Santa’s Secrets from Santa’s Little Puppet Helpers – “What I Learned as St. Nick’s Warm Up Act”

This year a gig came my way that only a Grinch would pass on. I got to bring my favorite puppets and work the line of families whose kids were waiting to sit on Santa’s lap at the glorious Huntington Library near Pasadena, California.

Three other puppeteers and I were invited by Head Gardener Jeff Karsner (a member of the LA Guild of Puppetry) to help stage and monitor puppet displays from local collectors throughout the Botanical Center where Santa sat. But our main job was to keep the members in line entertained with puppets strolling past and interacting with them…THOUSANDS of them!

Initially I was concerned about working with so many excited kids. I usually perform for adults. Jeff hired me after seeing my stand-up with puppets during an evening performance for Guild members at the Bob Baker Marionette Theatre.

My puppet films and even the puppet webisode series I created, LosTiteres.TV, are aimed at adults. I have also taught solo performance and improv at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for about a decade, and acting at UCLA for serious-minded artists – not really kids’ stuff.

But I grew up strongly influenced by Jim Henson and performed improv with his puppeteers, so their popular style informs the look and style of my own puppets. And with their new movie, The Muppets, coming out simultaneously, I felt that I would be well received by children. I brought several colorful hand & rod puppets bedecked in holiday garb that seemed to authenticate them as Santa’s Little Helpers.

I was soon to learn something that freed me up to hit my improv groove: kids don’t like puppets talking down to them. Working the line taught me a few other things, and since this role of ‘elfin puppeteer’ (yes, we all wore matching elf hats) seemed to warm up cold folks in the long Santa line, I thought I’d share some observations:

HAVE A FLEXIBLE SCRIPT

Everyone is there for one reason: Santa time. So my puppet characters approached families as “Santa’s Puppet Helpers” on the serious mission of conducting pre-interviews for the big guy. Here’s a sample script:

“Hello, my name is ______. I’m Santa’s Little Helper, and he’s asked me to come out here to meet kids before they get to him. What’s your name? …. Well, [Stan], let me see if I remember if you were on the naughty or nice list. Hmmm, naughty, nice, naughty, nice, okay now I remember – definitely… (the kids are on pins & needles here…) Nice! Yes, Stan, yes, I remember, definitely nice. (Most parents would say, ‘Well done’, or ‘Yes, he’s been very good this year’)… Well, Stan, I’d like to know what you want for Christmas, and I’ll put a word in to Santa, even before you get there, so he’ll remember! (The kids get serious and pitch you like they’re CEO’s in a boardroom…the perfect time for a puppet to yank their chains and pretend to hear something else:) I think I heard you wanted a TRAIN SET! No? A TOY POODLE? No?…I’m sorry, I have very little ears…Oh! LEGOS!…Alright, Stan wants LEGOS, Got it! … Now, beefooore I go, I have a knock knock joke. Knock, knock… (Who’s there)… Mary… (Mary Who?)…. Maaaary Christmas!!!!

And then I’d finish with a song and walk on to the next child down the line. I’d vary the “knock knock” jokes and also ask them to join me in singing a chorus of Jingle Bells or another simple song with a short refrain. (“Rudolph”, I realized early on, has too lengthy a story built into the lyrics!)

Even the upcoming shy child who might have withdrawn behind his mother, peering out from behind her legs, was usually listening INTENTLY to the prior interaction. The children’s familiarity with the simple script (confirming niceness, reciting toy requests, joke and song) usually made every child comfortable enough to engage by the time I got to them. They were pumped up to get “interviewed”, once they’d overheard what was involved previously and knew what to expect.

No complicated script was necessary, since the kids mostly wanted to talk TO the puppet. I realized this, and would just have the puppet interact live with them. I could hear in their voices that this is much more fun than seeing puppets on TV!

PERSONALIZE THE CONNECTION

I was always sure to start by having the puppet say its name slowly and clearly. After a few moments the kids felt okay telling me their names. When I’d have two or more children with a parent, I’d sometimes make up a silly song that simply repeated their names, ending on a crescendo that made everyone laugh and feel at ease. For me, this was also a trick that helped me recall their names later when I’d reappear with another puppet as the wait time often went past an hour.

With so many tots and babies in the mix, I would have the puppet wave to them from a distance before approaching so as not to startle them. Usually little babies looked more confused than anything else, and I didn’t want to risk causing any noisy crying. Plus, a cautious approach seems to work for new parents who aren’t always comfortable with strangers getting too close to their newborns.

Older kids also responded well to the puppets, and sometimes, just for kicks, I’d approach them just to see if they would recoil. They rarely did, since the kid inside of them really wanted to be part of the act and join in the back-and-forth. Just for kicks, when they said they didn’t know what they wanted, I would say: “I know, dinner with Justin Beiber!” And that would get squeals of laughter. I would use Justin interchangeably with Beyoncé.

They were always dazzled when I would walk back through the line and remember their names and, most importantly, what they wanted. “Oh, that’s Sofia! She’s the little girl that wants the stuffed green Angry Bird.” She would love it, and her mom looked appreciative. Children LOVE to be remembered by the puppets, so after I’d worked the line with my spiel, I’d go by and have further conversations with some kids, or simply walk by them and call out what they said they’d wanted as presents this year.

