By Bonnie Williamson
A place where a kid and a parent can be a kid. That place is Wonderment Puppet Theater at 412 W. King Street in Martinsburg.
"We want children to run around and be kids. We have balloons on the floor. A hallway that is touchy touch, made up of puppets and materials puppets can be made out of.
Children can touch the puppets and make their own. And, in that same hallway, parents can see pictures of the many puppeteers who were a part of their childhood. Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob, Fred Rogers, Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop. Expect the unexpected here," says Joe Santoro, the man behind Wonderment Puppet Theater. Literally.
Santoro is the only puppeteer, but not a one-man show. His many characters are the main event. He has more than 50 puppets. He and his puppet pals perform six different shows a year, twice a day on Saturday and Sunday. Shows are recycled every two years except for "Peter Rabbit" and the "Nutty Nutcracker." Those two shows take place every year.
Santoro does most of the voices but some are prerecorded with his voice and the voices of other friends. "He makes all the puppets. He knows what he wants. He can look at just about anything and visualize a puppet and a personality for that puppet," says Santoro's wife Jane.
Santoro, who is originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up watching Warner Brothers' cartoons, like Bugs Bunny, and watched many performers from the 30s and 40s like Spike Jones.
"I love slapstick. You're constantly moving. I've been to many puppet shows that are boring.
They shouldn't be. You can go in any direction with the show. The possibilities are endless. The audience becomes part of the show. The puppets interact with them," he says.
Santoro began making his own puppets when he was very young. He worked at Disneyland for a while and credits Disney for reintroducing puppetry as much more than just a kiddie show.
"Look at The Lion King on Broadway. Those are puppets. Disney was influential in giving puppetry a comeback," he says.
He also is a great admirer of Fred Rogers, of "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood." He sent a letter to PBS, praising Rogers after the puppeteer's death. He received an 8 x10 photograph of Rogers, which he treasures.
Santoro has a background in art.
He taught school in Buffalo, New York, but moved down to Florida to escape the Snowbelt. He worked part-time at Disney's Magic Kingdom then eventually made his way to West Virginia, where he teaches art at Hedgesville Elementary School.
However, he was always making puppets and attending puppeteer conventions all over the country. He took his puppet show on tour during the summer, performing in parks, festivals, county fairs and birthday parties. However, touring posed some challenges.
"You never knew what the environment would be like when you arrived. At one festival, we were told to set up near the bandstand where a group was playing 50's music. The audience couldn't hear our show.
Once we were in a cornfield with spitting llamas. Another time, we were placed right next to the porta potties. Not good. Plus, you never knew what the weather would be like. I met a lot of great people and learned a lot, but it was time to move on. I wanted to find a controlled environment," Santoro says.
Santoro searched the Eastern Panhandle, Virginia, and Maryland for two years, seeking a theater and finally settled on the historic building that houses Wonderment. The theater celebrated its fifth anniversary in March.
"We're one of the few puppet theaters around. The one in Charleston, W.V. recently closed.
So many people have never seen a puppet show, a live puppet show with quality," says Santoro. In the beginning, Santoro literally walked the streets to encourage people to come to the performances.
He would greet them outside of the theater. "I went up to people and said, ‘Come to Wonderment and hold on to your eyeballs so they don't pop out of your head!' People started to come and told their friends. Word of mouth advertising worked," he said. However, Santoro says it took about two years for things to get started.
"People would walk in thinking we were a Chinese restaurant. However, we started attracting the families of preschoolers and home-schooled kids. We finally caught on. People realized we weren't a franchise. We're unique. There's nothing like this anywhere," he says.
Santoro invites everyone to come to what he calls "a world of enchantment for the whole family." The theater's audiences range from about two years old to ten. However, older kids have found the shows fascinating, too, says Jane. "We had a 12-year-old boy come in. I guess he was dragged in by his parents. He was intrigued and ended up wanting to make puppets himself," she says.
Santoro likes to take a familiar story and give it a different twist. For example, in the story of "Hansel and Gretel," he has the witch owning a pizzeria. The story of the "Three Little Pigs" takes place in a circus with the Big Bad Wolf as ringmaster. One of the pigs does an animal act with Fluffy the Kitty Cat, who is actually a shark.
"I take Cinderella and place her at a Sock Hop instead of a ball. Once again, expect the unexpected here," Santoro says.
Santoro will be offering "Three Billy Goats Gruff" in the fall. The current show is "Peter Rabbit."
"I want to do ‘The Wizard of Oz' at some point, but that's a couple of years away," Santoro says.
Shows last about a half hour. The puppets actually talk to the audience. The audience becomes part of the show, Santoro says. "This is all brand new to them. People bring it to life. I give them what they want. Run around, talk to the puppets. The shows are totally family-focused," he says.
"Joe does an introduction before the show. He then ducks behind the stage where the puppets appear. One child asked me, ‘Where did that man go?' when the show started. He didn't realize Joe was the puppeteer," Jane says.
Santoro squeezes into the small space where his puppets and audio equipment are located. The room where the performances take place has benches along the walls, but the youngsters sit on the floor for the show.
"They love it," says Jane. "The theater is a small area. Very personal. Children can see how puppets work," Santoro says. "And you can make puppets out of almost everything. Bottles, yogurt containers. I have hand puppets, stick puppets, all kinds of puppets." Children can have birthday parties at the theater. Santoro has a special room for such events.
"The Birthday Room literally pulsates with light and life. The lights are activated by clapping and motion," he says.
Many different types of birthday packages are available, including Balloon Dance Central, which features face painting, dancing and a party light show.
The theater has a Wall of Fame where pictures of children who had birthday parties are proudly displayed.
"Someday I'd like to have birthday parties outside. A fantasy birthday garden," Santoro says.
Santoro is always planning new things.
So, if you want to be part of the show, visit Wonderment Puppet Theater. Go to the website at www. wondermentpuppets.com or call 304-258-4074.