Puppet Makers Pull New Strings

Having a personal portrait made is usually an occasion of dignity and a sign of accomplishment. Usually.

But it's hard to be stately when your portrait comes with a hand hole, a plush nose and googly eyes.

Yet that's what hundreds of Americans have opted for, turning themselves or loved ones into grinning puppet, portraits in plush and pantyhose.

"It makes people smile and laugh," Puppet Artists' Bill Winn said. "You have to have a pretty good sense of humor to see yourself as a puppet and enjoy that. It's a joyful, playful way of having a portrait, because it's something you can look at, and other people can interact with it."

In Minneapolis, Kenwood Puppet Co. owner and puppeteer Molly Ingebrand said it's the perfect gift for the playful person who has everything.

"It's more whimsical than a painting. It's for people who like a more theatrical approach, and it's a plaything too," she said.

Winn and his wife, Marnie, have been transforming people into soft-form puppets for nine years in their workshop in the tiny town of Darby, Mont.

Using pantyhose heads, polyfill stuffing, strategic stitching and miniature costumes, they've turned out everything from finger puppets to life-sized sculptures of in-laws, birthday boys and graduation girls across the country.

But puppet portraiture wasn't a business they'd imagined themselves in. Marnie started out making fantasy puppets of wizards and dragons until a seminal tragedy turned them onto using the faces of living people.

"The business really changed when Jerry Garcia died," Winn said.

Countless Garcias, Jimmy Buffets, Bob Marleys and Jimi Hendrixes later, the Winns found themselves recreating mothers, grandfathers and co-workers. Portraits now make up 60 percent of their business. The couple makes up to 125 puppets a year at about $125 a piece, accoutering each with props like airline bottles of tequila, TV remote controls, cell phones, football uniforms and lab coats.

"(One customer) likes his puppet so much that when he goes to a drive-thru window, he'll put the puppet out and have the puppet talk to the person at the window," Winn said.

Ingebrand has been making hand puppets for her show and other puppeteers for 25 years, but has been making portraits for the last six. Like the Winns, she models her puppets on photographs, but uses a clay mold and papier-mache, then dresses them in outfits like the Civil War general's uniform she made for one client. Her puppets cost about $500, and she makes about 25 a year.

"It's kind of a deep experience when you have a puppet that looks like you and you put it on and play with it," Ingebrand said. "It's pretty intense stuff that comes out. It's the power of the puppet."

Sue Monahan, a 38-year-old sociology professor in Bozeman, Mont., had the likeness of her father, an actor, made into a trident-wielding fisherman in honor of a character he played on an episode of Homicide.

"He loves it," she said. "In fact, I have not told him who made the puppets because I’m afraid he’ll get puppets made of all his friends and they’ll walk around Washington, D.C., like freaks and spend all my inheritance on puppets."

In Houston, sales manager Susan Reposa, 31, had the Winns make a spitting image of her mother in a flight-attendant uniform for her retirement from Delta Airlines.

"It was absolutely the hit of the party. It was hysterical. It looked exactly like her; it was kind of freaky," Reposa said. "People we didn't even know were taking photos of it."

But Ingebrand could see why some people might not be enthusiastic about being put into a position where someone else controls the strings.

"They are caricatures they're loving caricatures but I don't know how I'd feel if someone made a puppet out of me and said, 'Here, this looks like you,'" she said.

Will Monahan, 67, said he loved it.

"I get to see me every day," he said from his home in Washington, D.C. "It's just a wonderful feeling to have a daughter who will think about you that way.

"I'd love to have a Santa Claus or Karl Marx version of myself," he added.