Master puppeteer to grace the Santy stage | ParkRecord.com
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Master puppeteer to grace the Santy stage

ANNA BLOOM, Of the Record staff

At the end of the month, Freddie "The Stringman" Spencer plans to conduct 30 puppets in 15 minutes to the Nutcracker Ballet with the Orchestra of Sandy and the 60-member Heralders Chorus. At one moment he will operate a colony of penguins; next a graceful dance of rose-headed ballerinas marionettes he has crafted by hand; movements he has choreographed himself.

But first, Spencer will perform this Thursday and Friday evening before audiences at the Santy Auditorium see the Park City Film Series screening of "Death at a Funeral."

In preparation, Spencer is rehearsing a 10-minute sketch with his lizard hand puppet, Lennie Bobo Burns. Wearing a black suit with a red kerchief in his left breast pocket, Lennie is seven years old and made of foam. He was, for obvious reasons, conceived during Spencer’s ’89-’90 stint as Las Vegas entertainer. Though less than three-feet high and green, the puppet bears an uncanny resemblance to the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, especially when Spencer’s gravely voice helps him crack a joke.

Lennie’s act will feature improv supplemented by performances to numbers by the Isley Brothers, and John Lee Hooker, Jr. as well as an impersonation of Frank Sinatra, during which Lennie holds a wooden cigarette.

Joining Lennie on stage will be Trixi Nice who, at 30 years, is one of Spencer’s oldest marionettes. Trixi is a silent stripper and a marionette — "not dirty, but on the blue side," Spencer says, adding that she is typically reserved fro late-night acts. He remembers first performing with Trixi when he lived in New York City and traveled to Montreal and Quebec, opening for singers like Fats Domino.

Spencer will also be debuting one of his new rod-puppet ballerinas that he will debut in the Nutcracker: a slight, green puppet with a rose head ballerina called "Rose," with an ostridge plume tutu assembled by Park City seamstress Sue Larson.

Though an R-rated comedy, "Death at a Funeral" was directed by Frank Oz, the muppeteer behind the G-rated Miss Piggy. There are no puppets in the film, but Oz is a man Spencer, 63, shares a lot in common with. Both men, at one time or another, worked for Muppets creator Jim Hensen. Both men also worked in the Los Angeles film industry for decades, making their mark first for the child entertainment, and then for more mature audiences.

Before moving to Park City two years ago, Spencer ran an L.A.-based special effects company for 15 years. His work can be seen in Tim Burton’s "Beetlejuice," during the shrunken head waiting room scene and also in the irreverent political puppet film by "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, "Team America: World Police." Spencer worked with Francis Ford Coppola on "Bram Stoker’s Dracula," and with musicians on special effects for music videos, including ZZ Top and Garth Brooks. In Gwen Stefani’s video for her song "Sweet Escape," Spencer created the puppet dove that joins Stefani in her golden prison cell.

"I’m really open to anything film, T.V. anything," says Spencer.

Indeed, Spencer says he continues to enjoy his younger audience. His face lights up when he talks about teaching puppetry last at Park City’s after school kids program, Arts-Kids, making characters out of Styrofoam heads.

However, puppeteers aren’t what they once were in the 1950s and 1960s with television shows like "Howdy Doody," and film segments like Bill Baird’s marionette performance in the "Sound of Music" the era during which Spencer’s father worked a magician and puppeteer in New York. In the entertainment industry, a puppeteer’s expertise is being replaced by computer animation, according to Spencer, and in his opinion, to the industry’s detriment. "It doesn’t have the same look," he argues. "I still believe there needs to be a combination of people, puppetry and computers Tom Cruise’s movie, ‘War of the Worlds’ looked so flat."

"There’s something magical about puppets," says Spencer. "There’s a non-threatening thing that people gravitate toward."

Freddie "The Stringman" Spencer will perform Thursday, Nov. 22 and Friday, Nov. 23 at the Santy Auditorium at 7:50 p.m. The Santy Auditorium is located at 1255 Park Ave.

The Orchesra and Chorus of Sandy will present Spencer on Friday, Nov. 30 and Saturday, Dec. 1 at 8 pm. at 8600 S. 700 East. Visit oc-sc.org for more information.


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