I have a deep level of admiration for those who entertain children for a living. Play isn’t something that comes naturally to me. When I watch jugglers, magicians, balloon artists and other performers at birthday parties and events, I am in awe. To take oneself to the level of a child may be “down” in the physical sense, but it actually requires one to move “up” in the sense of energy, creativity, and imagination. Puppeteers have always fascinated me in the ways they combine a piece of art, their hands, and their voices to create a character that will cause little eyes to open wide. While digital animation has taken over much of children’s entertainment in the 21st Century, iconic puppets still dance across our screens in long running shows such as Sesame Street. Yet there are few places where you can still watch a curtain move aside and see lively characters dance in front of your eyes. Oakland’s own Children’s Fairyland is one of those special spots. Along the shore of Lake Merritt, Fairyland has been home to our country’s longest running live puppet theater. Now celebrating sixty years, the Storybook Theater at Fairyland, and its dedicated director, invited me behind the scenes to see just how it has been pulling strings for so long.
The history of puppetry in the Bay Area is quite rich given the artistic communities that have thrived here. As I sought out information about the long running show at Fairyland, I was told about the book Storybook Strings, written ten years ago as the show was celebrating fifty years, by the current puppet show director Randal Metz. Extensive and fascinating in its detail about this whimsical form of entertainment, it taught me some fascinating facts about its history here in Oakland. The Oakland Recreation Department was once home to The Vagabond Puppets, a local production group that would put on shows to entertain the children of Oakland using puppets that were made during F.D.R’s New Deal years as part of a W.P.A. project that kept artists employed. The Vagabond Puppets brought together people in the industry. Puppetry pioneers such as Ralph Chesse and Lettie Connell Schubert led the way for future Vagabond directors such as the now well-renowned Frank Oz and Jerry Juhl of Muppet fame. Oakland became a hub of puppets and their creators, and the stage was set for Fairyland’s permanent performance house. After Fairyland opened its gate in 1950, puppet shows were often part of events held on park grounds. It was in the summer of 1956 that the curtain first opened at the Storybook Theater. Under the helm of a husband and wife team, Frank and Dorothy Hayward of the Hayward Marionettes, the theater performed its first show, Hansel and Gretel, to adoring pint-sized fans sixty years ago.
Dorothy Hayward stepped down as director in 1959, her husband having unexpectedly passed away in 1957. Her protege Bob Mills was lured down south by Walt Disney, who offered both Bob and Fairyland’s first executive director Dorothy Manes key roles at his new Southern California theme park, Disneyland. Fairyland would see continued success under the direction of Tony Urbano from 1959-1962 and Luman Coad from 1963-1966. Tony Urbano went on to have success in Hollywood, becoming known for his work in over 350 commercials, including the well-known Snuggle Fabric Softener bear. He was also the puppeteer for FX sequences in movies such as Men In Black and The Abyss. Luman Coad fell in love with his Canadian puppeteer partner and the two eventually married and moved to Canada. He went on to become one of the top performers in Canada and acquired numerous credits and awards over the years.
In 1967, Lewis Malhmann, a premier puppeteer in the Bay Area who had been approached numerous times before to become Fairyland’s puppet show director, would take on the role and it was a position he went on to hold for more than thirty-five years. He managed the theater alone until 1990, when he partnered with his long-time apprentice and successful puppeteer Randal Metz. Lewis Malhmann retired in 2004 and passed away in 2014, and Randal Metz has been tirelessly carrying on his legacy as sole director ever since.
Lewis Mahlann with Frank Oz and Bert from Sesame Street in 1970
Lewis Mahlmann as Doctor Doolittle
Lewis Mahlmann and Randal Metz with handheld bunraku puppets
Randal Metz has called Fairyland a second home since 1970. In fact, Fairyland WAS his home for five years at one point, when he and then wife Dawn Graves lived on the property as its caretakers. Randal was drawn to the craft after watching Treasure Island being performed as a child. As a member of the Junior Guild at Fairyland, Randal and his best friend Tom Royer were taken under the wings of legendary local puppeteers and they went on to start their own production company as teenagers, The Puppet Company, hosting performances in local venues such as the Oakland Zoo. Over the next couple of decades Randal would divide his time between the role as Artistic Director at Fairyland, traveling to put on productions for The Puppet Company, and also taking advantage of learning opportunities such as year spent with Bob Baker to perfect the art of making marionettes and a master class put on by The Muppets. As mentioned above, he partnered with Lewis Mahlmann to produce the shows at Fairyland in 1990 and has been the sole puppet director for the past twelve years.
