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Byline: Carol Bidwell Daily News Staff Writer

Steve Meltzer never had trouble making friends.

A bit of neoprene neoprene: see rubber.

Any of a class of elastomers (rubberlike synthetic organic compounds of high molecular weight) made by polymerization of the monomer 2-chloro-1,3-butadiene and vulcanized (cross-linked, like rubber), by sulfur,
 or polyurethane, some paint, a few rolling eyeballs, a silly painted-on grin, clothes from a thrift store, and Meltzer - one of fewer than 100 puppeteers and puppet makers in Southern California Southern California, also colloquially known as SoCal, is the southern portion of the U.S. state of California. Centered on the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego, Southern California is home to nearly 24 million people and is the nation's second most populated region,  - has a new buddy.

Still, sometimes it takes awhile for them to bond.

``It can be hard at first to see this thing I've made as a living being because I'm so familiar with the internal workings,'' Meltzer said. ``So you let it sit around and get to know it. Eventually, its personality begins to come out.''

That's the way Fred, a smart-alecky ventriloquist's dummy, was born. And Calvin, a suave, British-accented marionette marionette: see puppet.

Puppet figure manipulated from above by strings attached to a wooden cross or control. The figure, also called a string puppet, is usually manipulated by nine strings, attached to each leg, hand, shoulder, and ear
. And Carol Ann, a flirty, almost life-size little girl fabric puppet. And the other 300 or so puppets that inhabit Meltzer's life.

``In a way, I think that they reflect different parts of my personality,'' Meltzer said, balancing Fred on one knee, almost instinctively reaching inside a slit in the back of the puppet's jacket to manipulate the levers that make his eyes roll and his jaw open and shut. ``Calvin is me if I was an English song-and-dance man.''

``I'm the sardonic, sarcastic guy ...'' Fred pipes up in a goofy voice, twisting his head to grin at Meltzer.

``... but we tone it down for the kids,'' finishes Meltzer, giving Fred an exasperated look and switching back to his own tones. ``The kids get a kick out of the goofy characters.''

Meltzer, 45, has been a fan of puppetry puppetry

Art of creating and manipulating puppets in a theatrical show. Puppets are figures that are moved by human rather than mechanical aid. They may be controlled by one or several puppeteers, who are screened from the spectators.
 since he was 10 and saw ventriloquist Paul Winchell Paul Winchell (December 21, 1922 – June 24, 2005), born Pinkus Wilchinski (the family later shortened it to Wilchin), was an American ventriloquist and voice actor from New York City whose career flourished in the 1950s and 1960s.  and his dummy Jerry Mahoney Jerry Mahoney is the name of the late ventriloquist Paul Winchell's best known dummy.

Jerry Mahoney is also the name of a Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory alumnus who died in World War II, one of two men for whom the Bruce-Mahoney Trophy was named.
 on TV. He built Fred, his first puppet, at summer camp when he was 20, but abandoned his hobby when he embarked on parallel careers as an elementary schoolteacher and an actor.

Then, a decade ago, he bought a banged-up puppet at a swap meet swap meet
An informal gathering for the barter or sale of used articles or handicrafts.
, and was lured back into the world of make-believe figures.

``I found one puppet, then another and another,'' he recalled. ``I'd fix them and restore them. I performed with them at kids' birthday parties. Then I began making my own custom puppets. About six years ago, I had gotten to the point where the puppets had taken over my life.''

Added attractions

Meltzer added ventriloquism ventriloquism: see puppet.

Art of “throwing” one's voice in such a way that the sound seems to come from a source other than the speaker.
 and a few magic tricks This page contains a list of magic tricks. In magic literature, tricks are often called effects. Based strictly upon published literature and marketed effects, there are hundreds of millions of effects; a short performance routine by a single magician may contain dozens of  to his repertoire, and three months ago opened a tiny puppet theater that you enter from an alley behind a restaurant on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade The Third Street Promenade is a pedestrian street in Santa Monica, California, United States. It is considered one of the premier shopping destinations in West Los Angeles and frequently draws crowds from all over Los Angeles County. .

The 40-seat Santa Monica Santa Monica (săn`tə mŏn`ĭkə), city (1990 pop. 86,905), Los Angeles co., S Calif., on Santa Monica Bay; inc. 1886. Tourism and retailing are important, and the city has motion-picture, biotechnology, and software industries.  Puppet and Magic Center, its walls papered with photos and posters featuring famous magicians and puppeteers, opens its doors to audiences on Saturdays and Sundays.

Most of Meltzer's audiences are kids - some parents buy out the theater for their children's birthday parties - but adults enjoy the unique artistry, too.

Already performances are sold out regularly. In an era of video games See video game console.  and sophisticated movie special effects special effects, in motion pictures, cinematographic techniques that create illusions in the audience's minds as well as the illusions created using these techniques. , the popularity of the ancient art form surprises even Meltzer.

