A theater troupe’s African American marionettes
  • Reader seeks identity of Hazelle’s African American marionette
  • It’s magic!
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    Worker by day turns after-hours into magic & marionettes

    I wasn’t sure who would buy the marionettes. They had belonged to a theater company that apparently had stored and forgotten them. Their clothes were aged and their strings were an entangled mess.

    I purchased about 10 of them several years ago at auction and recently decided it was time to part with them. I sold the first of the marionettes on eBay. It was a hand-carved wooden male African American lounge crooner in gold lame jacket and black slacks reminiscent of the 1950s. I was hoping that he went to the home of someone who appreciated his history and workmanship.

    Now, I was ready to let go of a red-headed (well, actually orange-haired) wooden female figure. When the eBay buyer wrote me a nice note, I knew that this was someone who understood her significance. “I’m excited about this acquisition, since it is one-of-a-kind, and a retired ‘trouper,'” he wrote.

    Alan Wassilak's marionettes

    Alan Wassilak and his Dancing Santa, which started out as a pet toy. When it says “Ho, Ho, Ho,” its head unexpectedly moves up and down.

    I Googled the buyer’s name, and learned that Alan Wassilak (also known as “Alan the Uncanny”) was a magician/cartoonist/book illustrator who worked for a filtration company in Massachusetts. It seemed an odd employment for someone who obviously loses himself in the art of giving life to objects of entertainment.

    I wondered if he would use the female marionette in his shows. “I do plan to eventually work up an act with marionettes that will supplement my magic performances, and/or do something with marionettes separately,” he wrote, adding, “The lady I just acquired from you appears to have LOTS of charm and personality. I look forward to seeing how she will express herself when she starts moving. It always seems as if they come to life on their own, even to me!”

    “Magic fascinates me just as much as it does many people, even if we know it’s not real. It requires us adults to dispense with our realistic view of the world and summon the imagination we gave up as we matured.”

    Alan Wassilak's marionettes

    A tall – and heavy – harem dancer with lots of strings. “I am a bit intimidated by her,” Alan Wassilak says.

    Now, I was curious about him and this hobby of his that incorporated magic and marionettes. I asked Wassilak, who appeared to be pretty well known in magic circles, to share his story:

    Question:

    How and when did you get into magic?

    Answer:

    I was fascinated as a small child by the magicians I saw on television in the 1950s. At the age of 7, I received a magic set as a Christmas gift, and occasionally an adult family friend or relative would show me a magic trick that they knew, and then teach it to me. As I grew older I started taking out library books on the subject of magic, and I devoured their contents. Soon, I was putting on short magic shows for my family.

    My parents encouraged me to do shows for dinner guests, and to take some magic with me to perform when we were guests at other peoples’ homes. My efforts were well received, which was encouraging. I also performed in school and church variety shows. In my junior and senior year in high school, I did some paid shows for private birthday parties.

    I laid magic aside when I entered college, but once one has been bitten by the “magic bug,” it never really leaves you. In the meantime, I had become involved in amateur theater as a writer, performer and once as a director. At age 30, I returned to magic performing – initially just for my relatives again – but my approach and technique were improved by my amateur theatrical experience. I now felt that I knew what I was supposed to be accomplishing when I was performing: not just doing tricks, but creating a magical persona with comical overtones and creating the illusion of impossible things happening in my presence.

    Alan Wassilak's marionettes

    Shelves of items in Alan Wassilak’s “Magic Room” hold more than just magic items. The fake skulls are for display only.

    Question:

    How did you choose the name “Alan the Uncanny”?

    Answer:

    The name came with my new adult magical persona. I wanted a name that sounded both mystical – and funny. Another passion of mine is comedy (which I also loved to watch on TV as a kid), so I decided to add large dollops of humor to my magic shows by playing a character to whom strange, impossible things happen – while trying to do something entirely different. The magic can occur in spite of his efforts, not because of them. My character is not a bumbler; just sometimes out of control. (Aren’t we all, to some degree?)

    Question:

    What does your show consist of and where do you perform?

    Answer:

    For the most part, my shows are stand-up style performances for small or large groups. I can perform pretty much the same material for any age group. Although I aspire to professional values and hopefully give the impression that I’m a working professional, I am chiefly an amateur. I do the occasional paid show for birthday parties and holiday parties. Most of my performing nowadays is done at magic club meetings, where I try out new material. Creating my own original routines is as much fun as performing them. (Here’s a YouTube video of a 2015 performance. As I watched his magic tricks, I tried to figure out how he did that.)

    Question:

    Do adults and children still believe in magic and the entertainment it offers?

    Answer:

    Small children believe that magic is real, as did I when I was very young. Older children know that it isn’t real, but they wish that it was. Older children and many adults think that they have all the answers – until they find out that they don’t. And this is true about real life, not just about a magic show. We do NOT know everything, and are constantly filled with wonder and astonishment. The trick is to enjoy that wonder as often as possible, rather than let it disturb us. I make a point of that in the serious closing remarks I make in my shows.

    Alan Wassilak's marionettes

    Two marionettes made by Alan Wassilak: “Mr. Chips,” at left, has arms and legs made of paper clips, and body of cardboard. The  belly dancer, reconstructed from a dollar-store doll, is a “bit of a flirt with the guys.”

