Rest in Peace Fred Cowan

Rest in Peace Fred Cowan

The puppetry world has lost a dear family member.  I have just learned Fred Cowan passed away yesterday.  He was known and loved by many and will be missed.  I first met Fred back in November of 2002, at the Great Lakes Regional puppetry gathering Potlatch.  It was my first time there, and I was a “newbie” in the puppetry family.

Cyril the Sea Serpent performing at Potlatch 2002, Angola Indiana

At Potlatch, puppeteers are welcome to participate during potpourri event, think of it as an open-mic for puppeteers.  I was a bit nervous, my hands were not steady, and Cyril had not quite developed into the character his is today.  Yet I did my five minutes, by retelling an embarrassing true story.  The puppeteers in the audience chuckled and applauded.  I guess I was doing something right.  As I left the stage and went to sit down to watch the other puppeteers, Fred came up to me to offer kind words of praise.  I remember he said, “I like what you’re doing.”  That simple sentence boosted my confidence and made me happy.  At the time I didn’t know that Fred had been a puppeteer for many years.  I also learned that designed the Chuck E. Cheese costume characters.  He even performed at The White House!  Wow!

Several years later I drove to his home in Indiana with members of the Cincinnati Area Puppetry Guild for a Great Lakes Puppetry Guilds gathering.  He was very kind and showed us around his workshop filled with his puppets.  I was able to shoot this video of Fred performing his Dolly Parton puppet:

Sadly this was to be the last time I would see Fred in person.  Fred had many friends in the puppetry world.  I am happy that I can be counted as one of them.

Rest in Peace Fred.

Gerry Anderson, your shows were FAB!

Wump Mucket Puppets pays tribute to Gerry Anderson

Wump Mucket Puppets Terrence Burke and children

Gerry Anderson fans Eleanor Burke (hiding behind a Stingray DVD), Terrence Burke, and Tiernan Burke

Our world begins 2013 (so much for that Mayan calendar!) without a man who’s puppet and science fiction television programs made many boys and girls happy in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  British television producer Gerry Anderson passed away on December 26, 2012.  His programs featured fantastic futuristic vehicles, realistic looking aircraft, and some cheesy humor too!  I became aware of the show Thunderbirds some time in the early 1970’s when I was a boy growing up in the Boston area.  I don’t recall exactly how I learned about it, yet I do remember that the television station that broadcast the show (WSMW TV-27) was too far away from where my family lived to watch the show with any form of clarity.  Being the A/V club member that I was back then, I figured out that our cousins lived in the broadcast area of TV-27.  FAB!  When we would visit I would attempt to convince my mother that I “had” to watch this show.  Sometimes I was able to convince her of this need, sometimes I would be told to go outside and play with my siblings and cousins.  From the bits of the program that I could view, I could determine that something remarkable was being broadcast, and it had puppets!

The future, as seen in 1975

Several years later, in which I was firmly a sci-fi fan,  I got word on the playground that a cool new television series was going to be on the air featuring two of the actors from Mission: Impossible (another show I loved).  It was 1975 and I was eleven years old when Space: 1999 was launched.  I recall that my brothers and I went crazy for this show.  We were fans of Star Trek, Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea, Batman, almost anything sci-fi related.  Space: 1999 was exactly the show for us, it had lots of spaceships, laser guns, explosions, plus a woman who could change into animals and monsters too!  WOW!  We would often pretend to be members of Moonbase Alpha in our backyard.  Lucky for us, and many other kids, there were a number of toys made to promote the series.  Of course, it was a “Space: 1999 Christmas” at our house that year!  I do wish I still had those toys. Sadly only a tiny part of my Eagle spaceship has survived from my youth to middle age.

Thank Goodness for DVD

Good thing that the future turned out a little different from how it was depicted on Thunderbirds and Stingray, on those shows everything was saved on magnetic tape!  With the invention of digital media adult fans of Gerry Anderson’s programs could now “stand by for action” once again and re-watch the shows that they loved as children.  For me many of his older programs were completely new since I was only familiar with Thunderbirds, UFO, and Space: 1999.  I have since enjoyed watching the children’s shows on DVDs with my children, who in their own ways have become fans of Stingray (Eleanor) and Thunderbirds (Tiernan).  We’ll have to wait a few years before we watch UFO and Space: 1999, as these were adult programs with adult themes and situations.

Wump Mucket Puppets G'Wazzl with UFO toy

G'Wazzl wonders if Commander Edward Straker ever encountered a UFO like this

So thank you Gerry Anderson, and all the puppeteers, designers, actors, model makers, and crew who created these FAB-ulous visions of what the future may have looked like.  You’ld be happy to know that the shows you made are still entertaining children, and their geeky daddies in the 21st century!

In memory of my father Denis Burke

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.

Dad & Terry December 1991
Denis and Terrence Burke, December 1991