Since the Roots N Blues N Barbecue festival moved from downtown Columbia to Stephens Lake Park, festivalgoers have been greeted by larger-than-life puppets that light up and moved throughout the park. The puppets were provided by the Astral Gypsies, but this year, they weren’t coming to the festival.
So the art crew decided it would make its own. Only, there was a small problem.
“So, none of us really know how to make puppets,” Art Crew and Visuals Director Lisa Bartlett said, “The one person I knew that did who has made puppets, was Anne Jacobson, who has made puppets in the past, and so she agreed to make the puppets.”
A retired art teacher, Anne Jacobson did have experience making larger puppets. Her first challenge was figuring out who these puppets would emulate. She decided on two blues icons: BB King and Billie Holiday.
“BB King is so well known, and also he’s very flamboyant. He wears brocade jackets and wears big bauble-y rings and with Billie Holiday, I looked and looked at all the female blues singers and she was the most elegant. She wore the big gardenias in her hair and she always wore a string of pearls and, you know she just was quite elegant. So that’s why I picked her,” Jacobson said.
When Jacobson first thought about the design for these puppets, she was inspired by a recent trip to Mexico and thought about building Day of the Dead style creations. But afraid of scaring festival attendees, she decided to switch to frogs.
Before she got started, Jacobson contacted a company in the United Kingdom that makes similar puppets to see if it would give her any advice.
“Surprisingly they wrote me back, and told me what materials to use,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson built the puppets’ heads out of basketry reed, packing tape, white tissue paper and other materials. While she felt comfortable with building the heads, she knew she needed a team to complete the puppets.
Dan Goldstein was the puppet engineer. He helped with both the frames and the lights so the puppets would glow. According to Goldstein, the frog puppets presented an interesting challenge.
“We laugh a lot about it because, you want to make something that the proportions are correct. If you’re making a human body or if you’re making a frog, but there’s not a lot of literature on an amorphous half-frog, half-person playing a guitar. So we kind of had to make a little bit of it up,” Goldstein said.
The construction of the puppets was only one part of the project. They also had to be dressed. Carol Brown was the head seamstress. She used glitter sheer, tissue lame and even spray paint to create the garments. Brown enjoyed this project because it wasn’t a typical sewing job for her.
“I spend a lot of time making curtains, which are big rectangles, and it’s really fun to work with glitter and lame and giant frogs and all these people,” Brown said.
Jacobson also received help from Mira Stoddart, who built the guitar for the BB King puppet. As a guitar player herself, Stoddart tried to make it as accurate as possible. Stoddart also had to use an unconventional material: a shower curtain.
“It happened to be a leftover shower curtain that I had just gotten done with a project at my house. It’s like a prismatic, clear shower curtain and it looked really good with the lights behind it,” Stoddart said.
Once the puppets were finished, the team needed puppeteers to wear them and navigate the park. Alex White and Cody Struckhoff originally wanted to juggle at the festival. When they approached the festival, they were told they could perform juggling acts, as long as they became puppeteers too. Both agreed.
“I’m just excited about making people smile,” Struckoff said.
When the frogs finally made their debut at the festival, the reception was more than Jacobson could have expected. The puppeteers couldn’t make their full route around the area because of all of the attention from attendees.
“It’s hard for them to get anywhere because everybody wants a picture with them. They basically just have to stay still and one person after another come up. The groups are four deep, taking pictures of them,” Jacobson said.
As far as next year, Jacobson hopes to add to her puppet arsenal, but she’s planning on maybe scaling down on the size.
“I think I’d pick something a lot more simple next time. We can do fabulous puppets that are very very simple,” Jacobson said