With all the higher-tech options everywhere, it's endearing that, even today, inserting a hand into a sock and pretending it can talk enchants children, who happily suspend disbelief.
But puppets can charm us at any age. And even the simplest ones, transformed by movement, can act out fables, poke fun at taboos or demonstrate basic life lessons.
Detroiter Deborah Ellis-Hawkes, 48, loved puppets so much she turned her nearly lifelong infatuation with them into a small business, opening a shop in a renovated storefront on James Couzens Drive near Schaefer Highway on Detroit's west side.
Puppets and Stuff sells all varieties, from finger puppets to large hand puppets with melon-sized heads, to rod puppets and marionettes, each with a distinct identity expressed in unique details.
"If you related to it as a child you just carry it over into adulthood," says Ellis-Hawkes, who's tall, enthusiastic and prone to sudden outbursts of singing and mimicry. "It's just something you still love."
When she bought the intimate space in 2004, it was strictly for storage and rehearsals. "I just came here to create shows," says Ellis-Hawkes. "I didn't even open it up to the public." Three years later, she sank money into it, adding cabinets and display shelves, and refurbishing an old fireplace.
"It's been wonderful. The only obstacle I've had is I've already had a break-in. It broke my heart. Since then, I got my alarm system and put my bars up. I didn't want to have to put bars up."
She fell in love with the art form in her early teens, pursued it at as a theater major at Wayne State University, and got a job with the City of Detroit Puppeteers, performing at recreation centers or from a Puppetmobile — back when Detroit was still budgeting for a significant amount of cultural programming.
The city job lasted from 1976 to 1981, until she graduated from college and began a career in human resources. "Once I got my bachelor's degree I went to corporate America. What a mistake that was. I kept doing puppetry, though. I never put puppets down." In the meantime, she married and had four children.
She's performed at "Breakfast with Santa" at the downtown Hudson's and the "Christmas at Cobo" celebration, and brought her shows to local parades, after-school programs, the Michigan State Fair, the Detroit Historical Museum and Greenfield Village. A member of the Detroit Puppeteers Guild, she credits the group with her training and progress in her skills.
Ellis-Hawkes has used puppetry for everything from school presentations to therapy with senior citizens. Shows for adults include mature themes and a bit more innuendo. Most of the stories she writes are based on fairy tales and fables such as "The Frog Prince," "The Fisherman and His Wife" and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," and range from 10-minute vignettes to 40-minute epics. "If I can make them laugh through puppetry, then they learn something," she says. "It's teaching the kids in a subliminal way."
Her favorite pieces are those in her black history collection, featuring likenesses of George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman and Thurgood Marshall. They're rod puppets, affixed to small handles. "Some puppets, like these, don't even have to move; just the appearance of them is cool," she says. "Those are the ones you make to be most beautiful."
The historical puppets star in a show about a student who is assigned to write a report. "There was a need for this information, and there were very few puppeteers that approached that subject matter," she says. "There aren't many minority puppeteers to bring my culture or background to a subject like that. It's easy to do fairy tales and fables, because you can make them funny, but it's harder to accurately depict something close to your heart like black history."
Along with selling premade puppets ranging in price from $1 to $125, she'll make a puppet in the likeness of anyone if given a photo, transforming friends and loved ones into goofy cloth caricatures for about $75. She also holds workshops at the shop, providing materials and lessons in how to animate the puppets, though the store's schedule is still arranged around her day job.
Although it's mostly adults who take the workshops and purchase the puppets, it's the kids who react most naturally and joyously to them. "It's like magic to children," she says. "Puppets create a type of safe venue to communicate and play. They can use their imagination without fear of repercussions. It's just magical."
Puppets and Stuff is located at 18307 James Couzens Drive, Detroit; 313-341-4152.Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org