The third annual Puppet Festival is this Sunday, April 13. From hand to shadow, marionette to pageant-size, all your favorites will be there! The Skirball is especially happy to welcome back puppeteer, storyteller, and puppet maker René Zendejas. René returns to wow families with a special animal puppet revue and performance, showcasing some of his best handmade animal puppets. I sat down with René as he was preparing for his appearance to ask him about his long career in the world of puppetry.
How did you get started in puppetry?
I started when I was in junior high school. My mother took me to see as many puppet shows as possible that were playing in L.A.
Which puppeteer captured your imagination when you were young?
I had already started in show business when I was five years old, so this wasn’t something totally new for me. One of the puppeteering teams that caught my eye was Walton and O’Rourke—the most fantastic puppeteers that I have ever seen. From then on, I was smitten. They’re long gone by now. They had the most beautiful marionettes and their manipulation was unsurpassable—except by me, of course.
How do you make your puppets?
First, the clay is sculpted using water-based or grease clay. Second, a plaster mold is made of the clay sculpture. Then you pour your final material into the mold, either plastic or latex. Then comes the finishing of the figure by sanding. Lastly, you animate it—if there is to be any animation in the eyes and the mouth—and paint it. Meanwhile, the body must be constructed and costumed. After the figure is totally put together, it’s strung up with a controller and strings, which are generally made of black fishing line.
Do you have a favorite puppet in your collection?
Yes, I have two special ones. The first is Popcorn, my clown that blows up a balloon, and the second one is Bippy. Originally, the Bippy marionette was dressed as a sultan and all you could do with it was bounce it around or break it into six belly dancers, with not much else happening. I invented a special control that allowed me and a choreographer to put a routine together for the six puppets. That had never really been done before. Also, for the gag with Popcorn, previous puppeteers had always needed a rubber tube going up to a control rod through which the puppeteer had to manually blow up the balloon with his breath. A friend of mine in Texas came up with a special attachment so that now, when the right string is triggered, Popcorn’s balloon blows up without the need for the ugly tube.
Where do you get inspiration for your shows?
Well, out of my head. I started in this business as a child actor, starring in movies with Shirley Temple. From child actor, my next jump was to Spanish dancing—with castanets! So I’ve been in it for seventy-five years, and that’s given me the experience to be able to create productions. And of course, I’ve had some of the best choreographers in the business. I have always figured—and still do—that no matter what part of the business you are in, it is always smarter to acquire the assistance of professionals in setting routines.
For a sneak peek into the festivities, check out the video from last year: