders in my school. That was my first experience in "teaching." I used one of my favorite puppet books from the school library, took the really simple ones, and taught the kids how to make them. Then I graduated and didn't get back to "teaching" until adulthood.

For several years, I've been auditioning and training (aka "teaching") puppeteers for the various co-productions of Sesame Street in other countries, such as Nigeria and Pakistan. And that was something I had never done before; take what I take for granted, that comes automatically to me and "teach" it to someone who 99.9% of the time has never, ever done this before. I had to break it down to the bare essentials, namely your "bare" hand and how it should move. Line up the candidates in front of the mirror and see who can "lip-sync," add a pair of eyes to learn "focus," move onto an actual puppet, and the..... shock-to-the-system....... doing everything now in front of a camera and watching the monitor. And it's all backwards. It still amazes me who "gets it," who doesn't, and who could, given more time which, for these circumstances, I never have to give.

With the release of my book, I have done appearances across the country at book shops, kid museums, and schools (including my son's, plus my old school in Central Harlem). I showed folks, young and old, how to make puppets instantly. After all, that is what the book does. So, that was my entry back into "teaching" puppet making. However, I've just now completed my latest and ultimate "teaching" experience.

For four weeks this summer, I was the puppetry teacher for OOMPAH. Now before you start making Wonka references and singing the song, this particular OOMPAH referred to the day camp arts program in Huntington L.I.


I still have no idea what it stands for (and neither do a few of the people in charge). But they had a puppetry course last year (headed by a local who had the kids slap on plastic eyes and work in front of the camera. It all got recorded but never edited together. Pity.). They were still interested in having puppetry again and we ended up talking about it. I had a reasonable idea of what I wanted to do: divide up the four weeks into two weeks for TV puppetry and the last two for on-stage puppetry. They liked the idea and the course was titled, "Puppetry: On TV and On Stage!" I filled out my list of materials needed. And I was all ready to go.

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha..........

I had four classes per day, of, not families, not adults, but kids. K-I-D-S. Kids aged between nine and eleven years old. "Tweens" as they are labeled by advertisers and media programmers. I have never taught this age before, nor this many. One class had twenty-two kids in it. Would these kids, constantly exposed to (really good to really cheap) 3D animation, actually like to, let only want to, make puppets out of socks, paper bags and boxes? Well it didn't take me long to realize.... YES!

It also didn't take me long to realize that these kids needed and wanted to make something every day. Every class. I know how that sounds but kids need something to "do." Something to focus on. They used the sock puppets they made for the first video project; teams doing the classic Beatles song, "Yellow Submarine." It's hard enough trying to get grown people to do the infamous Muppet choreography of "right-left-right-left." Try teaching this to kids. And, again, it was amazing how some "got it" (a lot quicker then those grown ups I've trained). One class even made a "Yellow Submarine" from post-its! Then the following Friday, was another song and choreography of their own choosing. Yes. THEY got to chose the songs. This was the most entertaining and bizarre morning I have had in a long time.

In four weeks they made sock puppets, origami puppets, paper bag rod puppets, hand puppets from bath towels (the most popular), paper plate bunraku puppets, and finally, working in teams, the box bunraku puppets and Chinese-style dragons (for the last day's big show on stage). And they all got to take home a video montage of the course. Plus, I got dubbed the title "Dr. Puppet."

As I started out saying, I've "taught" for a while but this was an incredible experience. Why? Because of these kids. I've worked on many kids series that "teach" kids the alphabet and how to get along, among other childhood basics. But when you work on these shows, you rarely, often never, are exposed to your audience. No kids to interact with. What I learned from this experience is how kids, on their own, can be absolutely astounding in how they think and then how they execute an idea. The variations and sometimes improvements to these puppets blew my mind. I often thought, "You did THIS!?! And you're how old!?!?" Incredible. I learned so much from these four weeks as a teacher. And aside from my new nickname and my copy of the video montage, what else did I get?

Kid (on last day, leaving): Thanks "Dr. Puppet."

Me: You are welcome.

Kid: Are you coming back next year. You should totally come back next year.

Me: I hope so. (beat) Will you?

Kid (calls back to me down the hall): I am TOTALLY taking this again next year!

What teacher couldn't ask for more than that?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Parts One, Two and Three of my ToughPigs interview