Jul 28, 2014
Mostly Cloudy

A Life in Puppetry Starts with Sesame Street

Jesse Vail, teacher of Piedmont Rec’s newest after school class addition, says he finds more to love every day in the art and craft of puppetry.

A Life in Puppetry Starts with Sesame Street A Life in Puppetry Starts with Sesame Street

Name: Jesse Vail

Age: 42

Occupation: Puppeteer and Puppetry Teacher


How did you find your way to puppetry?

I have to go way back to explain. I was born one month before the Muppets debuted on Sesame Street. I grew up with them. I used to watch with my mom, and we would discuss the characters, the kinds of puppets, the new ideas Jim Henson was incorporating into his puppets. 

We came from Michigan to the Bay Area when I was five, and as I grew up and got my first jobs I was drawn to places like the Imaginarium (a great store that was bought by Kids “R” Us—what a shame!—but they still exist in Europe). While I was working there I discovered puppets made by a great puppet company, Folkmanis, which has its business right across from Pixar—I’m sure they know each other.

Later on, in my twenties, I was a balloon artist for years working in local Chevy’s Mexican Restaurants. An employee asked me what I really wanted to do for a living, and I said I had always wanted to be a puppeteer.

She introduced me to Randall Metz, who works at Fairyland ... two days [later], I was hired to work at Fairyland and I began my puppetry education.  

I learned from Randal and from Lewis Mahlmann, the creator of Fairyland’s Storybook Puppet Theater. Louis and Randall had just started their partnership. Louis is retired now, but he had been the director of that theater since I was born. I gained a lot of knowledge from both.

It changed my life. 

What kind of class are you offering through the Piedmont Recreation Department?

I teach the kids how to make and manipulate puppets, and I teach them the different kinds of puppets. They learn to write scripts and develop their own show, with a little help from me. They present their original theater pieces to their parents at the end of the series. (The next session starts Nov. 7.)

The basic puppet form I use is one I have developed— I call them Foo Foo Heads. It’s a type of child-size hand puppets, that can be used for all kinds of characters.

I’ve taught these classes for 20 years throughout the Bay Area, starting in San Jose. Directed a puppet theater there, Happy Hollow Park and Zoo puppet theater—it’s just like Fairyland—that’s where I developed a teaching program for summer camps, and now I take it elsewhere.

I’m interested in putting on my own shows. My company is Fool Moon Puppetry Arts. I’ll be premiering a Christmas show called “The Magic Candy Canes,”  based on a classic puppetry tale by my mentor, Louis Mahlmann. I have another in the works for spring. 

I’m also about to start a non-profit called Puppetropolis, which I hope will be a center for puppetry in the Bay Area. ...

What’s your advice to a curious would be puppet maker?

Find a puppeteer and ask questions, if you want to work with puppets. People love to talk about what they do. And they often like to teach. I have 4 students from age 7 to 25 who I now call my apprentices. 

Don’t miss updates from Patch!