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World on a string: Marionette master Scott Land makes puppets cool

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Puppet master: Scott Land, surrounded by his labors of love, wants to teach others the art of the marionette.
Photo: Bill Hughes

There’s a pantsless clown with an erection running wild onstage. The prankster’s mad skills have patrons doubled over in laughter, an unexpected response, maybe, for a marionette show in the 21st century. But Scott Land, the artist pulling the strings, already had them at Obama—a brilliantly sculpted caricature of the president dancing seamlessly to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).”

Land seals the deal with Helio, a waifish clown with wistful, heart-melting eyes, and, finally, Michael Jackson.

Wild applause erupts inside Inspire Theater and the response seems universal: Marionettes? Who knew?

That’s a question Land has been answering for decades, long before his work in Team America: World Police, a $32 million, comically vulgar, blow-’em-up political action satire by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in which Land was a lead puppeteer, operating Kim Jong-il, among others.

Scott Land works on the head for a new marionette

Scott Land works on the head for a new marionette

He’s been working with marionettes since childhood, and even back then, he says, they weren’t exactly the ticket. But his competition wasn’t slick digital entertainment and a media-saturated society. It was The Muppets. This was the ’70s, and handheld comedic puppets were the craze. But they were also a dime a dozen, something to be made with a piece of foam and material, not an actual art form beginning with serious craftsmanship. Magicians? The market was saturated, and all the kids were doing “store-bought tricks.” Land realized that marionettes were the fine wine in a Boone’s Farm world.

Today, marionette artist remains the only job he’s ever had, one that’s taken him to meet the Dalai Lama (with a Dalai Lama marionette) and landed him film credits (The Princess Diaries, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), family shows, corporate events, Vegas gigs and risqué adult parties where the material is decidedly raunchy. Three days a week he’s at LA’s Bootsy Bellows, an old-school, theatrical-inspired nightclub opened by actor David Arquette and two others. Arquette, a fan of marionettes and vaudeville (his grandfather, comedian Cliff Arquette, aka Charlie Weaver, started on the vaudeville circuit), says Land is “the greatest puppeteer alive,” who “with a sensitivity and creative brilliance” makes true magic and awakens a light inside anyone who is “lucky enough to see him perform.”

Magic might be the appropriate word, given the way Land brings a doll to life with distinctive personality, character and grace—and without the high-tech gadgetry required in other contemporary entertainment acts.

“You can do anything with puppets,” Land says. “Each one has its own spirit, energy and sound. Each one has a character as you’re building it. It’s very Geppetto-esque. Personality comes out of it. You want it to appear as if it’s thinking and responding to gravity. If it’s done well, there is something simple and primal about it.”

That The Ed Sullivan Show, Howdy Doody and The Gong Show have been filed away with other vintage relics of puppet-friendly showbiz is not a deterrent for Land, who recently moved to Las Vegas from LA to set up his studio and create a YouTube-based show (under the name Team Land Productions) with marionettes acting out political, social and celebrity-based news stories.

“When Team America was released I realized that there was a whole adult audience not being addressed since Wayland and Madame,” says Land, referring to the clever and edgy adult puppetry. “We’re going to do outrageous things you should never do.”

Scott Land and his marionettes

On a small scale, of course: “Matt and Trey are geniuses, but they didn’t know what they were getting into. No one will ever touch a $32 million film with string puppets again.”

“Never say never,” his wife Lisa Land, who is also his assistant, chimes in from the background of their Las Vegas studio. “I’m working on it.”

Nearby workbenches covered with tools, materials and unfinished puppet heads are accompanied by the marionette faces of Neil Patrick Harris, Jack Nicholson, Vegas’ own Big Daddy Carlos and Oscar Goodman, each sculpted from clay by Land with Mad magazine-inspired exaggerated features. Land makes the molds and strings the puppets. Lisa, who has a background in art, paints the faces once they’re created.

Joe Berry, a composer and musician who operates a marionette in Tony Clifton shows at the Comedy Store in LA, is working Land’s Cousin Victor in the studio. He’s two years into puppetry and studying marionettes with Land. But he’s also a collaborator in Team Land Productions, writing original music for the project.

He and Land met at Arquette’s club, where Berry plays trumpet. It was an opportune moment for Berry, who was studying Team America while practicing with his little Tony Clifton marionette, and who considers Land the best puppeteer in the world.

Like other performing art forms, marionette artistry is often passed down through the masters of the previous generations. Land has worked with noted puppeteer Tony Urbano in a job that taught him about marionette manipulations; he studied with German puppeteer Albrecht Roser, known there for his clown Gustaf; and took inspiration from comedians, performers in specialty circus acts and vaudeville artists, including his late friend Carl Ballantine, whose voice Land recorded for his Ballantine marionette.

At age 10, Land spent five months constructing his first marionette (a vampire), using instructions from a library book and materials from Fedco. With a mirror leaned against the bedroom wall of his Southern California home, he practiced for hours every day. His first children’s party performance was at 12. The clown, juggler, magician, puppeteer and entrepreneur was already mapping his future, noting that his heroes—marionette artists like Bob Baker, “the rock star” of puppetry—had made careers as marionette artists.

Now Land wants to teach others the art of marionette, which dates back to ancient Greece and had a history in opera and European theater, before hitting American pop culture in the 20th century. But it’s endangered in the U.S. today, in contrast to Europe, where there are theaters dedicated to marionettes.

An Oscar Goodman marionette head in the shop of Scott Land

An Oscar Goodman marionette head in the shop of Scott Land

“American audiences have no respect,” Land says. “In America, you’re just the puppet guy with someone asking you with a martini, ‘Why don’t you set up in the living room, my kids will enjoy it.’”

Maybe Team Land’s YouTube shows will expose audiences to the breadth of the genre. A stage is being built in the studio, and plans to begin taping are set for August. Land says he’ll act out political issues or stories like the Donald Sterling controversy with marionettes that he creates. No particular angle. No political spin, just “fun and interesting” and open to interpretation.

More recently, Land sees a change in attitude toward marionettes as a hip, throwback element of counterculture, appealing to younger crowds.

“They like to see anything that takes craft and they want it. It’s like young people wanting to listen to records or like seeing a jazz musician as opposed to dance music that is synthetic.”

The producers, the guys with money, are not interested,” he says. “But when I do marionettes, it’s so backward that the public is drawn to it.”

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Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson joined the Las Vegas Sun in 1998 as a general assignment reporter. In 2003, she turned her focus ...

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