October 22, 2018
A recent post from Darrell presents me wide opening to a line of thought I’ve wanted to return to for a while now, and I’m going to take it. Or I’m going to cross the threshold a little way, at least. My first stab at saying something about it is here, in 2015. It was still on my mind last year.
But Darrell’s post presents me an opening and a twist at the same time. There’s more digression set up for me in it than I’d have probably wandered into on my own. We’ll see how this goes.
When I’ve thought about returning to this subject, I’ve set aside, mentally, some of the earliest puppetry exposure and fascination of my experience as a kid — in part because there isn’t much in it that seems remarkable. The puppetry itself certainly isn’t anything special in retrospect. With Darrell’s recollections in view here, however, something there beginning in early experience comes to seem worth taking notice of.
Particularly striking, for me, the contrast between the puppet-employing young-adult pied pipers who figure in our respective memories. I’m only about a half-decade younger than Darrell, and the broadly North-American-evangelical church cultures we’re from, though pretty different as to ancestral paths of evolution, are in many ways convergent both in their surface features and the changing structure of community cohesion underlying — largely perhaps as function of a common sort of relationship to still-advancing wider late-twentieth-century western white prosperity. And there were, naturally, in the communities I belonged to, adults ‘returned’ like Ken and Sharon from one expression or other of hippie experiment. As a cohort, though, these young adults were further along in shedding that perceived baggage of their coming-of-age — more fully re-integrated — when I was coming to pre-teen impressionability than when Darrell had. They were acquiring first houses and kids and so on. There was another wave of young-creative-&-cool coming up after them, moreover.
In the mid-’70s I was in the first years of primary school — at a school attached to the church we belonged to, in fact, established only a couple of years before. Churches like ours all over the country had begun building schools for themselves in the wake of desegregation and federally-curtailed ‘prayer in schools.’ At our church — ‘Independent, Fundamental’ (still proclaimed, as of most recent Google drive-by, on the brick sign at the road) — men and boys kept hair trimmed off their ears, women and girls wore skirts, and there were no electric guitars. In my home (a block and a half away from the church) there was no television. ‘Separation from the world’ and nostalgia for a world apparently only very recently lost were thoroughly intertwined, a single sensibility. In this atmosphere of protection and retreat from (among other things) popular culture’s leading edge, a traveling show in town — that is, at church — might be expected to register large in the consciousness of a kid like me, and it did.
The biggest was the week of evangelistic meetings put on by Hal Webb and Theron Babcock every year. When I was six or seven they’d been honing the craft for a couple of decades and were fine family entertainment, with a great trailer-load of musical and stage-magic gimmicks to accompany standard-fare moderately peppy singing and preaching. Revival-meeting touring might strike you as a trade without much of a future in the 1970s. On the whole it undoubtedly was, but for this duo there would be another couple of busy decades yet, a full career and then some. More interesting, maybe, is that two of Hal and Theron’s children, sons, were to take it up about this time, forming their own touring team as newly-minted BJU grads around 1980. For a couple of years (until we moved away), both pairs’ shows were major annual events in my little world.
Barry and Chris didn’t have anything like Hal and Theron’s combined range or stage presence, as I recall them, but they had talent and energy enough and plainly knew the ropes. And they had puppets — half a dozen Henson-esque mouth-head characters and a big painted-plywood 2-D set. (I can only retrieve one character in mind’s eye: an unfortunate slant-eyed chinaman named ‘How Long,’ a distant Vaudeville gag inheritance I guess.) There was singing and playing and preaching (inevitably some preaching about singing and playing, or rather against the world’s — also a staple with the fathers), but the puppets were definitely the event.
And, then again, they weren’t of course. I remember being excited to go to the show each night when these guys came to town, remember regarding the moment of the puppets’ appearance as of highest importance in the younger team’s show; but if I cast now after a mental impression of puppetry from my younger childhood, it’s Henson’s television scenes that leap to view — and we didn’t even have a TV in the house. Barry and Chris didn’t care particularly about puppets, after all, any more than I suppose they (or their fathers) cared particularly about the music they performed as music. There’s very little about the shows’ material, apart from various novelty effects, that’s especially memorable. What’s memorable is the men; the men were the event. The men as creative and active, the men as centers of attention.
I was taken with Chris, Theron’s son, especially. He and I were both slim, both had dark hair parted on the side, both wore glasses. It was easy to project myself onto him. During those couple of pre-teen years, I followed him around when they were in town and wrote to him — and received replies, a handful of pages’ worth (still in my possession, I think, in a folder in a box). We left the country, then, and my pre-teen eye for central personalities moved on as well. Back in the U.S. a few years later, we heard of Chris’s sudden death in his early 30s, and I can’t say it moved me terribly. My family had shifted in our evangelical-culture associations — no longer used the label ‘fundamentalist’ with ease, had a TV in the house (albeit second-hand, relegated to semi-finished basement space, no cable) — and there was another church and, more to the point, another set of creative, active, lead figures, men, to whom to attach an idea of myself. And I was getting to the age where I felt being one of them to be within reach.
Here my own moment handling puppets comes in. As to the puppets and the handling, there isn’t much to say about it, except that I studied the subject as carefully as I knew how and picked up some tricks. The thing was, at the time, that it was my assignment, given me by the pastor who in my still quite small world was at the top of the pile of men earning attention, enjoying authority. I selected materials for purchase, I built the set, I arranged the backyard dates, I led the troupe. Not much was required of us as a troupe. We barely had to know lines, since audio — voices, background — was supplied by tape deck. If Barry and Chris hadn’t cared particularly about puppets, I cared far less.
I wonder what I would have thought, then, of Peter Schumann’s performances if I’d been exposed to them. (See Darrell’s post, if you haven’t yet.) Schumann’s idea of a moral universe and his obsessions as one acutely aware of being personally bound up in it seem to have filled what he found to do with the figures he made with meaning — with life, even. Would something of this have gotten through to me? Would it have come through in how I thought about anything I made, or what I in turn might find to do with it?
As it happens, I’d never heard of Peter Schumann; didn’t know of him until last month, when I read Darrell’s post. At time of writing here, I’m still listening to those David Cayley Ideas episodes about him Darrell recommends.
I didn’t care particularly about puppets, given the chance to thirty years ago — and yet I did try to care, in my way. There’s a part 2 to this, when I can get to it, touching another peculiarly, obscurely elevated personality in American arts, somebody I first heard of only because of that moment of trying.