STAY CLOSE AT ARM’S LENGTH

One thing I managed to do was keep my puppet high above ground, looking down at the children, mindful if they seemed rambunctious. The puppets are delicate, and I learned the full force of a raging 3-year-old’s grip on one puppet. He let go, thank goodness, and no harm was done, but I learned my lesson about close-up interaction with pumped-up kids.

I’d bring the puppet down closer if I perceived any sort of Zen wonder in the child. I’d say something like, “Oh, I’m upstairs and you’re downstairs, I’m upstairs and you’re downstairs… Let me go down the stairs so I can see you better!” And I’d have the puppet do a little walk as if going downstairs and that would make everyone giggle.

Most parents with smaller children who might damage the puppet actually picked their children up to see the puppet at my level. And although the child would often reach out to touch my puppet, the parent’s control was helpful in keeping the puppet out of harm’s way. Simply waving to the smaller or fussy ones still seemed to score big points with families.

BELIEVE THAT YOU WILL WIN OVER THE NON-BELIEVERS

Children, I found, varied in their abilities to see the puppet as real – or in their interest in playing along. But I’d say about ninety percent of them wanted to believe in its reality. The kids who were truly into it were fascinating to watch. They would want to totally disregard me and were laser-focused on the puppet, their faces full of wonder and their voices jubilant!

One of ‘em was a “little lawyer” who insisted on pleading his case why he was a good boy, even though I always established up front that everyone was on the Nice List. Another little boy wanted to come up every once in a while to tell the puppet a new “knock knock” joke he’d just remembered. And still others wanted to know why puppets were helping Santa, to which I would always reply: “It’s not just a job for Elves anymore. That’s SO 1986.”

I had the most fun when the little darlings wanted something very expensive or a live animal. Several girls wanted their own ponies and horses, and I’d always suggest plush, stuffed ones. When they’d corrected me: “No, I want a REAL one!”, I’d once again blame it on my little ears or say that Santa would have to decide.

Some children were receptive but still stunned into silence about what they wanted, so I’d offer up choices to keep the banter flowing. A teddy bear is gender neutral and was usually well received.

The parents, often a little bored and impatient, wanted some magic for themselves, so, I didn’t leave them out of the wish listing. To the moms I’d suggest “dinner with George Clooney” or a “yacht”. This would get giggles… and when Momma is happy, everyone is!

KNOW WHEN TO WALK ON BY

Of course, when kids cried and/or looked scared of the puppet, I would either not acknowledge them or just walk past them cheerfully. I might just offer a wave, blown kiss or peekaboo from afar, just so that parent would know I wasn’t upset or acting indifferent.

Sometimes on the second pass with a different puppet, a parent or child who had initially been unreceptive would engage me. I was constantly looking at faces and body language as I walked the line to interpret my welcome.

PUPPETS LOVE BLAMING PUPPETEERS FOR MISHAPS

On the rare occasion that I asked the same kids what they wanted a second time, what seemed like a mistake actually offered up a delightful opportunity, since they got to act like the puppet was a dunce. Correcting puppet errors is something kids love to do.

Whenever I would mess up, or I’d double up on puppet interviews, I would have the puppet blame it on me. And of course, I always took a beat to look surprised.

And here’s a cautionary note: just because a cherub-faced child has long hair doesn’t mean it’s a girl, and short hair doesn’t always signify a boy. Keep what you’re saying gender-neutral for as long as possible until you’re absolutely sure. I had egg on my face of couple of times; I used the puppet to wipe it off…

We had three puppeteers working our very long line that coiled around the building and out into the parking lot. We were outside for the most part but tended to work in shaded areas to protect the puppets from too much light.

As lead puppeteer I would work my part of the line and periodically go out to “visit” with the other puppeteers. I found that everyone loved when our puppets interacted together on occasion – especially when we would break into a chorus of Jingle Bells!

As the day went on, the line got longer, and part of the routine involved restless parents asking about how much longer it would take. I’d have the puppet offer an estimate with the caveat: “But I’m just a puppet, so if you quote me, I’ll deny it.”

To the kids that were in the very back of the line, one of my favorite quips was to tell them that, although they were towards the end of the line, they were first in Santa’s heart. The moms would go, “Awww!”… And that would keep them happy for another few minutes.

EMBODY THE PUPPET & THE HOLIDAY SPIRIT

Children love being told that they were good this year and that they deserve what they want. Many of the teenagers had skeptical faces, but their hearts were wide open; you could see it in their yearning eyes. Let’s face it, we all want some magic, some cheer, even if it’s from some silly puppet in a Santa line.

I learned a lot standing in line with families waiting for Santa, and quite possibly the most important lesson was this: We’re all kids at heart hoping to get our wishes fulfilled. And when we get a chance to live in a fantasy world for an hour with our families in pursuit of dreams, we do it!

In fact, an old grandpa in line with his grandkids asked me for a Time Machine. Not wanting to burst his bubble, yet covering my own realist rump, I said: “I’ll see what I can do. I think Santa might have a Time Machine for you – but if you quote me, I’ll deny it.”