As part of his job, Howard Barnett is constantly coming up with new characters and silly voices. And he's forever designing wacky sets and such contraptions as a bicycle that looks like a car.
He's the creator and sole human performer of "Howie's Old Tyme Puppet and Magic Show," a vaudeville-style act that he performs at his theater at Paint & Fun in Tarzana. He also travels throughout Los Angeles and California to malls, carnivals, camps and county fairs.
"I guess I'm just rather childlike myself," said Barnett, 40, a Canoga Park resident who comes from a musical, not magical, family.
"I always thought I'd be a musician too," he said. Barnett's father, Phil, was a saxophonist with such big bands as Benny Goodman's. "But I started doodling in magic when I was about 10, putting on shows for the neighborhood kids and adults, too. I've been hooked ever since."
With a flare for design, Barnett also began tinkering with puppet characters and voices. The show, which lasts about 45 minutes, begins with magic, moving into the puppet segment when the audience becomes fidgety.
"Kids are amazing," said Barnett, who incorporates his audience in the act. "As long as I keep it flowing, they'll stay with it.
"You see, I use them as true assistants. I let them in on the joke. The inside. I've had as many as 10 kids on the stage at once, and not one blew it."
Lillian Katz was surprised at what she discovered when she brought her son, David, and several of his friends to a show for his 11th birthday.
"Through word of mouth, I had heard wonderful things about the show," Katz said. "And I definitely knew which portion of the show my son and friends would like best. After all, they're in sixth grade. They're too cool. Of course they'd like the magic better.
"Wrong!" she said.
Barnett is no stranger to parents' worries that their older children will not appreciate the puppet humor.
"It's an interesting thing, however," Barnett said. "I've worked with thousands and thousands of kids, and just like magic itself, never assume anything.
After 15 minutes of the magic show, "even the older children are screaming, 'We've had enough,' " he said.
So like any good vaudevillian, Barnett plays off the audience and rolls with the punches.
He currently rotates about 30 different hand puppets into his act. With lots of variations, the audience again helps mold each plot and story line.
"The puppets are wonderful, too," said Katz. "They are really funny and quick-witted. They have a mischievous side that even my 'big boys' loved."
"I learned long ago that kids like an edge to their humor just like adults," said Barnett, who bounces ideas off his 8-year-old son. "If it's too sugary and sweet, they won't go for it. There's got to be a balance between the mischief and the goodness."
WHERE AND WHEN
What: Howie's Old Tyme Puppet and Magic Show.
Location: Paint & Fun, 19458 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana.
Hours: 2 p.m. Saturday.
Price: $8 children, adults free.
Call: (818) 708-2152, reservations requested.