I’m sitting alone at the bar of the Nathan Hale Inn on the campus of the University of Connecticut. It’s late on a Monday night, and other than a couple in the corner and a solitary woman sitting two bar stools down from me, the joint is deserted. I had been fantasizing about maybe hooking up with some hot, up-and-coming Basil Twist–type–or maybe even Basil himself–and this desire had drawn me out of my dorm room, across the parking lot, and into the hotel.
This is because I’m at the Puppeteers of America National Puppetry Festival, and it’s very possible that Twist, puppeteer darling of the Downtown avant-garde, might actually be here, and he and I could resume our previous chat from the last time we spoke, when I was “dancing” stark naked for Daniel Nardicio at The Cock a few years back. He had seemed to respond favorably to my, umm, manual manipulation that evening, and, well, you never know, greater things have been built on less. He might remember me–if I prompt him a little. Okay, a lot. (Basil, if you’re reading this, I’d be happy to trade observations on materiality with you any day.)
The Nathan Hale Inn has such a charming colonial ring to it! I had pictured a ye olde roaring fire and wood paneling and salmon-colored wingback chairs with deep embroidered cushions. I had imagined the Twist and me sipping martinis (with a twist, natch) and talking about our futures in the puppetry field, knowing all along that we were really only going to have This Brief Moment Together. But there’s no Basil or even a Basil substitute to be seen. And the bar has all the character of a HoIiday Inn on the interstate with none of the characters. So I’m just watching the eleven o’clock Hartford news, bored out of mind.
In addition to compulsive sexual acting out, however, I’m also at the bar because the opening reception for the festival had turned out to be a colossal let down. This is primarily due to the decided lack of alcohol—there’s not even a shitty Chardonnay anywhere in the house—and the decided presence of ice cream cake. I can’t tell if the organizers settled on a teetotalling Carvel party because the attendees are infantilized in popular culture all the time so why stop now or because the last thing the people in charge wanted on their hands was a bunch of pent-up puppeteers, many of whom spend a lot of time around children, finally getting to cut loose. After a week at UConn, I suspect that it’s definitely the latter.
The woman sitting at the bar suddenly turns to me. “What are you drinking?” The night has either finally gotten interesting or taken a turn for the worse. I tear myself away from the fascinating cold front advancing on northeastern Connecticut and say, “Sauvignon Blanc.” “Bartender, give this guy another of whatever he’s drinking and one more for me.”
We start chatting. She’s a puppeteer. Her stuff is primarily geared towards kids, and I can tell pretty quickly that I probably won’t like her work if I end up having to sit through it during the festival, but I like her. She’s a ballsy, loud bottle blond who’s had a bit too much to drink already. She’s from Yonkers, and she’s got the Accent to prove it.
The puppetry world is pretty much like the rest of theatre: you have your stars, like Twist, and your wannabes, like my drinking buddy. These can further be subdivided into the ones who will kill you to get a headlining act in Vegas and the ones who will kill you to get a Guggenheim grant. While I tend to gravitate toward the latter, I actually prefer the former. At least they don’t mask their ambitions under the pretensions of art.
Suddenly, the bar is full of people. Maybe puppeteers are so accustomed to being invisible during performance that they acquire stealth powers in life, but all I know is one minute the two of us are the foreground of the frame and the next we’re extras in someone else’s movie. My companion’s eyes fixate on someone behind me. “Omigod” she says in a reverent whisper “that’s Leslie Carrara-Rudolph.” I have no idea what the fuck she’s talking about. “Abby Cadabby on Sesame Street.”
Leslie is sitting at a booth with an older man, who seems to be a big deal. The focus of the entire room is on the two of them. Someone—an assistant, an acolyte?—brings out a Stan Laurel puppet and hands it to him. She produces her own puppet. I instantly dislike her. She’s got that little girl schtick that I find nauseating in any woman older than 18. “Look at me, I’m cute.” Everything is high-pitched and babyish. And grandpa is lapping it up. They are basking in the attention, openly flirting through the indirect vector of the puppets.
The crowd clusters. The improv climaxes. Everyone applauds.
Two days later I’m sitting in the main theater for the festival, and the older man is being honored. He is Chuck McCann. I have never heard of him, but he is revered in puppetry circles. He IS a Big Deal. They show clips of his TV appearances in the 1950s and 60s. He reminisces about almost running over Ed Sullivan one afternoon on Park Avenue.
I am judging this man, I’ll admit. His humor is tired. I’m annoyed that he turned Judy Garland into a marionette–and a boring one at that. (I mean, wasn’t she already?) And, well, he’s a white, heterosexual male. And then he does something so corny, so cheesy, so VEGAS, and yet so sincere, that I can’t help falling in love with him. As he’s being led off the stage by Carrara-Rudolph after receiving his puppeteer lifetime achievement award, or whatever the fuck it was, he stops and he gazes down into the front row.
“And I couldn’t have done any of it without that woman sitting right there. She’s the one who really made this happen.”
He points to his wife of 50 years, and I burst into tears.