Story + Photos by Carolyn Males
I’m no more than ten steps into puppeteer Bob Abdou’s house when he asks, “Would you like to play pinball?” You see, I’ve come face-to-face with a vintage Spider-Man game machine. But as much as I’m tempted to pull the lever and hear clanks and dings, my attention is ricocheting toward, well, lots of things.
The foyer, or as Abdou calls it,“ the lobby” where we stand is chock full of floor-to-ceiling displays of puppetry and popular culture: toys, puppets, posters and comedy memorabilia. Not to mention, I’d just passed the powder room, which contained a bookcase brimming with books on humor, anchored by a snapshot of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza, having just left the bookshop men’s room, tries to hand back the book he’d taken into a stall. The irate store clerk blasts him with, “THIS BOOK HAS BEEN IN THE BATHROOM!”
I shouldn’t have been surprised by all this. After all, I was interviewing Abdou, aka Mr. Puppet, whose email address reads comedybob. The plaque on his front lawn sports a squirrel welcoming all “to the nut house.” Plus a duo of Amish-crafted metal birds, their beaks alternately drooling streams of water, had greeted me at the door. Then just as I’d lifted a hand to knock, Abdou himself had materialized in a boldly colored shirt that sported what looked like a kid’s ball-and-jacks pattern.
Needless to say, I’d entered laughing and quickly found it impossible to stop.
My timing had been good. I’d caught up with Abdou between gigs here and beyond. He and his merry band of marionettes and ventriloquist dummies at times have a dizzying schedule, entertaining both kids and adults.
For children up to age thirteen, he offers lively shows for parties and other events with dancing pandas and poodles, Frankenstein-in-a-box and other characters. For schools he has an entertaining but educational repertoire of puppetry programs centered on subjects like reading, manners, drug issues and other subjects that he often imbues with unexpected twists. Take his program on cyber bullying. You’d expect Billy the Bulldog with his fierce looking visage to be the bully, but no. Billy is the one being trolled in social media. Why? Because he looks different.
Abdou’s grownup venues include conventions and corporate events, banquets, senior centers and clubs. “I do clean adult comedy. But I do have a risqué adult show mostly for comedy clubs because that’s what they’re expecting.”
A puppeteer is born
Before Abdou introduces me to his comedy crew that lives upstairs in the Puppet Room between performances, we head into the living room. The living room, it turns out, is an island of calm that his wife, the Rev. June Wilkins, has carved out in this house devoted to humor high jinks. Although it should be noted right here that Wilkins, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church on Hilton Head, has a background in improv and clowning so she is a fan, if not a co-conspirator in the décor. In fact, the couple had met at a Beatles convention and married in 2002. And I’d bet that when Wilkins, as a young woman, had dreamed of a wedding, little did she picture herself posing in her bridal gown next to their guest, 1960s TV icon Soupy Sales. All that was missing was White Fang. But of course, Abdou later remedied that by adding the giant paw pie-throwing puppet to his collection, along with Soupy’s red bow tie.
Here we settle in to talk the puppetry business. Abdou, who grew up in New Jersey, got his first puppet, a Danny O’ Day ventriloquist dummy, as a gift on his eighth birthday. Even though he’d loved Sesame Street, he credits a local celebrity, Uncle Floyd, the freewheeling host of his eponymous TV show, for planting the seeds of his Mr. Puppet comedy career. Uncle Floyd performed his piano playing escapades with a ventriloquist dummy sidekick called Oogie. “It was kind of like a Saturday Night Live for teenagers,” declares Abdou.
But it wasn’t until years later, after a stint as a printing company owner in Atlanta, that those dormant longings to take the stage with an animated wooden companion were reawakened. He signed up for a comedy class and then began volunteering at the Center for Puppetry Arts on weekends where he, along with Woodie, his “separated-at-birth” puppet, welcomed visitors. In 1996 he sold his printing business and plunged full time into puppetry. By 2003, with Wilkins now an ordained pastor, the couple followed her career to Philadelphia, Austin and Columbus before settling here in the Lowcountry. Meanwhile he and his merry band of puppets have performed across the country and abroad.
A brief lesson in puppetry
“There are several types of puppets,” Abdou says. He reels them off: hand puppets like Kermit the Frog; shadow puppets (stick figures manipulated by rods like those in Indonesia); body puppets a la Big Bird with costumed puppeteers inside; and object puppets which are puppets without faces. Anything, even a pillow, he explains, can be a puppet as long as you make it look like it’s alive.
But the two kinds he likes working with are marionettes and ventriloquist dummies. With marionettes the spotlight is on the puppet while the puppeteer, manipulating their strings from above, is hidden or at least in the shadows. Ventriloquist dummies, on the other hand, share the spotlight with the puppeteer who sits alongside. “Ventriloquism starts with the letter V,” Abdou says, holding up two fingers to make a vee sign. “It’s the illusion of two people alive on stage having a conversation. My job is to make my audience believe that my puppets are real.”
If he has an idea for a new puppet, he calls on puppet makers from all over the world to build and design them. However, he also scouts out old puppets. “I love buying broken puppets and fixing them up.” He restores them, restrings and re-dresses them with designs by puppet costumers.
The house tour
Now we head upstairs, past a mega display of kids’ lunchboxes and a side room of more collectibles from the early days of television: Kukla and his dragon companion Ollie, Jerry Mahoney and Howdy Doody! I can’t help but grin over the display of odd movies and TV tie-in products like a Fonzie record turntable, Green Hulk chocolate syrup, a Magilla Gorilla bop bag. Ah, but now it’s time to visit the puppet room where the marionettes dangle, awaiting their star turns. At the door Cousin Joey the Mouse, a head in a frame with a moving mouth, serves as a Walmart-style greeter, while a Señor Wences Johnny hand puppet (actually a large oven mitt) juts out from the opposite wall in the hallway as if to comment “Ees Nice” as he surveys our itinerary. Inside the room, only a fraction of Abdou’s 300-strong coterie of marionettes and dummies are in the spotlight. The rest remain tucked away in the closet’s depths or down in the garage workshop. I meet Janis the banjo-plucking country gal, Miles Kilometer who croons and strums Ricky Nelson tunes, Chilli Dog wielding a trumpet Blues Brothers-style, and a bongo-playing beatnik (a work in progress) who will be debuting at Riverwalk in Savannah.
Afterwards we veer off into a guest room and bath devoted to Beatle Mania. (Abdou and his Fab Four marionettes perform at Beatles conventions.) Here the mop-top quartet lounges against pillows, populates the shelves and does cameo roles on the shower curtain. All that’s missing is a yellow submarine. Oh wait, I’ll bet there’s one here somewhere…
After I’ve made an Ollie hand puppet talk, watched Gladys the pig marionette cavort with fruit on her head a la Carmen Miranda, shouted “Brava” as Henrietta Operetta buk-buk-buked out an aria and applauded a clown puppet flipping a ball onto his big red nose, I wave goodbye to Abdou and his troupe and head out the door. Alas, I never did get to test my Superhero skills against the Green Goblin, Sandman and Venom on the Spider Man pinball machine. Nevertheless, I exit laughing. LL