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Puppets coming out of storage

New Ulm Puppet Wagon will return for regular performances this summer

Photo by Clay Schuldt Healthy Community Health Youths Director Sheldon Rieke shows one of the older puppets in the Puppet Wagon collection.

NEW ULM — The puppet wagon is returning to New Ulm Parks this summer after a year off.

The puppet wagon will ride again starting the weekend of June 14 and will be out through the next five weeks with a final performance at the Brown County Fair. The wagon had to take a hiatus in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, but Park and Recreation and the team at Healthy Community Healthy Youth (HCHY) will be able to bring puppet entertainment to New Ulm children again.

The puppet wagon has a long history in New Ulm. It was created sometime in the 1960s, but the exact date it was created is something of a mystery. The program was originally initiated by New Ulm’s first full-time recreation director, Larry Kobs. Kobs became director in 1964 and worked hard to expand city offerings. Other documents indicated the original puppet wagon was painted by artist Steve Krammer, who graduated from New Ulm High School in 1966. Old photos of the first puppet wagon show an inscription that it was donated by the New Ulm Welcome Wagon. This a former welcoming committee that operated in New Ulm in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the early days, the puppet wagon would travel around town and park wherever children were present and perform. The wagon was equipped with a sound system and would usually connect to a local house for electricity.

Over the years, many people — usually teenagers — worked in the puppet wagon. By the 1970s, the wagon was being hauled between parks for performances. In the early 1980s, the wagon was damaged in a fire and was reconstructed by Rachelle Perry and Darla Olson. Eventually, a new wagon was constructed to resemble the original. Despite the reconstruction, the puppet wagon fell out of fashion for a time. Park and Rec put the wagon into storage for years but was revived by Annette Perry around 2004.

Perry has a huge passion for the puppet wagon that continues to this day. She said the children can relate to puppets and it inspires their imagination. Perry believes the wagon is a huge benefit to the community and a source of education for children.

In the early 2000s, Perry asked Girl Scout Rebecca Henle and her Girl Scout Troop to revive the puppet wagon. Henle would even serve as coordinator for the wagon until 2009. Since then, the puppet wagon has remained a New Ulm staple. The wagon was rebuilt again in 2013 but was still modeled after the previous two wagons.

The puppet wagon has always been part of Park and Recreation, but in recent years the operation has been funded through the Optimist Club. Park and Recreation have previously struggled with finding people to run the wagon, but HCHY was able to step in and fill the position. For nearly a decade the performers behind the puppets in the puppet wagon have been SPOTS (Students Performing On Tough Situations) members.

Last week HCHY Director Sheldon Rieke held the first meeting with SPOTS students on how the puppet wagon will be organized this year. This year’s Puppet Wagon crew will include SPOTS performers Graham Wilkins, Tanner Dorschner, Emma Neet and Biana Prescott. The puppet wagon needs four performers each season to run smoothly. The wagon is only large enough to fit three performers at a time. The fourth performer serves as a substitute when a co-worker needs a break.

Working in the puppet wagon is a non-traditional summer job, but the SPOTS students enjoy the work. Wilkins said it could be a source of confusion among his relatives when they asked him what he did for a summer job. He would have to explain he played with puppets in a wagon. Wilkins admitted it was kind of weird that a group of high school students was climbing in a wagon to play with puppets.

Submitted photo The 2019 Puppet Wagon performers Kayla Adema, Josie Ringhoffer and Abigail Allen introduce their puppets to their young audience.

Dorschner agreed that puppet wagon performer was a difficult entry to explain on a resume.

The SPOTS actors said there are pros and cons to puppet acting over full-body acting. The top benefit is remembered lines. The actors can have the script in the wagon for reference. The puppet wagon does have a working sound system to help the performers project. This year each performer will have their microphone. In past seasons they shared a microphone, which could be difficult to hand back and forth when one hand is already operating a puppet.

The performers said the greatest challenge of working the puppet wagon is sore arms. Wilkins said a puppet operator has to hold their arm up without rest for hours and it can be a strain.

“Especially the dancing,” Tanner Dorschner said. “You’re just basically flailing your arm around.”

One trick of professional puppet actors is to switch the puppet to a different hand in between performances.

Photo by Clay Schuldt Above, The Puppet Wagon has close to 100 different puppets. The puppets range from old sock puppets to modern elaborately design puppets.

SPOTS students are determining which plays to perform this year. In past years, the puppet wagon would perform a 20-minute show at each park stop, this year Dorschner suggested doing two 10 minutes plays instead. The group agreed by consensus that it would be more interesting for the younger audience to see two plays. Keeping children entertained is one of the main goals of the puppet wagon.

Optimist Club member Susan Fix said one of the reasons her organization continues to help fund the wagon is because it is for kids.

“Anything that is for kids we want to support and keep free,” Fix said. The mobility of the wagon allows the puppet performances to reach children all over New Ulm.

Rieke confirmed that the wagon is a huge draw. “The little kids love it,” he said. “A lot of day cares come to see it.”

One unfortunate side effect of COVID is the children will have to keep their distance from the puppets this season.

In the top photo, Bobbi McCrea as Cowardly the Lion, Shelly Reinking as Leaping Lizard or similar and Jane Laraway working in the 1979 Puppet Wagon troupe.

“My favorite thing is at the end of the show (the puppeteers) go out with the puppet,” Rieke said. “Normally the kids would come up and hug the puppets after performances or pet them.”

For social distancing reasons, the children will not be able to make direct contact with the puppets this year.

The puppet wagon, a summertime favorite for all ages, will feature shows 20-30 minutes long and will have weekly performances June 14-July 22 at various parks around New Ulm.

The wagon will be keeping the same schedule. Monday at German Park, Tuesday at Harman, Highland and Lincoln. Thursday Washington, North Park and Hermann Heights Parks. Each week the performers do the same plays at each park The next week the plays switch to something different.

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