``People are desperate to be in a room with other people and see a third poor soul on stage entertaining them live,'' the puppeteer said. ``What's exciting is that people come back - rabidly. I had a child in here this weekend who'd been to see the show four times.''

And Meltzer, who jokes that he takes a bow when he opens the refrigerator and the little light comes on, loves performing, especially for kids.

He remembers how magical it all seemed when he was a boy, watching lifeless puppets come to life, each with a different voice, different mannerisms, different personalities. He was fascinated by Winchell's interplay with Mahoney, and by old movies and radio shows featuring Edgar Bergen
Charlie McCarthy redirects here, for the Irish hurling player see Charlie McCarthy (hurler).

Edgar John Bergen (February 16 1903 – September 30 1978) was an American actor and radio performer, best known as a ventriloquist.
 and his English dummy, Charlie McCarthy.

Treating an inanimate object as if it were alive actually is an old art form. It became a popular form of entertainment in the Middle Ages, when court jesters The Court Jesters are a professional improv company founded in 1989 and based in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Court Jesters are a subsidiary of the Court Theatre professional theatre company, acting as a second company within the theatre.  would entertain their kings by carrying on irreverent conversations with a carved head on a stick, Meltzer said.

Centuries later, in American vaudeville, audiences laughed at a more lively version of the jester: two-man teams of comedians, a joking top banana and a straight man who set up and reacted to the jokes.

``I think ventriloquism had its origins in a guy who got tired of worrying about his partner, so he bought a dummy,'' Meltzer said. ``You always know what's going to come out of their mouths.''

Pint-sized workshop

When he's not performing, Meltzer spends his days in his pint-sized workshop tucked behind the stage and puppet museum, where he refines and perfects the art of puppet making. It used to take him 50 hours or more just to make a puppet's head, but he's found a way to simplify the process by molding and casting the internal workings so the parts are interchangeable.

Still, putting it all together takes many hours. Then he paints on the features, fashions and attaches wigs, and sometimes sews tiny costumes when he can't buy what he needs.

``One of the things I love about this is you have to learn all the arts - sculpture, painting, costuming,'' he said.

His puppets, sought after by other puppeteers and collectors, sell for $1,000 or more. He's licensed to reproduce Winchell's Jerry Mahoney dummy, which cost about $1,200; Tess Mahoney, Jerry' seldom-seen female relative, goes for about $2,000.

The puppeteer's connection with Winchell, a Southern California resident who visits the theater and museum when his delicate health permits, has been the icing on the cake of the child's hobby that became a career.

``Dreams do come true,'' Meltzer said. ``When I was a kid, I wanted to meet Paul Winchell, but I never thought I would. Last year at the ventriloquist's convention in Las Vegas Las Vegas (läs vā`gəs), city (1990 pop. 258,295), seat of Clark co., S Nev.; inc. 1911. It is the largest city in Nevada and the center of one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the United States. , I not only got to introduce him, but he did a two-hour show using a Jerry Mahoney dummy I made for him. Whatever else happens, I've had that tremendous thrill already. It doesn't get any better than this.''

The facts

What: Steve Meltzer's puppet show.

Where: Santa Monica Puppet and Magic Center, 1253-B Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica.

When: 1 and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. On weekdays, 4 p.m. tours of the puppet museum and workshop, plus a mini-show. The magic shop is open noon to 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 2 to 11 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 1 to 6 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $7 for the weekend shows; $3 for weekday tours and mini-shows. Reservations are suggested for shows and tours; call (310) 656-0483.

Meltzer will share puppet restoration secrets April 25 at a Day of Puppetry, a festival in Monrovia sponsored by the Los Angeles Los Angeles (lôs ăn`jələs, lŏs, ăn`jəlēz'), city (1990 pop. 3,485,398), seat of Los Angeles co., S Calif.; inc. 1850.  Guild of Puppetry. For information, call (818) 577-6827.


10 photos

PHOTO (1 -- 3 -- color) ``You let it sit around and get to know it. Eventually, its personality begins to come out,'' says Meltzer of Fred, a smart-alecky ventriloquist's dummy.

(4 -- color) Alexandra Toledo, 5, of Santa Monica meets Fred during a performance.

(5 -- 6 -- color) In his backstage workshop, Meltzer works on a puppet face, applying the finishing touches finishing touches finish npl the finishing touches → der letzte Schliff

finishing touches nplultimi ritocchi mpl 

(7 -- color) Backstage at his Santa Monica Puppet and Magic Center, Meltzer shares a preperformance moment with one of his puppets. ``What's exciting is that people come back. ... I had a child in here this weekend who'd been to see the show four times.''

(8) ``One of the things I love about this is you have to learn all the arts - sculpture, painting, costuming,'' he says.

(9) no caption (Meltzer onstage with puppet)

(10 -- color -- cover) The puppet master

Joe Binoya/Special to the Daily News
COPYRIGHT 1998 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 15, 1998

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