And They Call It Puppet Love

<i> Janet Kinosian is a free-lance writer who occasionally contributes to The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Emmy-winning puppeteer Tony Urbano knows his creations go over big with the younger set, but that isn’t what he finds most pleasing about doing live performances.

“The best thing is the way the children look at their parents,” says Urbano, who has worked and toured with marionette greats such as Tony Sarg, Bill Baird and Jim Henson. “Usually, when an adult is at a kid-type program, they’re bored stiff and show it. But here the kids are literally staring in shock at their parents because they’re cracking up too. I love the expressions on their faces. It’s like, ‘What’s happening here?’ ”

What’s happening is “Tony Urbano’s Marionettes in Concert,” a 1 1/2-hour routine of lavish costumes, elaborate staging and myriad songs, dances, acrobatic stunts and spoofs. The show will be performed Saturday at the Yorba Linda Forum Theatre.

Among the dozens of marionette characters taking the stage will be Polly Darton and her chicks, a concert pianist (Urbano’s favorite to manipulate), the French Chanteuse (an Edith Piaf spoof), a cellist named Pablo Pablo Pablo, and “The Skeletons"--Lean and Hungry--who always close the show.


Urbano says that, while his work may look easy, it’s strenuous and complex.

“Puppeteering is very physical work. Just lift your arm out straight for five minutes holding nothing and see how hard it is. Now put a 15-pound puppet in your hand, and constantly move your fingers, and you’ll see it’s not a cakewalk.”

The show’s “Jack B. Nimble” routine, for instance, lasts only 3 1/2 minutes onstage, but took highly skilled puppeteers three full days to learn. “These puppets don’t have minds, so we have to do the thinking and working for them,” Urbano says. “And it gets tough, particularly when you don’t know what you’re doing yourself. So we have to make sure we all know exactly what we’re doing or we’d be in a tangled mess.”

Urbano is probably best known for his work in motion pictures and television. He has done more than 750 commercials, and his credit list reads like the corporate phone pages: McDonald’s, United Airlines, Hallmark, Kelloggs, Coca-Cola, Gillette, Oscar Mayer, Kraft, 7-Up, Sears. He has won 10 Emmy’s along the way.

He says he is so booked with commercial work that he rarely gets the time or energy for live work. Saturday’s show will be his first and only live performance of the year.

“I love live performing because the audience reaction to the puppets is what thrills me,” he says. “There’s nothing like it. A lot of my work now is in commercials so it’s very static. You get two days to do a 30-second, highly structured movement, which is great. But the sound of the live audience is a wonderful buzz.”

The company has performed on cruise ships for the past few years, using the bookings as a vacation from the stress of relentless commercial work.

“When you shoot commercials, all you have are bored cameramen who never laugh at your work,” Urbano says. “To go aboard a ship and hear the laughter and applause--plus all the food--it’s great!”


Tony Urbano Productions is based in Venice and employs six puppeteers. These include Urbano’s partner, Tim Blaney, and Urbano’s Aunt Sam, who creates the wigs for the dolls. He says he saw his first puppet show in San Francisco at age 4 and “always knew I’d make my hobby into my life’s work.”

Urbano credits the late puppeteer Jim Henson with instigating all the marionette film and commercial work that now keeps him in a comfortable tax bracket. Henson also presented him with a unique opportunity.

“Jim called me back in the early ’70’s with an idea and a proposition,” Urbano recalls. “He had a show he wanted to do and wanted me to come out to New York to start work. I thought it over and decided I hated Manhattan too much to do it and turned him down. He seemed a touch offended, but I just didn’t want to do it. So I wished him good luck. . . . What was the show’s name? ‘Sesame Street.’ ”

What: Tony Urbano’s Marionettes in Concert.


When: Saturday, April 13, at 8 p.m.

Where: Yorba Linda Forum Theatre, 4175 Fairmont Blvd., Yorba Linda.

Whereabouts: Take the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway to the Riverside (91) Freeway, exit at Imperial Highway and turn left. Follow to Yorba Linda Boulevard and turn right. Go one mile to Fairmont Boulevard.

Wherewithal: $8.50.


Where to Call: (714) 779-8591.