A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Children's Best Friend

            (Backstage at the Puppet Theater with Lewis (L) and Randal (R)

Now playing at Children's Fairyland's Open Storybook Puppet Theater: "The Magic Blossom," written and designed by Fairyland's beloved Master Puppeteer, Lewis Mahlmann.
"The Magic Blossom" is the 150th puppet production Mahlmann has created for Fairyland, where he was Director of Puppets for 43 years, from 1967 until his retirement in 2006.
And it's also the final one. At 85, Mahlmann has firmly stated that this is his last hurrah.
"The Magic Blossom" is the puppet version of a literary classic: Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Over the years, he has puppetized such other classics as "Pinocchio," "The Magic Flute," "Hansel and Gretel," "Peter and the Wolf," "The Nutcracker," "Coppelia" and "Peer Gynt."
"I do puppet shows to entertain, but not just to entertain," he once told me. "I want to show the children that there are wonderful stories out there that they can read, and I also want to teach them the right way to live."
For instance, in his version of "Pinocchio," Pinocchio doesn't achieve his dream of becoming a real boy until he learns to be kind to others.
The Blue Fairy asks him, "If I give you a wish, would you rather be a real boy?"
He replies, "I'd rather my father get well."
At the end of the play Pinocchio finally becomes a real boy, but he doesn't recognize his friend, the cricket any more. The cricket turns to the audience and says, "Maybe there's somebody else out there who needs me."
Heavy stuff for a 5-year-old, but Mahlmann makes the message go down easier with a constant barrage of jokes and puns that keep the little ones screaming with laughter.
"One thing I never do is talk down to a child," he told me. "That may sound phony, but it's true. I'll tailor the language to their learning level, but that's not the same thing."
Every kid loves puppets, but a few get absolutely hooked and decide to become puppeteers themselves when they grow up. And Mahlmann has always taken them under his wing and taught them everything he could.
One was a 10-year-old named Randal Metz, who shyly knocked on the door of the Puppet Theater one day in 1970. And, except for a couple of years with the Muppets, he's been there ever since, succeeding Mahlmann as Director of Puppets in 2006.
Mahlmann pays him the ultimate compliment: "He loves puppetry as deeply as I do."
And Metz, who still talks to Mahlmann every day to get his advice, returns the sentiment.
"Lewis is a teacher, first and foremost, and his job has always been to educate in a sensitive, positive way. He believes each Fairyland show should be as if a kid was seeing a theatrical stage production, not just 'Hi! I'm a bunny rabbit! How are you today?'"
"And his influence goes way beyond the Puppet Theater," adds Fairyland's executive director, C.J. Hirschfield. "The Beatrix Potter rabbit village, the Old West Junction and the murals for the Jolly Roger Pirate ship are all his designs, too."
"The Magic Blossom" will run until August 29.
"It's Lewis's final gift to the Puppet Theater – and the kids – he loves," says Hirschfield. "But his productions will be playing as long as there is a Fairyland, which I hope is forever."

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