When I showed up at the shoe on an overcast morning a couple of weeks ago, I was anxious to learn more from Randal and I held onto hope that I might be able to sneak a peek behind the scenes of the theater, and possibly a performance. Hosted by Nancy Friedman, manager of media and marketing for Children’s Fairyland, I was able to spend some time chatting with her and Fairyland’s Executive Director C.J. Hirschfield prior to the park opening. We then accompanied Randal across the park to the Storybook Theater and were invited in to see decades of puppet history packed along the theater walls. Now expanded from the much more compact space it once was, Randal has been able to make room for boxes and trunks that hold endless collections of puppets, marionettes, show sets, and several decades worth of rolled up backdrops.
It was interesting to me that each show, along with its puppets and set pieces, are property of the puppeteer who created them and not Fairyland. Randal shared that much of what is housed within the theater is from Lewis Mahlmann’s personal collection. Shows are planned a year in advance, and Randal performs most alongside a rotating staff of Fairyland employees who have shown interest in the craft. On the day of my visit, the Japanese tale Urashima was on the schedule and a lovely young woman named Shawna popped over from her regular role as a ride operator to perform the marionette work for the show alongside Randal. When I asked her how long it took her to learn how to do it, she laughed and shared that she watched the 11:00am show, practiced during the early afternoon, and was on the marionette walkway by the 4:00pm performance that day.
While some in the industry believe that part of the craft involves live voices behind each puppet character, the frequency of the shows at Fairyland require that the voices and music be pre-recorded and played through the theater’s audio system. Randal shared that this really bodes well for consistency and allows history to be preserved, as some of the shows still have Lewis Mahlmann’s voice. Stacks of cassette tapes line the walls from some of his shows, right next to shelves of books filled with children’s fairy tales and stories that he turned to for inspiration.
The Junior Guild that Randal was once a member of no longer exists as a vehicle to support youth interested in puppetry. Therefore Randal waits for the future performers to literally knock on the theater door, much like he did as a boy at the age of ten. He told me that he currently has a young man named Will, just eleven years old, who shows up when he has free time, anxious to learn. Will spent time reading stories to Lewis Mahlmann while he was bed ridden near the end of his life. He now has puppets of his own hanging in the corner, as Randal has graciously taught him how to make them. To me, he sounded like a special young man, the type of personality I touched on in the beginning, destined for a future as a children’s performer.
To watch puppeteers at work is much like a dance, with handwork that reminded me of a pianist fingers moving across piano keys. The marionettes for Urashima hung in strategic places on the walls next to the walkway and on a wooden bar above the stage. Randal and Shawna would quickly rotate them as the tale continued, trading places along the walkway and occasionally trading cues and offering each other a hand as needed. I couldn’t see the children’s faces, but I could here laughs, ohhs and ahhs as characters gave way to a clever dance of sea creatures.
I was amazed when Randal told me that the marionette strings rarely get tangled. When asked about the most complex show he has done, he shared that The Nutcracker has FORTY puppets and is performed over thirty minutes.
As I watched from my vantage point I couldn’t help but notice the large image of Lewis Mahlmann just over Randal’s head as he performed the show. With the theater’s walls filled with images, accolades, and keepsakes from decades past, my hope for Fairyland is that the art of puppetry isn’t lost in this digital age, and that curious performers continue to show interest in this clever form of entertainment that is being fostered here. Parents like myself, who sometimes struggle with turning things “up” a notch in the imagination department, are lucky to have Fairyland not far from our doorsteps. The puppet show at Children’s Fairyland is a magical way to spend fifteen minutes. Watch your little ones awestruck expression while “down” at their level, crouched on the little mushroom benches. Adults, just remember, you have to sit in back.
Children’s Fairyland is celebrating the 60th anniversary of their historic Storybook Puppet Theater this coming weekend, August 27th and 28th, with a “Puppet Fair Weekend”. In addition to their 11:00am and 4:00pm shows, the park is hosting additional performances by local puppet companies such as The Vagabond Puppets and the Puppet Art Theater Company. Many other activities are being held throughout the day in honor of this special anniversary.
For adults only, a unique “Forbidden Puppet Cabaret” is being hosted from 6:00pm-8:30pm on Saturday August 27th. Limited tickets are available and pre-registration is required. Since alcohol will be available, those under 21 are not allowed.
For more information and a detailed scheduled of the Puppet Fair Weekend, please visit the Children’s Fairyland website here.
Sources: Historical information in this post was pulled from the comprehensive book about the history of the puppet show at Children’s Fairyland Storybook Strings, written by current puppet show director Randal Metz. The book is available for purchase in the Fairyland gift shop.
The three historical images of Lewis Mahlmann are courtesy of the Fairyland Archives
All other photos by Adrienne Schell
I would like to thank Nancy Friedman of Word Working and Randal Metz of Children’s Fairyland for their time and generosity.