Park City’s world-famous Puppetmaster
March 9, 2012
Puppeteer Freddie "The Stringman" Spencer was the puppeteer for Sid and Marty Krofft’s Saturday-morning kids shows that included "Sigmond and the Sea Monsters," "H.R. Pufnstuf," "Lidsville," and the original "Land of the Lost."
He also worked on Tim Burton’s 1988 horror-comedy "Beetlejuice" and a couple of his key special effect scenes include the giant snake that coils around actress Catherine O’Hara and the bird skull that is formed out of actor Alec Baldwin’s face.
So, what is Spencer, who was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1989 for another Krofft Brothers show called "DC Follies," doing in Park City?
"I’ve lived here for six years and have made bronze sculptures for Park City Jewelers," Spencer said during an interview with The Park Record. "I love to ski and have done some of my own puppet shows during the Park Silly Sunday Market and at the Jim Santy Auditorium."
Also, for the past four years, Spencer has been the headliner at the No Strings Attached Puppetry Festival, at the Salt Lake Library, This year’s festival will be held on Saturday and Sunday, March 10 and 11. Spencer will perform Sunday at 3 p.m.
He is also scheduled to perform during the three-day grand opening of the City Creek Center from March 22 though 24 in Salt Lake City.
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Spencer’s performances feature up to 14 different puppets, depending on how long he’ll be on stage.
Some of the characters include a juggling bear named Bruno, a magical clown known as Kiko and Leevenstein, a concert pianist.
A new addition to his character corral is a pelican that wants to be Lady Gaga.
"She does an impersonation during a Lady Gaga revue that includes two other more realistic looking Gagas," Spencer said. "I think the kids will like it very much."
Spencer’s road to Park City began in Upstate New York where he watched his father, perform magic tricks and manipulate puppets.
"At very young age, I go into this magic and puppet world, and while my dad was mostly a magician, he would do Punch and Judy shows, which are an old-style of performing with puppets that was founded in Europe," Spencer explained.
Although he was fascinated by his father’s work with hand puppets, it was the string-guided marionettes that captivated a young Spencer.
"I was seven when I saw the Salzburg Marionette Company from Austria perform," he said. "They had a traveling troupe that came to New York and I saw them do ‘Snow White & the Seven Dwarves’ and was just mesmerized by these full-sized characters on strings."
After the show, Spencer went home and made his own cardboard marionettes.
"That was it for me," he said. "From then on, I could only think about puppetry."
Throughout his formative years, Spencer learned about performing from his father.
" the time I was eight and nine, my dad threw me into his show and I would do a 10-minute portion, and I got a real taste for working in front of an audience," he said.
With a mentor like his father, he never felt it necessary to attend a performance-art school to hone his craft.
"All my background with puppetry came through my own endeavors, and I took to the form very easily," he said. "I found I had a natural ability to perform with a string marionette, and at that time, in the 1950s, those types of puppets were very popular with Bill Baird’s Marionettes and TV shows like ‘Howdy Doody.’"
During his teens, Spencer performed at the Lake George Amusement Park, and at that time, Sid and Marty Krofft recruited him for a show called ‘Les Poupees de Paris,’ which means ‘The Dolls of Paris.’
"A friend introduced me to them, because they were looking for marionette artists," Spencer said. "I ended up performing with 10 puppeteers and was booked for the World’s Fair in New York City in 1964, and that was my first taste of high-end professionalism."
That was when Spencer became known as "The Stringman" because he was also able to repair and restring puppets at that time.
"That was another thing my dad taught me," he said.
After the fair closed, Spencer performed on cruise ships and in the Catskill Mountains and then rejoined the Krofft brothers in California to work on "Sigmond," "Pufnstuff" and "Land of the Lost."
The Kroffts also opened up shows at the Six Flags amusement parks in Dallas, Texas, and Atlanta, Ga., and appointed Spencer their lead puppeteer
In the late ’70s, Spencer moved back to Los Angeles and caught the acting bug and did bit parts in film and TV and was on the Gong Show a few times.
"I got back into puppetry with the Kroffts and worked with Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters and various comedy specials," he said. "During one of those specials, I was able to work with Jim Henson. He was there with his Muppets, and I was there with the Krofft puppets.
"He was a great guy and creative genius," Spencer said.
One of his most enjoyable projects was "DC Follies," featuring an upcoming star named Fred Willard.
"That was a syndicated political-satire TV show, which I think would be phenomenal today," Spencer said with a laugh. "In fact, I called Marty a month ago and said, ‘We should start this up again.’"
In 1987, he was contacted by Tim Burton to work on "Beetlejuice."
"It was back before those (computer-generated imagery) effects and I worked with a team who created all the puppet characters and special effects for the film," he said. "Alec Baldwin, Michael Keaton, Catherine and Wynona Rider were wonderful to work with."
Other projects Spencer’s company, Image Creators, worked on included films such as "Matilda," "Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula," "Tank Girl," "Clean Slate" and "House of 1,000 Corpses."
One of the more recent projects was 2004’s "Team America, World Police," which was produced by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of "South Park" fame.
"The challenge came when the industry swayed toward CGI effects, so I closed the company down and moved to Park City," he said. Through my management company, I was put in touch with the various Salt Lake Libraries and began performing for them."
In the past six years, Spencer, with the help of co-designer Sue Larsen and sound producer Lee Shuster, has expanded his craft to include string, hand and rod puppets and has performed in Brigham City, Provo, Orem and Salt Lake City.
"I haven’t worked a library up here in Park City, but I did do a show at the Jim Santy Auditorium during the Park City Film Series’ screening of Frank Oz’s ‘Death at a Funeral,’" he said. "It was fun and we all had a good time. It was a wonderful venue."
Freddie "The Stringman" Spencer will perform at the Salt Lake City Library during the No Strings Attached Puppetry Festival, at the Salt Lake Library, that runs from Saturday, March 10, through Sunday, March 11. Spencer’s performance will begin Sunday at 3 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit http://www.slcpl.lib.ut.us/events/view/1043/ or http://www.spencermarionettes.com