An American Odyssey
by Ian Denny
Originally published in "The Puppet Master"
All my engagements had been booked (in the intervening 18 months) through an Agency, then based at a rather prestigious address on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood, California, who specialised in supplying entertainers and speakers to schools all over the country.
The workload would be heavy - a minimum of 13, maximum of 17 shows per week - all in different schools, so in view of having to do approximately 15 get-ins and get-outs per week, all at break-neck speed, I had re-designed all my puppets and staging to be as lightweight and quick to set up as possible.
The show I planned to tour was a simple open-stage marionette variety show, so for the benefit of the plane flight, I made sure all the puppets would fit into one trunk and all the staging into another.
On arriving in Miami, Florida, I discarded the two trunks, as I wouldn't have room to travel them once they had been emptied, and built instead, two hanging rails which doubled as storage boxes in which the puppets travelled permanently hanging, once on the road and leaving only a rostrum and sound system to set up at each venue.
I built the hanging rails (for want of anywhere else to build them) on the parking lot of 'Lumber World', a large DIY store in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I can highly recommend building a puppet stage on the car park of a DIY store, because if you find you have not bought quite enough wood or hinges, or whatever, it is so convenient to just pop back inside for more.
Having made these final preparations, taken an American driving test and opened an American Bank Account, I set off on my first lengthy journey from Miami to Houston, Texas, where my first tour would begin. Travelling in an old Ford Fairmont and finding my own accommodation along the way.
The schools were mostly 'Elementary' schools - age range about 5-12 years - with usually between 500 and 1,000 students. These are also known in different parts of the country as 'Grade', 'K thru 6' and 'Grammar' schools. Very often, in smaller, rural areas, a town would have just one school with children from 5 to 18 years all in the same school.
Many of the schools I worked in, had a proper auditorium with full stage facilities. Most others had a least a stage of some kind, perhaps in a multi-purpose room known as a 'cafegymorium' (a portmanteau word combining cafeteria, gymnasium and auditorium). Failing this, the only space available is the gymnasium - the least satisfactory option due to appalling acoustics and because of the pull-out 'bleacher' seating along the side walls which means that most of the audience is above the puppet's eye level - a distinct disadvantage when working with marionettes. Gymnasia also present problems in setting up, as the students will not stop playing basket ball for long enough to allow you to set up your staging. I arrived at one school early in the morning (8 am) with a basket ball game in full flow. The Principal said to one of the young men playing basket ball; "You wanna help this guy unload his car?" To which the young man hesitated for about 5 seconds, then continued his basket ball game. The Principal turned to me and said "*!%$! My own son and he won't do a thing I ask!"
A typical school day runs from 8.30 am to around 3 pm. The day will often begin with the children and staff reciting the 'Pledge of Allegiance', which is a rather unusual experience to foreign eyes. They stand with their hands on their hearts facing the nearest American flag and recite: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands. One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all". My show would be referred to as an 'Assembly Program' and my first one of the day would usually be immediately at the start of school - 8.30 am, with another show in another school at 10 am or 10.30, and a third show at 1 pm or 1.30.
All the schools in the Southern States were very welcoming and friendly, particularly in Arkansas and Tennessee, where the scenery was stunning and the people very warm. My main problem in the South, was coping with the intense heat (my car had no air conditioning) and the insects. When driving, you can very often go through huge black clouds of insects (love bugs) which splatter all over the headlights and windscreen of the car making it impossible to see (they set like tar and are very difficult to get off). Also, the motels in the South, especially the older ones, are often plagued with crickets and cockroaches. Jiminy Cricket may have been a very cute character in a Disney film, but crickets are not so cute when 10 of them are crawling across the bed towards you.
The people of Oklahoma seemed to have a strangely low opinion of themselves and gave me the impression that Oklahoma was generally regarded as a sort of 'village idiot' of the states, but I never heard a word said against them other than by the Oklahomans themselves and their schools were very impressive and people very warm and welcoming compared to many other areas. Some towns in Oklahoma have rather strange-sounding names. Years later, when chatting to someone in Los Angeles, they commented "You know, there is a place in Oklahoma called Bowlegs." It gave me great satisfaction to say "I know, I've been there."
