- FUN FEATURES
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As the lights faded to black, a jolly musical interlude filled the room.
Stage lights illuminated a large set inside the Mary Baldwin Room at the Cheshire Public Library last Friday afternoon, and a small puppet appeared and began to prepare breakfast.
The character, Gretchen, was making breakfast for her husband, Henry, at the start of the short performance of “The Three Wishes.” Operating the hand puppets behind the curtain was Michael Graham, who has been a puppeteer for 45 years.
The room inside the Cheshire Public Library was filled to the brim with children of all ages and their parents. Graham stood behind a black curtain and held the puppets above his head, interacting with the scenery and props flawlessly. Before he began, he introduced himself to the audience, and told them to pay attention to the show.
“Look with your eyes and listen with your ears. And keep your mouths closed so everyone can hear,” he said.
Despite the line, which elicited more than a few smiles from the crowd, Graham doesn’t work in Dr. Suess-esque rhymes and prose. Graham was performing two original shows on Feb. 24, the first being “The Three Wishes,” which revolves around a married couple, who—you guessed it—are granted three wishes.
Each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Gretchen makes sausages for her husband. It’s all he ever eats until one day, when she decides to make him a muffin. He doesn’t care for it, however, and Henry wants more sausages for lunch. While in the woods, attempting to cut down a tree, Henry encounters an elf who, after some discussion, grants the couple three wishes. You’ll have to see the show for yourself to learn more about those wishes, but the performance is a combination of humorous dialogue and a few plot twists that keep the audience entertained.
Graham is a one-man show, operating all the puppets himself. He cues up all the music and sound effects used, while also being responsible for scene changes. Graham creates all of his own puppets and scenery for the shows, something he has done for decades because he never wanted to rely on another person to show up and be professional.
“I know I’ll be there,” he said.
Graham, 58, has been in the puppetry world for 45 years. His first puppet, a marionette, was a gift from his aunt when he was nine years old. Each year, she gave him a new puppet and he fell in love with the art. At 13, he performed his first show for an audience, which he said was a disaster. He charged $3 for the show.
“My mom told me if I was going to charge money, I had to do a better job,” he said. “I am very fortunate to have been given that first marionette. I don’t know if all this would have happened otherwise.”
Graham owns Spring Valley Puppet Theater in New Haven and performs his show along the East Coast. He dresses in all-black and wears silk arm sleeves with the fingers cut out so he can slide his hand in and out of the puppets with ease. He wears a harness of sorts on his body that is filled with different hooks, something unique to his style. On the bottom of his puppets are rings that allow him to easily store a puppet on the hook and retrieve it in a flash. During his show, character changes are frequent, such as in “The Three Wishes” where he plays the married couple, the elf, and a woodland creature. Behind the curtain are boxes of props, equipment for the lighting and music, and, perhaps most importantly, fans to keep Graham cool.
“It always starts out neat back here, but it ends up crazy and messy,” he said.
Graham’s shows are based on classic tales and old fables, but reworked in his own style and run from 10–15 minutes. He has a host of voices for his characters, which left the audience at the library in stitches.
“I really liked the show,” said five-year-old Alexandria Palladino. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a puppet show. I’d like to see another.”
Graham put himself through college on money he earned doing puppet shows as a teenager, earned a degree in education, and was set to become a teacher. Instead, friends convinced him to try and earn a living as a puppeteer, the field he loved.
“And if I failed, I could go and be a teacher.”
After he finished with “The Three Wishes,” Graham thanked the audience for their applause and gave them a brief intro about the next show. When he began “The Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing,” the audience was enchanted by the wolf, which was more than a hand puppet, as Graham was able to open and close its mouth when it spoke. The story centers around the wolf, who disguises himself as a sheep in an effort to get some lunch. He lures a poor sheep into a dark cave and follows in after it. However, we won’t ruin the ending here. The audience gave Graham loud applause during the show when, as the sheep character, he played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with four different bells. As the audience clapped, Graham threw roses with his free hand, which caused some serious laughter.
“The sheep was funny,” said three-year-old Ben Palladino. “I had a good time.”
After the shows ended, Graham came out from behind the curtain and gave the audience an up-close look at his puppets. He even explained to them how he places his fingers in the puppets and what he does behind the curtain. He gave them lessons on how to use a hand puppet, showing that he still enjoys teaching, even if it isn’t in the classroom.
“I love doing these shows,” he said with a smile.
For more information on
Michael Graham, visit on the Web at www.springvalleypuppets.com.