Just a few, friendly favorites from Bob Kramer’s vast repertoire of more than 800 marionettes and puppets. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
November 30, 2011CLICK HERE for more photos.
Rumors to the contrary, legendary Bob Kramer, of his namesake marionette company, is not in his 80s. It's just that when his name is mentioned, many assume that anybody in the public eye for so long must be at least an octogenarian.
Such conclusions amuse the internationally-known puppeteer, ever bantam-size and his longish hair, though there's less of it, still mostly sunshine-blond.
Truth is, Central West End resident Kramer, who started making marionettes at age five, began headlining on St. Louis' "Charlotte Peters Show," televised in the 1950s and '60s when he was just a teen. This puts Kramer "in my 60s," he coyly says.
Yet to see him surrounded by shiny, antler-topped, wig-crowned and fake-fur-dripping puppets, some made by Kramer when he was a seventh grader, is to wish that somehow the puppeteer could be ageless, too.
The offspring of an auto mechanic and an artistic housewife, he continues to put in 18-hour workdays, usually seven days a week. And though it feels like he's been in the business for "maybe 15 years," he's now performing for his third generation of St. Louisans.
Amid those crowds, no doubt, have been some of his former classmates, which could be a sore subject.
Dug Feltch (left) and Bob Kramer are long-time partners in Bob Kramer’s Marionnettes. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"I wasn't treated very well in school," Kramer said. "I was a weird, strange person who did art and made puppets. The other kids were like, 'Oh, puppets. Yucko.'"
Nonetheless, some of those same people now beg him to attend school reunions. He declines.
With his almost half-century performance career, Kramer is a ready-made poster child for why kids misunderstood can thrive, provided somebody cares enough to encourage them.
For years, fellow puppeteer Dug Feltch, who is Kramer's business manager, would singly handle all media interviews for the performing duo.
Then, as if stepping out of the silence his misperceived childhood had imposed, Kramer began publicly speaking for himself.
One of his earliest and most stalwart supporters, he said, was his godmother, Ann Proehl, who lived next door to the Kramer family in South St. Louis County. With Proehl, Bob started performing in the puppet shows they improvised when he was only three. Two years later, Aunt Ann, as he called her, taught him to hand-make marionettes.
Teachers, likewise, boosted his spirits.
Dug Feltch, left, with an elaborate marionette. Behind them is Bob Kramer. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"They always said, 'Oh you can do this. You can do that,'" he noted. In grade school, he was making plastic molds for puppet heads. "I learned by doing. It was basically hit-or-miss."
After one of the many performances of "The Pinocchio Show," a marionette extravaganza at the old American Theatre here, Kramer's father took him backstage. There they met puppeteer Feltch, a Chicago-area native.
The towering and voluble Feltch, who concedes to being "a year older than Bob," joined Kramer in business in 1976.
Together, they've attended and performed at conventions and in theaters from Russia to Canada and the Fox Theatre. They've also befriended such celebs as Carol Channing, Tommy Tune and Lucie Arnaz, plus revered puppeteers Jim (The Muppets) Henson and Bil Baird.
Baird, with his wife, Cora Eisenberg Baird, is perhaps best remembered for producing and performing "The Lonely Goatherd" sequence in the movie version of "Sound of Music."
Ever since he was a child, Kramer dreamt of meeting Baird. Kramer finally did so when he was in his 30s and residing for a time in New York.
"At that point, Bil and I more or less worked together," he recalled. "I learned some things, but it wasn't so much him teaching me. This is very weird, but we did so many of the same (puppet-making) things."
Bob Kramer in his workshop fashioning his latest puppets. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
Even today, despite vast technological advances, Kramer still builds puppets by sketching, transferring, carving, sanding and molding, much as his predecessors did decades ago.
"I'm regressing instead of progressing," he laughed.
Including the time required for other professionals to costume each Kramer marionette, a single puppet takes from three months to 10 months to complete. At last count, Kramer said he and those he has mentored have produced more than 800 puppets for his marionette company.
For nearly 33 years, Kramer's Marionnettes has been housed in a two-story erstwhile machine and woodworking shop in the Central West End. To finance their purchase, Kramer and Feltch received the first loan from Central West End Bank.
The house that once stood in front of the puppeteers' present, 9,000-square-foot building, dated to the 1890s. When the current business building was erected not long afterward, the house was razed.
At a time when bawdy and risqué often pass for entertaining, Kramer's Marionnettes remain synonymous with respect, laughter and civility.
"We just love people," Feltch said.
Even in a studio of marionettes, that comes with no strings attached.
• Daily through New Year's day: Holiday show at Kramer's Marionnettes studio, 4143 Laclede Ave.
10 a.m.: Puppet-making demo, history, Q&A
11:15 a.m.: Puppet show, meet/greet marionettes.
Cost for a show is $12 for kids, $14 for adults. Special rates are available for groups of 15 and nonprofits. Reservations are necessary; call 531-3313.
• Dec. 3, 1 to 7 p.m.: Entertainment during the Central West End Window Walk and Holiday on the Plaza includes Kramer's Marionnettes.
• Dec. 10, 8 p.m.: "Peter and the Wolf" marionette show with the St. Louis Civic Orchestra, at Logan College of Chiropractic's Purser Center. Tickets are $12; visit www.eventbrite.com/event/2493786984?ref=ebtn.