I spent a good deal of time working on the Indian Reservations in Northern Arizona (the Navajo and Hopi tribes) and on a later tour, the Reservations in Montana and the Dakotas (Blackfoot and Western Cheyenne tribes). Working on the Reservations in Arizona is an experience in time travel, as when it is 2 pm, off the Reservation, it might be 1 pm or 3 pm on the Reservation. This is due partly to the Reservations being right on the border of a time zone, and partly because certain Reservations enact Daylight Saving Time and others do not. This meant having to phone each school the day before to find out what time it was there.
Once, in an Arizona school, I happened to be in the Principal's office, just as a young man was brought in to be reprimanded for kicking another young man in a very sensitive part of the anatomy, to which the Principal commented "We don't do that sort of thing here. It's not the Navajo way."
I spent just over a month in Central California enjoying the last of the fine weather before moving on to the Northern and Mid-Western States where intense heat would certainly no longer be a problem. On the day I left California to drive North, I was performing a show in blistering heat at 1 pm, and by 5 pm, I was having snow chains fitted to the car in order to drive over Donner Summit into Nevada.
Outside the huge tourist capitals of Las Vegas and Reno, towns in Nevada are very small and uneventful. The front page headline of the weekly newspaper in the town of Winnemucca, the week I was there, was "White Van found on Parking Lot" complete with a quarter page photograph of the white van.
Heading further North, I found Montana a fascinating state, with huge, lively, cosmopolitan cities separated by vast expanses of flat wilderness. The only radio station I could pick up on the open road in Montana was called KATL (cattle) and each morning, driving to a school, I would listen to 'The Montana Hog Report'. They were also running a phone-in quiz, the first prize for which was a chain saw! There was no sales tax (VAT) in Montana, so it was popular with shoppers from surrounding states. Consequently, the big-city shopping malls were very impressive and in stark contrast to the vast rural areas.
I just failed to get out of the North before a particularly severe Winter set in. One night the temperature fell to 53 degrees below freezing and the next morning, my car engine was completely frozen solid and wouldn't start. It had to be towed away and thawed out at a nearby garage. Ideally, one needs an engine block heater fitting (Northern Motels have outside mains sockets to plug into overnight), but I had neither the money or the time available in my tight schedule to have a heater fitted, so I sacrificed my electric blanket to the car for the remainder of the Winter, which seemed to do the trick. Probably not the most sensible of things to do with what I now know about petrol vapour and sparks, but I was in blissful ignorance at the time.
For two weeks, I was working in heavy snow and fierce cold, but soon began to head South again, toward Wyoming and Nebraska and though the winter was following me South, the weather did get slightly milder. All the time I was working in the snow states, I was still scheduled for between 13 and 15 shows per week and only failed to get to one school (the morning my car froze up).
I would love to be able to report on all the puppeteers I met on my travels, but in fact, I only met about 5 puppeteers during the whole time, due to the hectic workload I was undertaking. If a particular puppeteer (very few outside large cities anyway) didn't happen to be at home on the one day I would be passing through, the opportunity was missed because I would probably be hundreds of miles away by the next day. Two puppeteers I did manage to spend some time with and will remain eternally humbled by the level of welcome and hospitality they showed me, were Fredda Marsh, at that time based in Little Rock Arkansas, who makes wonderfully creative hand and rod puppets, and Randel McGee in Hanford, California who has a ventriloquist Wizard and Dragon act, 'Wizard & Groark'. For several years, Randel travelled the same schools circuit which I was touring when I met him. He later went on to become President of UNIMA USA and in 2007 was awarded the Trustees Award for outstanding contributions to the art of puppetry by the Puppeteers of America.
I ended my American visit back in the South in 1987, almost where I first started out in 1982 and by this time, I had appeared in 971 schools, in 22 States. I had stayed in about 500 Motels, driven thousands of miles (sometimes five or six hundred miles overnight) and got through three cars.
On the whole, the shows had been well received with very little regional difference in audience response, but just to monitor exactly how their performers were doing, the Agency I was working through operated a very useful feedback system, where each school would be sent a pre-paid postcard on which to record their comments on the show. Once the Agency had noted the comments, if the performers concerned wanted to see the cards (and were prepared to "take the brick bats as well as the bouquets", as they put it) the feedback was made available to the performers to make improvements where necessary.
Travel certainly broadens your horizons and changes your perceptions of the country you are visiting and its people. On the whole, my travels in the US proved to be a very worthwhile experience and a great challenge. The sort of opportunity which doesn't come along too often in a lifetime.