He’s More Than Meets the Ear
Say the name David Liebe Hart to Hollywood Bowl concertgoers on any given performance night, and you’re bound to get puzzled looks. But mention the “puppet man,” as I did last weekend, and, well, you’ll get an earful:
“He just makes you smile when you walk by him. He’s really cute.”
“He doesn’t sound good, and the Muppet is dirty.”
“I’ve never given him anything in 10 years because he’s never really given me anything.”
“He’s irritating as all hell.”
Among the Bowl’s colorful cast of buskers, Hart is a standout. He usually stations himself across from the Edmund D. Edelman Hollywood Bowl Museum, handling a ratty puppet he calls “Doug the dog.” He serenades patrons in a bellowing baritone, singing hymn-like ditties with catchy refrains, such as “Take a happy song and pass it on.” Hart, 47, slightly unkempt, sporting oversized glasses and an unruly but thinning afro, has been at it for 27 years.
David Nkrumah Liebe Hart, as he now calls himself (he has also gone by David Unger Hart and David King Liebe Hart), is a singer-actor-musician waiting for his big break. “I’m hoping and praying that I can get a recording contract from Capitol Records or A&M; Records,” he says. “I’m hoping that I can get television work and get back on TV.”
Though the gospel, pop and patriotic songs in his repertoire do occasionally change, Hart’s act basically remains the same year after year. He arrives by bus, sets up shop to catch Bowl-goers on their way into shows and hangs around until the last stragglers have left the venue. Hart doesn’t speak or ask for donations; he simply sings. He sits in a chair behind a cardboard box propped on a weathered suitcase. As he belts out his songs, he uses his puppet Doug the dog (occasionally replaced by Rangee the rabbit) in a ragged ventriloquism act, hiding his mouth behind his fist or burying his face in sheet music.
A Chicago native, Hart followed his dreams to Hollywood in 1976 and says he was soon able to join the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists thanks to bit parts on sitcoms such as “Chico and the Man” and movies, including “Brewster’s Millions.”
Nowadays, he has a regular on-camera gig as the star and creator of the 13-year-old “Junior Christian Teaching Bible Lesson Program,” a religious puppet show on public access television that is, according to Web sites and local press, an underground fave of those who can find it. (The program can be seen locally on Adelphia Cable channel 77 and AT&T; Broadband channels 43, 38 and 35.)
Hart credits his entree to street performing and on-camera puppeteering to his passion for--and frustration with--the Christian Science Church.
“What brought me to the Bowl was the church I was raised in didn’t want to hire a black soloist,” he says. (Hart pontificates at length about his brushes with racism.) He says Jim Henson, the late creator of the Muppets, left him a puppet collection so he could create a show for children. Hart also claims that he was once abducted by a UFO and that he pulls in enough cash from his street performances to cover his rent and cable bills. (“I think he’s just trying to make a buck,” says Kyle Petty, a Foothill Transit driver who has talked to Hart. “Unfortunately, I never see anything in his box. I’ve never seen a dime.”)
The undisputable facts about Hart’s life are as follows: He is divorced and doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs. He can be found around town cartooning and doing caricatures for passersby, and he performs on the Music Center plaza during the Bowl off-season. He’s a fan of the TV Land network and especially loves color episodes of “The Honeymooners.” And, at the moment, Hart is in search of companionship as well as a full-time job.
Howard Sherman, the Music Center’s vice president of operations, describes Hart as “a fascinating, albeit eccentric man.”
Until he lands that recording or TV gig, Hart is just content to practice his beloved craft. “I just want to feel like I belong,” he says.