File puptcrit/puptcrit.0801, message 46

Date: Sun, 06 Jan 2008 05:53:44 -0800
Subject: [Puptcrit] Paul Mesner Article

He was young. He was a gypsy. He was fearless.

He was one man in a Datsun pickup with a box of 
puppets and a portable stage, driving icy 
Minnesota highways. His name was Paul Mesner, and 
he prided himself on never missing a performance.

=93My winter driving skills got really good,=94 
Kansas City=92s best-known puppeteer said recently.

Mesner did the Minnesota tour every year in the 
late 1970s. Now the man who never went to college considers it his education.

=93This fellow saw me perform at a regional puppet 
festival, and he had done this school assembly 
circuit tour for many years,=94 Mesner said. =93And 
he offered me this 14-week job of doing 12 to 14 
shows a week in 10 to 12 different schools a week 
from January through May in Minnesota. So I did 
that for four years, and I think of that as my school-of-hard-knocks college.=94

It was just Mesner and the puppets as he made his 
way from town to town, school to school. Often he 
would meet school custodians at 7 a.m. to unlock 
the building so he could set up his stage.

One year the thermometer was stuck at 22 below 
for three weeks. But Mesner, who had been doing 
puppet theater in Omaha, was living an adventure.

=93This was $350 a week, and I had to pay for all 
my meals and lodging and gas, but I thought it was great money.=94

He found hotels for $6 or $8 a night. They were 
=93like out of some movie =AD flower-print wallpaper 
they put up in the =9240s, creaky bed, bath down 
the hall. =85 I scrimped and saved and I came away from there saving money.=94

Each year the pay went up by $100. The first 
three years, he performed =93Tom Sawyer=94 and other 
shows written by his employer using marionettes. 
By the fourth year he persuaded his boss to let 
him do his own material, and he headed out with 
the hand-and-rod puppets he prefers to this day.

=93I never missed a date. I was there for every 
single date and every single show.=94

That changed in the spring of 1980, midway 
through the tour in his fourth year. He was 
called home to Lincoln, Neb., because one of his 
cousins, believed to be drunk and high on peyote, 
murdered another of his cousins, a caretaker at a 
Quaker meeting house. Mesner had been close to 
the victim, Janet Mesner. The killer, Randoph 
Reeves, was sentenced to death, but the family 
rallied to have the sentence commuted, in part to 
honor the memory of Janet, who vehemently opposed the death penalty.

=93That was before grief counselors,=94 Mesner said. 
=93I went back on the road and was just miserable. 
I was having nightmares every night. At 3 o=92clock 
I=92d think I heard someone outside the hotel door. 
I was a mess. So I just canceled the tour.

=93I really came out of that with a sense that life 
is so fragile and that you=92ve got to work your 
hardest and do your very best,=94 he said. =93It 
sounds corny, but you=92ve got to follow your 
dream. I worked very hard from that moment on, 
and I just kept thinking of Janet and what would she think.=94

Higher profile

Things have changed a lot since then. Mesner 
turned 50 last year, and December marked his 20th 
anniversary as a puppeteer in Kansas City. His 
first show was =93The Twelve Days of Christmas=94 at Quality Hill Playhouse.

In an era when we=92ve seen puppetry mainstreamed 
in two Broadway shows, =93The Lion King=94 and 
=93Avenue Q,=94 Mesner keeps his performances 
relatively simple. He has built Paul Mesner 
Puppets into a nonprofit arts organization with a 
budget of $416,000 and four full-time staffers, 
including Mesner and his executive director, 
Diane Barker. This season includes four shows at 
Unity Temple on the Plaza, =93Hansel and Gretel=94 at 
the Folly and the annual =93Page to Stage=94 
production at his studio based on writings by students.

Steve Axtell
Axtell Expressions, Inc.

The original content of this email or attachments is =A9 Axtell Expressions, Inc.
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