The Honolulu Advisor

Puppets give voice to universal emotions
By Wayne Harada

Phillip Huber was a shy child. When he was 3, however, his mother gave him a puppet. At 5, he acquired a marionette. And a whole new world beckoned.

"Puppets are a wonderful way to express yourself, yet hide behind," said Huber, one of the world's top puppeteers. "They helped me overcome an extreme case of shyness."

With The Huber Marionettes, the puppeteer now interacts with audiences internationally. The Marionettes make their Island debut in "A Merry Christmas With Friends and Nabors," Jim Nabors' annual Christmas extravaganza, tonight through Sunday at the Hawaii Theatre.

"I was knocked out by his act," said Nabors, who initially saw Huber perform on a sea cruise. "It was a beautiful presentation."

Then Nabors saw the quirky but imaginative film "Being John Malkovich," for which Huber manipulated the puppets. "I thought he might be a good idea for our Christmas show, especially for children," said Nabors. "There's something about a puppet... makes me feel like a kid myself."

Huber imbues each of his creations with distinct emotions, playing to universal audiences, young and old alike.

"The goal, always, is to achieve a personality - bring out certain emotions people can recognize through the puppets," said Huber, who will share just a few of the 30 creations fashioned over his 32-year career.

"The theory is, every single one is an extension of some part of your personality; it's unavoidable, since you become the actor, to some extent, of your creation".

"I handle only one at a time," Huber noted. "If you're really going to give your creation a personality, all you can handle is one."

So, does he work with puppets or marionettes? Both, he said. "A marionette is a certain type of puppet, with strings," said Huber. "Puppets are the generic term."

His most complicated marionette has 22 strings, requiring a dexterity that has to become second nature, Huber said. "The marionettes become an extension of your hands. The puppets become the actor, projecting personality down the strings."

Right now, he's creating a new, acrobatic puppet character, inspired by the surreal Cirque du Soleil. He hopes to unveil it next year."I try to do one (special puppet) a year - a ballpark figure but I use a corps of 16 or 17 puppets," Huber said."Generally, I go for something that excites me," he commented."Quite often, I'm inspired by the music itself. I research and listen to all types of music. I visualize what a marionette can do."

His is a tiny company. Huber is the creator-artist, and he has a business partner who handles finances.

"But this is my life," he said. "The creations reflect my life over the past three decades."

The Huber Marionettes have had vast exposure in a variety of shows and media. Huber has done cabai~t gigs in the Paris "Udo" show and Monaco "Paris' Crazy Horse Show" and had a pre-Broadway run in Tommy Tune's "Busker Alley." He has filled opening slots for such acts as Ellen DeGeneres, Donald O'Connor and Phyllis Diller, and appeared with Jay Leno on the "Tonight Show." Though he didn't create the puppets in "Being John Mallkovich," he worked the puppets in the hit film. Remember John Cusack's manipulating a marionette that looks like him? That was Huber's work.

"I'm famous for a small dog I use - Taffy - which has long fur, stub-by fur and long droopy ears," Huber also pointed out. "It has all the qualities for trouble, because animal fur can interfere with the marionette joints, yet you don't want the joints to show," he said.

Since Huber's puppets are not huge - the largest is 3 feet tall (a snow man that will be here), while the tiniest is 27 inches tall (a trapeze artist) - the puppeteer finds it a challenge to perform in a large house like the Hawaii Theatre. "You have to project the puppet's personality to the very back row," he said. "And it's all a matter of body language and tricks to get the personality over."

He interacts with his marionettes "which will look up to me, often grab up on my leg. But I don't speak," said Huber. "It's a dramatic convention."

Still, the puppets project such realistic emotions that it's easy to suspend logic while under the spell of Huber's wizardry.

Though he liked Disney's "Pinocchio," Huber said his inspiration came from early children's TV shows such as "Howdy Doody" and "Kukla, Fran and Ollie."

"I used to give hand puppet shows for the neighborhood kids, and by 15, was doing marionette shows," he said. "Watching my TV heroes made me realize that, if done well, puppets appeal to everybody, not just kids. You don't build a puppet to make a child laugh; you build one to entertain people of all ages. Then, I realized it could also become a profession, not just a hobby, which most people think puppets are."

His wooden friends need constant maintenance. "It's never-ending. Every year, I replace strings, sew in beads on costumes," he said.

No, he doesn't speak to his puppets. "But they have a different way of speaking back to me," he said. "Their arguments have been in the tangles (of string)."


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