Now that I get how cool the Muppets are, I wish I could say that I was a big fan of them growing up. But the truth is I never really liked puppets as a kid, and didn’t connect with the Muppets’ vaudeville-throwback shtick.
Luckily, as an adult, I now have my kid to show me the error of my ways. Starting last year, when she was six, I have watched all the seasons of The Muppet Show with my daughter Frankie—and in the case of her favorite episodes, like the ones where the Star Wars cast or Steve Martin or Alice Cooper guest-starred, watched them dozens of times.
And I have to ask myself: how could I have been so lame? The Muppets have everything—laughs, touching moments, compelling stories, music, artistry—and under Jim Henson’s guidance, they delivered it all at a breathless pace. Somehow, it took me four decades to grasp this, while Frankie figured it out when she was in kindergarten. Every Muppet moment is a delight to her, and it’s also where her talent for doing voices—she can do pretty much all the Muppets, including the best Gonzo I’ve heard from anyone not named Dave Goelz—first materialized. Kermit, Fozzie, Ralph and the whole gang are just a part of who she is.
She has a soulmate in Puppetry Institute of Santa Cruz founder and artistic director Ricki Vincent. At four years old, Vincent was already so into puppets that his mom would actually wake him up if something puppet-related came on television. And when Jim Henson was on the Tonight Show precursor Tonight Starring Jack Paar in the early ’60s, she did just that. Henson did a routine with a primitive version of his Kermit puppet and an inchworm.
“That’s what got me totally hooked,” says Vincent. “I kept begging my grandmother, ‘I need to make a worm! I need to make a worm!’” Finally, she gave him an old coat and a pair of scissors, and he started making inchworm puppets. “Because it was a big coat, I made hundreds of ’em.”
By age eight, he was turning the family garage into a puppet theater. Mom, who wanted him to be a lawyer, had to be wondering what she’d started. “She thought I was nuts,” he says.
Vincent was obsessed with puppetry into his teens, but lost interest as he moved into his rebellious years, eventually owning a lucrative piercing business. After 9/11, though, he felt like he wasn’t doing anything meaningful with his life, and rediscovered his puppet passion. A $50,000 grant to do a puppet burlesque show in Austin was his first big success, and he eventually set up shop in Monterey. But as he started doing puppet shows on Pacific Avenue as “Dr. Mercurio,” Vincent started to feel more of a connection to Santa Cruz. When he saw a chance to move here, he did.
Now he’s opened the Puppetry Institute in the Octagon, after the Museum of Art and History chose him as their artist in residence. He took a month and a half to turn the inside into a glorious puppet laboratory, filling it with creatures of all types and in all stages of development. Foam and glue give the giant open studio space the smell of constant activity and creativity.
“It’s got the puppet-y madness smell,” he says.
And indeed, “Dr. Mercurio’s Octagon of Imagination” is the stuff of puppet-y madness. Vincent does workshops that allow kids and teens to make their own Muppets, and he does a Creature Shop where anyone can come in and get hands-on experience helping him put feathers in a phoenix, or a horn on a unicorn, or whatever else his crew is working on at the time. There’s even a class where cosplayers can make their own costumes.
“Why go and order something that’s going to cost you $1,200, when you can learn how to make your own stuff?” he asks. “Same thing with Burning Man.”
Though he loves to get kids started on puppet design, there’s an adult side to the Puppetry Institute, too—like the show he’ll be doing this week, June 8-10, at the Octagon, “The Doctor Is Out: The Last 48 Hours in the Life of Hunter S. Thompson.” Vincent researched and wrote the play (on a typewriter, no less), and created the Thompson puppet that he voices in the show.
He’s been searching for a permanent home for the Institute after the residency is up in August, and just made a deal with the Museum of Discovery in Capitola to move into a dedicated space there. The museum’s bookmobile will also be refitted to serve as a mobile puppetry workshop that Vincent can take to local schools. He sees it as the latest in a long line of collaborations that fuel his passion.
“The biggest thing I’m trying to build here is a sense of community,” he says.
‘The Doctor is Out: The Last 48 Hours in the Life of Hunter S. Thompson’ will be performed Thursday, June 8 through Saturday, June 10 at 8 p.m., with a 9:30 p.m. show Friday and Saturday, at the Octagon, 118 Cooper St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12-$22 sliding scale. For more information on Vincent’s workshops, go to thepuppetryinstitute.org.