File puptcrit/puptcrit.0801, message 58

To: <>
Date: Mon, 7 Jan 2008 12:02:05 -0500
Subject: Re: [Puptcrit] Paul Mesner Article

Thanks for sharing this wonderful article about Paul; a true professional
who brings distinction, humanity and humor to the art form we all love.
Carol Sterling 

-----Original Message-----
From: []
On Behalf Of Steve Axtell
Sent: Sunday, January 06, 2008 8:54 AM
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.

"My winter driving skills got really good," 
Kansas City's 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

"This fellow saw me perform at a regional puppet 
festival, and he had done this school assembly 
circuit tour for many years," Mesner said. "And 
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

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.

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

He found hotels for $6 or $8 a night. They were 
"like out of some movie - flower-print wallpaper 
they put up in the '40s, creaky bed, bath down 
the hall. . I scrimped and saved and I came away from there saving money."

Each year the pay went up by $100. The first 
three years, he performed "Tom Sawyer" 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.

"I never missed a date. I was there for every 
single date and every single show."

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.

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

"I really came out of that with a sense that life 
is so fragile and that you've got to work your 
hardest and do your very best," he said. "It 
sounds corny, but you've 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."

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 "The Twelve Days of Christmas" at Quality Hill Playhouse.

In an era when we've seen puppetry mainstreamed 
in two Broadway shows, "The Lion King" and 
"Avenue Q," 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, "Hansel and Gretel" at 
the Folly and the annual "Page to Stage" 
production at his studio based on writings by students.

Steve Axtell
Axtell Expressions, Inc.

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