I was recently in a conversation with a neighbor and was asked who my influence was as a puppeteer. My reply was quick, “Burr Tillstrom, Caroll Spinney, and Jim Henson“. Those men created or performed puppets that I really enjoyed as a child. I admire their work and have viewed hours of their performances on DVD, read many books written by them or about them, even had the pleasure to meet Caroll Spinney several times in my life. Yet, as I thought about my answer more while driving in the car with my children, there is a man who was far more influential on my work than any of those brilliant puppeteers. That man is my father, Denis Burke.
My dad would be celebrating his 74th birthday later this week, if he had not suddenly died 10 years ago in late January 2001. I took his death quite hard. It really did a number on my daily life. I began a spiral down into a state of mind that I never wish to see again and eventually agreed to see a counselor. It was in those sessions that I realized that I needed to find an activity that brought joy back into my life. I can’t recall exactly how it happened, yet the idea of working with puppets kept popping into my head in the Spring of 2001.
Puppets have always interested me. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of watching puppets on television. One of my most cherished memories from my boyhood, is when my dad drove me to Boston to attend a puppet convention (it was here that I first met Caroll Spinney). My father was very supportive of my interest in puppets, and bought me a Musicians of Bremen finger puppet set to encourage my puppetry hobby. Gosh, I wish I still had those little felt puppets today.
As I remember back to those darker days in early 2001, I recall feeling so empty. I was in my mid-30’s and was not prepared to lose my father so suddenly. Is anyone? Perhaps my brain kicked into a survival mode to help the rest of me survive the loss of my father. Maybe the childhood memories of attending that puppet convention with my dad were waiting to be remembered fondly to release a feeling of happiness during that hard time in my life. I may never know.
The fact is that my father’s death brought on my adult interest of puppetry, which has brought me to the creation of the Wump Mucket Puppets. That Spring I joined Puppeteers of America and the Cincinnati Area Puppetry Guild. I began drawing ideas for puppet characters, writing down bits for scripts, all of that creative activity helped me to keep my mind off the aftermath of a parent’s death.
Sure, it took me a while to get those sketches and scribbles into the form of a live puppet show, yet I did it.
Back to the influence topic. I guess I get the performer gene from my father. He was a radio broadcaster for many years, and could cook up some very silly schtick for his radio shows in the early 70’s and into the 1980’s when schtick could still be found on the radio. For those of you who have heard my Cyril the Sea Serpent character shout “SCHPAK! SCHPAK!” during the show, I am borrowing it from my father as a bit of a tribute to him. My Dad introduced me to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Ealing Studio comedy films, and the work of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. The man KNEW what was GOOD comedy. I really hope that some of his comic awareness has rubbed of on my puppet show scripts. I think that some of it has since I do hear people laughing at my puppets during the show.
And that’s what got me started in puppetry in the first place, finding joy where there was sorrow. Turning a frown into a smile. Making people laugh is possibly the greatest thing that I can hope to accomplish as I try to do my very best as a puppeteer. I know that my father would like that.