Pulling a few strings to win children's smiles

Huntington Beach resident Tait Hill has always had a fascination with puppets and animated figures and after 20 years in the marionette business, he has pulled out all the stops — or rather the strings — to make that dream come true.

With his company Pullin' Strings Puppet Productions, he shares that enthusiasm with children around Los Angeles and Orange County.

"The best thing about performing is my point of view during the performance and seeing the kids' faces," he said. "My joy is bringing the wonderment and joy of puppetry to the kids."

Hill will bring that attitude along with his production, "Uncle Gus' Puppet Carnival," to the O.C. Fair and Event Center on March 24 for the 7th Annual Easter Festival at the Orange County Marketplace.

Using what he calls an open stage of cabaret-style performance, where he stands and performs next to the marionettes instead of working behind a backdrop, Hill can interact with the audience and improvise as he goes along.

"That allows us to go into the audience and interact with the kids," he said. "I can take Pinocchio out into the audience and ask the kids to give him a high-four."

The San Jose native said he didn't expect to become involved with marionettes. Earning degrees in engineering and studio art, he had dreams of making figures for Disney.

He sent his resume to the company but after not hearing back started making calls to various businesses, including a puppetry guild in Northern California.

"Someone at the puppetry guild told me to contact Jim Gamble," he said. "I don't know why she suggested Jim Gamble, but she did."

So he talked with Gamble's wife, Marty, and she invited Hill to a production they were doing near San Jose.

Hill, with his portfolio of pictures of different figures he had made, went to the elementary school where Gamble was performing.

Gamble, being impressed with Hill's material, offered Hill a job with his company making marionettes.

"I packed up in 1992 and came down to work for him," Hill said. "I started out building for him, because we build our own puppets."

Hill said it takes about 80 to 120 hours to make one marionette, depending on if he has to build it from the ground up or if he can use a mold he previously made.

"Once we make the mold for the heads, shoes, hands, legs and even the bodies, we make multiple ones and store them," he said.

Designing the marionettes takes some time as well.

"You do the drawing and sometimes it comes out the way you want it, but sometimes it doesn't," Hill said. "When you're creating, you might want to change something, because in 3D it looks a little bit different."

From aliens to furry monsters, Hill is inspired by almost everything around him when he builds a new puppet.

"The first thing you do is have a design in mind. I get my ideas from different sources and things around you," he said. "I'm very aware of things. Music is a good inspiration. I'll listen to different music and see what kind of act I put with that?"

Hill worked for Gamble's puppet production for more than 20 years, and 10 years ago decided to begin one of his own. In the summer, Hill left Gamble's company and is focusing solely on his.

"Since I left him, I've nearly tripled my business," Hill said. "I've been putting 110% into my business."

But during the economic downturn, Hill's business took a hit. Schools and families that used to book his acts stopped because of tight budgets, he said.

But business is slowly picking up for him again and he hasn't been dissuaded from pursuing his dream.

"It's something I've always loved and I wanted to continue doing it, so I pulled out all the stops to make sure I could continue doing it during the recession," Hill said. "I've never really been in the red."

General admission to the festival is $2. Children 12 and under are free.


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