Chris and Starship Sassafrass is an amazing story. So glad to have him here on 4 Foam Fingers. Chris is a true student of the puppetry arts and his passion and drive are absolutely awesome. If we can all have 1/10th of his motivation and drive the world would be a better place.
So strap a rocket to your back and watch Starship Sassafrass blast off into the stratosphere.
1 – Where did you get your start in Puppetry? Was there a moment where you knew puppets would consume your life?
I honestly feel as if I were born at the absolute perfectly precise moment to truly be enveloped by the puppetry bug. It was the summer of 1973… and i would spend the first ten years of my life being raised, first, on Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street, then graduating to The Muppets and The Great Space Coaster. From the age of about 3 I can clearly remember being completely distracted at the goings on UNDER the characters that all the other kids were enamored with… When I saw a kid talking to Grover or Kermit, I envied them , not because they were meeting these characters, but instead, because they were able to see that space below, and see what made those characters come to life.
I quickly figured out that, say for instance, Ernie must have taken 2 people because simple math proved that no one could manipulate both arms and the mouth at the same time. These little breakthroughs in my tiny mind were on the same level as solving the riddle of the space/time continuum for me at the time. hahaha. I bought every puppet i could get my hands on and forced family and friends to watch what were no doubt tedious long winded performances with very little meaning or entertainment value. They were very kind and supportive. hahaha
As the 80’s ended I began a slightly different path as a nightclub dj, and though it wasn’t puppetry , it did help me to understand some basic principles of live entertainment and how music can infuse emotions in people and move them. Around 2010 I decided i needed a change and remembered my love of puppetry.
That very year I created a small show with a crazy cast of characters for a small family party. I wanted to entertain all the little ones and thought it would be a hoot. But once that show had finished I looked around and realized I had all these characters and puppets, and an entertaining prerecorded show, and figured I needed to take it further.
I called an old school chum who I remembered as very witty and charming and it turns out…had became a teacher and was absolutely wonderful with kids. (Tara Barton AKA Dr. Tottlebottom) I also found a young man all the way from Boston (Benjamin Levesque) who had just finished up 4 years at a University near me with his degree in puppetry and children’s theater. So together , along with the help of some wonderful puppeteers (Julie Miller and Courtney Goodman) we opened a cozy little puppet theater called Sassafrass Junction.
We were open for a little over 2 years, created 9 original shows, did almost 200 private parties and hundreds of live performances, and had an absolute blast entertaining people of all ages!
After we closed it was less than a year before the bug began to hit us again to get back together and do something with the characters and world we had created and was so beloved in our community. Everyone had moved on to other careers , 3 of them are now teachers, but we figured if we did a web series that it would allow us to do it on our own time and balance everyone’s schedules. We have been at it for almost 2 years and are having a lot of fun. We have a 6 episode season coming out this fall and just released a brand new music video from the show https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Salo-_uIkaU that I am super proud of!
2 – Do you have a favorite moment in your career, or a project that you feel defines your body of work?
For our puppet theater I created this one main character named Gabby. He was a bit of a haggard , streetwise , middle aged divorcee furry blue guy who lived in a tree house and was the anchor of our show. His voice was much like the side kick in any black and white western , based mainly on Pat Buttram of “Green Acres” fame. We had him both in puppet (backstage form) and as a giant walk around suit, and the kids absolutely ADORED him. To this day those kid’s still send him letters and emails and want to know how he is. I cannot express how much it means to have something that you created and performed be so beloved. It must be what songwriters feel when they hear a huge crowd sing their song back to them in a venue… TOTAL GOOSEBUMPS!
3 – Where do you draw character inspiration from? Do you have a set way of creating or do you allow spontaneity to take over?
Many puppeteers will tell you, if you sit and stare at a puppet in the eyes for long enough, it will begin to speak to you, it it’s own voice. Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes it seems that character simply doesn’t like you, HAHAHA, and that’s when you toss him across the room at another puppeteer and tell him or her to give it a try.
Most of the time my characters come from people I’ve met at some point along the way. As a DJ ,as you might imagine, I met a lot of colorful characters. It’s great to draw on aspects of many different people and sort of mix it all up and see what comes out.
Scriptwriting for puppets basically boils down to one thing for me. What would I have loved as a kid. That same philosophy fueled me when we opened the theater. As a kid I would have died and went to heaven if our little rural town would have opened a puppet theater like ours. We even opened it in the same plaza, a short distance from my childhood home, where I had walked with my mother and would’ve imagined that theater being. It’s funny how things like that sometime work out.
4 – Name one tip you would give an aspiring puppet builder / performer?
It’s really all about the fun isn’t it?!? If it stops being fun for you then your audience will know it.
I have to admit, though I attempt to be a sort of “manly man” most of the time, I did let down my guard and got a bit emotional and misty eyed on our final performance at the theater. I was performing Gabby for a final fair well at the end of the show, and out of nowhere I was overcome. I had left many other jobs in years before and had never once felt any real emotion about it. But, seeing this thing we had created from scratch come to an end just tugged at my heartstrings. I really loved what we did, what we created, our fans, the crew, it was a perfect little moment in my life that I cherish til this day. So puppeteers….FIND THAT! It’s amazing!