Parkite and Hollywood veteran Freddie Spencer gives life to puppets
Park City-based puppeteer Freddie Spencer has worked on such films as Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” and as an actor he’s appeared on “The Shield” and will appear in “Yellowstone” next season.
Last year, he introduced two of his original marionettes — CashMan, a Johnny Cash tribute, and Jillie, the Grinding Granny — to The Cabin during a Monday open mic night.
“I waltzed in there one Monday night and talked about performing with a couple of puppets,” Spencer said. “Shannon (Runyon), who coordinates the open mic schedule, looked at me a little sideways and said, ‘Sure, we’ll give it a shot.’”
The performance took the crowd, who were expecting live music, by surprise.
“It was still a lot of fun, because I had never done an open mic with my puppets before,” Spencer said. “I thought about going up at open mics because I have seen a few. I thought it would be a good place to hone my act.”
The experience at The Cabin started Spencer on a roll, and he regularly hits other open mics at the Royal in Salt Lake City and is gearing up to do another Salt Lake club, the Tequila Lounge.
“It’s been an interesting eye opener,” Spencer said. “I’ve never done open mics with puppets. It’s an experience where you never know how it’s going to go.”
Spencer also took his puppets to the Birdland Jazz Club in New York earlier this month.
“They do open mics on Monday night, and what’s amazing is that this is the place where people like Liza Minelli and other Broadway performers come to do some open mics for fun,” he said.
The night Spencer signed up, legendary jazz singer and cabaret performer Marilyn Maye appeared.
Maye, whose 1966 recording of “Too Late Now” is included in the Smithsonian Institution’s “110 Best American Compositions of the 20th Century” album, turned 91 in April and still tours the country.
That night, Spencer approached the open mic’s emcee, James Caruso and asked if he could give it a shot.
“James, who has been hosting the show for 14 years, said he’d fit me in,” Spencer said. “I ended up going third after Marilyn Maye, and it went really well.”
Spencer took advantage of his time in New York and also performed during another open mic at Cleopatra’s Needle, a jazz restaurant on the Upper West Side.
This performance was different because Spencer performed with a live jazz trio.
“There was a piano, bass and drums,” he said. “After getting strange looks from the audience when I unpacked my puppets, I talked with the band and hummed a few chords, and they told me they’d catch up with me and play.”
Spencer also took his marionettes to Las Vegas last spring and performed at the Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrian mall that presents live music on three stages in a rotation format.
During his act, Spencer got into a tussle with one of the audience members over the presentation of one of his puppets, Trixie the exotic dancer.
“Some drunk guy thought she was too risqué, which is funny because showgirls who are dressed the same as my puppet also perform on Fremont Street,” Spencer said with a laugh. “Any this guy comes up and cold-cocked me and my puppet. So, I pepper-sprayed the guy and had him arrested.”
Of all Spencer’s puppets, Trixie is one of his oldest.
“I created her in the late ‘60s, when I worked shows in the Catskill Mountains,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of cruise ship shows with her, too, but I haven’t introduced her at The Cabin, yet.”
Spencer’s fascination with puppets came from his father, who was a magician and puppeteer.
“I would watch him create illusions of magic, and then he would perform the puppet show, ‘Punch and Judy,’” Spencer said. “I would see how he became different people when he took on different roles, and that stuck with me.”
In 1964, Spencer, who had begun working with his own puppets, was hired by Sid and Marty Krofft, known for the children’s TV shows, “The Banana Splits,” “H.R. Puffinstuff” and “Sigmond and the Sea Monsters.”
“I performed with them at the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in New York on their show ‘Le Poupee de Paris,’” Spencer said. “It was an adult puppet show, which is probably why to this day, even though I’ve done shows for children, I enjoy doing shows for adults.”
In the 1980s. Spencer worked for Robert Short Productions, and was hired to create and be the lead puppeteer for Tim Burton’s 1988 film “Beetlejuice,” starring Michael Keaton.
“We had to prove ourselves to Tim and (Geffen Productions) by creating a skeleton that popped out of a coffin,” Spencer said. “We had two weeks to do it, and apparently everyone liked it.”
Burtonhad only directed one feature-length film prior and would often wander into the shop where Spencer and his crew worked.
“Tim would come in with his messy hair and wearing a black trenchcoat and look at what we were doing,” Spencer said. “He was very low key. He’d look around and smile and say, ‘OK,’ and then leave.”
In 1996, Spencer worked on Danny DeVito’s “Matilda,” a children’s film based on the book by Roald Dahl.
“They wanted an effects show with a puppetry angle, even though CGI was starting to come along,” Spencer said.
One of the big scenes Spencer did in “Matilda” featured a sentient book.
“Matilda is in bed and she wants to read a book, and they wanted to have the book come to her and open on its own,” he said. “So they laid me on a dolly, and we had a rod hooked to the book in the bookcase.”
Spencer slid in, grabbed the book with the rod and slid back towards the bed where he flipped a lever that opened the book.
“After I did the scene, they wheeled me into a room that was pitch dark,” he said. “After a few minutes, I get off of the dolly and Danny’s standing right there. He smiled and said, ‘Yeah. This worked good.’”
One of Spencer’s most memorable projects was “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1992 and starred Gary Oldman as the titular undead count.
Spencer had his own effects company, Image Creators, and his friend Don Lewis introduced him to Coppola.
“Don came to me because they wanted him to play Dracula in shadow because he looked almost like Gary Oldman,” Spencer said. “They also wanted my company to create shadow puppets for the opening scenes.”
Spencer and his staff created shadow puppets of impaled victims that ranged from 6 inches to 12 feet tall.
“It was filmed in forced perspective and then Francis would throw actors in front of these scenes,” Spencer said. “I thought it was beautiful.”
Working with Coppola was one of Spencer’s career highlights.
“Francis was golden, and a wonderful guy to work with,” Spencer said. “He could have gone off to do crazy stuff, but he wanted flat shadow puppets. And he treated us very well.”
Recently, Spencer returned to another love: acting.
“I started acting in the late ‘70s, and did some work when I was younger,” he said. “I did a few things, and worked on ‘The Shield,’ with Michael Chiklis.”
After working on a few independent productions in the Salt Lake area, Spencer auditioned for Paramount Network’s “Yellowstone,” starring Kevin Costner.
“I got booked to do a scene with Kevin that will come out next season,” Spencer said. “He was just great to work with. He’s a very giving actor.”
Although Spencer enjoys working on films and on TV, his heart lies in street performing and open mics.
“These things are a whole new thing for me,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder who’s pulling the strings — me or the puppet.”
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