    Question:

    Has working the magic changed you in any way?

    Answer:

    This is a tough one to answer. I’ll try it from this angle: performing magic has added much to my understanding of human nature and human behavior. Watching people act and interact in general – not just how they react as audiences — has always been, I think, my prime interest in life. It would certainly explain my focus on comedy writing and cartooning, which is fueled by a desire to humorously comment on what I observe.

    Question:

    How did you get into marionettes? Did they evolve from your magic show?

    Answer:

    Puppets and magic began for me as separate interests, though I eventually, after several years, realized the connection between the two: both magic and puppets create illusions. Magic is the illusion of impossible events made possible; puppetry is the illusion of independent life. And it is not unusual for a magician to introduce a puppet in his act, either as an interesting diversion or as a participating “actor” in a magical drama.

    But as a kid, magicians on TV made me interested in magic, and puppets on TV made me interested in puppets. Of course for me, the most obvious regular example of marionette work was on the immortal “Howdy Doody Show.” But there were other puppeteers on television as well, such as Bil Baird’s marionettes, Burr Tillstrom’s “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” and talented ventriloquists with puppet figures, including Paul Winchell and Shari Lewis among many others.

    Alan Wassilak's marionettes

    Alan Wassilak as a snake charmer. He made the single-string marionette himself, attaching it to a flute that controls the movement and provides the music.

    Question:

    How do you use marionettes in your shows?

    Answer:

    I’ve had a marionette gnome read the mind of an audience member, miming the identity of a randomly selected playing card that the person was thinking of, the face of which I did not see myself when it was selected. I have done a similar card revelation with a self-crafted, one-stringed snake puppet that I “charmed” out of a basket with a flute. … I also strolled among my relatives with a marionette at a family reunion. In all these cases, just having a stringed figure interacting with folks caused quite a buzz, because a marionette is such a rare thing to see these days by adults and a totally new experience for kids. Also, I enjoyed the improvisational aspect of the experience, having the figure interact with the spectators and responding to their reactions.

    Question:

    Are marionettes and puppets the same?

    Answer:

    In France, all puppets are called marionettes. Everywhere else a marionette is, specifically, a string puppet.

    Question:

    Tell me about your marionette collection.

    Answer:

    I started with four toy marionettes that I’ve had since I was a child. This is all I owned until I added one – a Pelham Puppets juggling clown — which I won at an auction of magic props sometime in the 1980s or ’90s. I got it for fifty cents, but it was worth far, far more than that. It was the acquisition in 2007 (at another magic auction) of that gnome marionette I mentioned – a restored figure that had been part of a professional troupe during the Great Depression which was sponsored by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) – that started the ball rolling and has led to my owning so many marionettes now that I have trouble finding places to hang them all – even in a very large apartment.

    A rough count, currently, comes to approximately 285 marionettes, in various conditions of repair or restoration. (He has marionettes representing Myanmar/Burma, India, Nepal,  Sri Lanka, China, Mexico and the United States.)

    Alan Wassilak's marionettes

    Alan Wassilak with “Gnorman the Gnome,” who is seen here at a magic collectors’ club banquet. Wassilek introduces him as “Guh-norman the Guh-nome.”

    Question:

    What’s the thing about marionettes that excites you?

    Answer:

    What excites me the most is how quickly and simply a marionette will seem to come to life once one starts manipulating it – or even just holding it still from above and letting its limbs dangle! The more one practices with a figure, the more one gets the feeling that it is capable of independent thought and action. Like Pinocchio, a string puppet can seem to become his or her own person. The late, great Russian marionette master Igor Fokin once said in a documentary on his work that sometimes he felt that he wasn’t holding on to their strings in order to control them; he was holding their strings in order to keep them from running away! I feel much the same way.

    Question:

    Now, tell me a little about yourself. Your day job doesn’t seem like one for someone who “believes” in and entertains with magic.

    Answer:

    The above-named passions, among others, are my life. I have been unable to get them to support me, nor does that bother me. For a living, I perform administrative work – an office job – for Filter Sales & Service Inc. which is – you guessed it — a distributor of filters and filtration products.

    Having a regular day job is not without its daily challenges (which are satisfying to deal with since I am a problem-solver by nature). It allows me plenty of opportunity to observe human nature in action (which I can use when I’m writing); it gives me work benefits not available to full-time freelancers or entertainers (except for the major stars who have their own agents and managers), and it provides that much-needed commodity: job security.

    I “believe” in magical entertainment, but I live in the world of reality. I have no problem with that. I can entertain as a “full-time” pursuit – to a large crowd or to a single person – in the act of living my daily life. I have achieved plenty of excitement and fulfillment in doing so.

    Female marionette

    The female marionette that Alan Wassilak purchased.

     

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    1 Comment

    1. I was an audience member for many performances of Alan the Uncanny and they were most enjoyable! It is something you just can’t talk about but must experience since the humor is the uniqueness. I just never realized he had so many marionettes. That is remarkable. Great interview and see Alan if you get a chance. Oh yeah even though I’m a relative I didn’t get paid! I really enjoyed his shows.

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