by CHRIS ROGERS
Under a work lamp, puppet-sized washboards, packets of polymer clay, tubes of paint, and half-finished creatures clutter Bob “Dr. Bob” Armstrong’s workshop desk. A mysterious and multifarious cast hangs from strings next to the desk: a frumpy Scrooge, a cartoonish Tiny Tim, a rosy-cheeked Santa with skeletal hands who will play the Ghost of Christmas Present, and a gnarly-nosed Jacob Marley, whose little puppet hands are bound with chains and the black leather straps from some old cowboy boots. When Armstrong picks one up, it jolts to life, turning its head intently to meet an onlooker’s gaze or dancing a joyous jig across the carpet floor.
With one hand, Armstrong can make his puppets do a double take, saunter across the stage, shake their rumps, or hold their head in their hands, exasperated. Dr. Bob and his cast of puppets will perform an abridged version of “A Christmas Carol” this week, shortened to suit puppets and young audiences. It is a show Armstrong has done numerous times in his 20-year career as a puppet maker and master. He cues music, operates the puppets — sometimes one each in hand — and recites characters’ lines from memory as they trade off dialogue in distinctive voices. Spooky ghosts warn a skeptical Scrooge. Bob Cratchit begs for paid time off on Christmas Day and his penny-pinching boss reluctantly agrees. “It’s got ghosts. It’s got forgiveness. It’s got redemption. It’s timeless,” Armstrong said of Dickens’ classic.
Audiences know it, too. In past performances, when Armstrong got to the point in the play when a reformed Scrooge begs a little boy to take his money and buy the biggest turkey in the butcher’s shop for a Christmas feast, audience members shouted out, in their best little-boy-with-a-Cockney-accent voice: “What, the one as big as me?”
Armstrong likened the style and comedy of his “A Christmas Carol” show to 1920s cartoons, such as “Betty Boop” or “Pop-eye the Sailor Man.” His puppets can be cartoonish. The head of the Young Scrooge marionette, for example, detaches from its body, so when Young Scrooge gets really upset, Armstrong can make the puppet “blow his top.” The puppet’s head shoots up like the lid on a pot that is boiling over. There are a few special tricks, too, that could mystify audiences, like the Young Scrooge puppet’s ability to pick things up in his hands.
Puppet shows are all about the suspension of disbelief, audiences’ willingness to momentarily see the marionettes as real characters, Armstrong explained. “That’s the magic of puppets,” he said. “As a way to tell stories, it’s hard to beat because it’s so dynamic. And just the possibility of it — puppets are not limited by what can do. They can fly. They can do kung fu without training,” he added.
Then there is the craftsmanship of Armstrong’s puppets. He forms some out of clay and he carves others from lumber, but many are made with found items, odd baubles picked up from thrift stores, salvaged from becoming refuse, or washed up on the river. A puppet that performs in Dr. Bob’s rendition of “A Mid-Summer’s Night’s Dream” has a turtle shell for a torso and a bird’s skull for a head. Young Scrooge’s tummy is a stout cow bone. Ebenezer Scrooge is carved out of driftwood. His eyes are glistening marbles.
“He’s a fine puppet,” Armstrong said, holding up his Bob Crachit puppet hewn from lumber. “But he winds up not having the funk or soul that this guy with driftwood does.”
Armstrong crafts puppets for other puppeteers on commission, spending around six months on each. For his own marionettes, the puppet-maker might spend a year collecting the right oddities to adorn a puppet.
It all started a couple decades ago on a trip to the renaissance fair, when Armstrong met a performer who danced a puppet on his knee while playing a penny whistle for fair goers. Armstrong had done some busking already, so he tried spicing things up by adding a little puppet to his guitar-playing set. He started performing puppet-show shorts, just for the renaissance fair workers during their breaks. Then Armstrong joined a circus as a sideshow puppeteer and took his act to late night cabarets with rowdy crowds that had no patience for lackluster acts. “That’s where I learned to be funny or die,” he recalled.
Puppeteering dates back thousands of years. Diverse cultures across the globe produced their own versions of the art form, and it is still evolving today. For Armstrong, it is all about entertainment. He is part of a long tradition of providing the amusement people crave through puppetry. “I think if the world crashed and there were no televisions or phones, I’d be the at the top heap,” he joked.
Dr. Bob will perform his production of “A Christmas Carol” on Wednesday, December 14, at 7 p.m.; on Thursday, December 15, at 4 p.m. and at 7 p.m.; and on Friday, December 16, at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. The kid-friendly, all-ages shows will be held at Mid West Music Store, 168 East Third Street, in Winona. The shows are free with a free-will donation for the performers.