Hard to imagine

The inside of a master puppeteer’s workshop is magical.

Well, OK — it’s a little creepy, too.

There’s stuff everywhere, on every surface and all over the floor: stacks of lumber, collections of rods and pulleys, bottles of glue and paint, enormous blocks of foam rubber, pairs of scissors, serious power tools (think “band saw”), bits of fabric, coils of measuring tapes, assortments of rulers, more scissors, an electric meat knife, a fly swatter. Stuff. Everywhere.

And amid all the stuff — tucked into cubbies and sprawled on worktables — are the puppets, Hobey Ford’s Golden Rod Puppets. Ichabod Crane peers down from high on a shelf, his skinny legs dangling over the edge of his perch. A giant black-and-yellow caterpillar rests on a pile of foam clippings, next to a green-and-gold chrysalis. A whole pod of puppet dolphins, freshly carved from foam rubber and blank white without their first animating coat of paint, lie scattered throughout the room.

Even lying inert, though, Ford’s puppets are strangely vital, fleshly plump with shining eyes and rich, true-tone colors. In Ford’s hands they are, quite simply, alive. And he always seems to have one in his hands. He can’t stop picking them up.

“Here’s a sea otter,” he exclaims, pulling a ridiculously cute puppet from under a sheet of newspaper. Ford had been talking about how, in 1980, he’d studied puppetry by hovering about the set of the movie The Dark Crystal. “They carved a lot of props out of foam rubber,” he explains. “I was trying to get work at the time on the movie, which I didn’t. But I did get to see how they carved foam and I learned how to do it.

“I hung out in the workshops and I just spent the day interviewing,” he continues. “I’d go around and talk to people and [say], ‘Well, what are you doing there?’ and ‘What scissors work best?’ And so then … “

That’s when he runs across the otter … and The Dark Crystal is abruptly forgotten. “See, he has a little clam he messes with,” Ford goes on. The otter grabs a tiny clam puppet and starts turning it over and over in its sweet little paws. Although he’s working the otter’s pulleys and levers, Ford seems slightly astonished — and totally enchanted — by his creation’s smooth, genuine movements, its sheer realism. He sets the otter aside and moves to a two-foot-tall heron. The bird stretches and flaps its wings, then folds them gracefully back into place against its body. It bobs its head and comes up, mouth open and full of a wriggling, silver fish.

“These are all brand-new puppets, for a new show I’m working on, Animalia,” Ford finally shares, still fiddling with the heron’s pulleys. It will be months before the show is ready for public viewing, but “I will feature some of these guys [at the BeBe Theatre] after the main show, Whale Walker,” he promises. Ford tours the country, performing his shows everywhere from classrooms in the Texas Panhandle to Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center. But it’s been several years since he’s offered a public performance of his elaborate tale of 19th-century whaling culture to Western North Carolina audiences.

He created the show in 1990, with the financial aid of a grant from Mr. Muppet himself, the late Jim Henson.

“The Hensons saw some of my foam animals at a festival and got really interested. They funded my first show, Turtle Island Tales. So when I got the idea for Whale Walker, I went back to them.”

Ford describes the inspiration behind the story: “I grew up in Connecticut near Mystic Seaport, which used to be a big whaling community. My grandfather had helped set up the museum, so there was this family heritage.” He continues, “And then I met a Native American fishermen in a village in Washington state … one evening, he told me about his people’s whaling history. So that’s when I started thinking about a puppet story that would connect the two cultures, that would show both ends of 19th-century whaling and compare where they were coming from and using whales as a resource and the cultural implications of it.

“The whole set is upstairs,” he beckons toward a wooden staircase.

If the first floor of Ford’s shop is full of stuff, the second is packed with puppets and nothing else. And it’s definitely creepy. Dozens — maybe hundreds — of lifelike beings lie inanimate, waiting for his touch: a 30-foot-long, grapefruit-pink dragon with eyes the size of fists rests neatly coiled against one wall.

The Whale Walker set, however, takes center stage and occupies at least a quarter of the large room. One side consists of an old-fashioned New England fishing village, inhabited by faintly Puritan-looking puppets. The other side reveals a distinctly Native American, Pacific-Northwest motif, with dark-haired, red-skinned residents. Ford picks up Whale Walker’s hero, Young Jim the cabin boy, and moves him through the set for a summary performance.

At one point, Jim crosses the ocean in a high-masted sailboat, accompanied by a gently flapping seagull. As with all of Ford’s creations, the effect is dazzling.

But is it dazzling enough to capture the attention — let alone the imagination — of audiences grown blase by Hollywood’s brand of digital alchemy?

“That’s concerned me over the years,” Ford admits. “I thought, ‘Oh no — kids will get too sophisticated for my little special effects.’ But the opposite seems to be happening, even as [Hollywood’s effects] get more and more complicated.

“Yoda came out as a digital puppet in the new Star Wars,” he goes on to share. “He’s like a Stephen Spielberg dinosaur — he’s totally digital. All that wonderful facial movement is all digital. … Yeah, he can do anything, but there was something about the original that they didn’t capture in the new one. You know, there was a theatrical element that was missing.”

Ford believes his audiences agree. He demonstrates by bringing out what he calls his “most simple puppet,” a peeper. It’s just a pair of eyes attached to a ring. He slips the peeper on his middle finger and suddenly, his hand is a crocodile. He crooks the peeper finger down and folds his other fingers under; now his hand is an elephant. Now it’s a crab. Now a bird. Like magic.

“Special effects have gotten so sophisticated that they’re beyond the everyday person’s reach,” Ford muses. “And most of it’s on a computer screen or a TV screen, so it’s all two-dimensional. Puppetry is a three-dimensional thing you can hold in your hands.”

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