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Byline: Carol Bidwell Daily News Staff Writer

Steve Meltzer never had trouble making friends.

A bit of neoprene 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 - 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. 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 since he was 10 and saw ventriloquist Paul Winchell and his dummy Jerry Mahoney 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, 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 and a few magic tricks 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 40-seat Santa Monica 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 and sophisticated movie special effects, 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 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 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, 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 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.

(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
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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.

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

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