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Rent Hikes Oppress Puppet Community:

Talk about Santa Monica rents hurting the little guy! After nearly 10 years and over 3,000 shows in his compact venue at 1255 2nd Street, Steve Meltzer must pack up his puppets. All 400 of them.

Meltzer is a one-man dynamo who operates the Santa Monica Puppetry Center, home of the long-running “Puppetolio” show featuring Meltzer and his skill with all kinds of puppets. Including one that comes to life after Meltzer draws it with a Magic Marker right in front of the audience. There’s also magic tricks, singing, dancing and juggling. All this for less than you’d pay to see Hostel Part II, and you feel good about the entertainment industry after seeing Meltzer’s show.

If you’ve never been to “Puppetolio” you should go before July 4th when Meltzer says he will have to turn out the lights due to a dramatic increase in his rent. Meltzer says that the building owner is confident of getting “market value” for the space, although Meltzer has doubts that the smallish venue will work for anything other than some boutique retail that won’t last anywhere near as long as his run with his stringed companions.

While he’s determined to open up in a new space, Meltzer’s puppets will be mostly hanging around while he takes some time to properly evaluate any new location. Nobody ever promised that show business would be easy, but there’s something very sad about being in Meltzer’s theater just after a show, with the children’s laughter still ringing in the lobby, and imagining the place turned into a cell phone store or a pump house for coffee.

In addition to the small theater, the Puppetry Center features a collection of puppets of all kinds that stirs memories of Saturday morning cartoon programs hosted by talking birds and of ventriloquists appearing with Ed Sullivan. The theater walls feature photos of the giants of Meltzer’s industry, including legendary ventriloquist Paul Winchell who made one of his last appearances at the Center before his death in 2005.

History, education and a guaranteed great time for children sans computers and video screens. The exact kind of dream tenant developers and officials are always promising when they talk about vibrant new projects. The exact kind of entertainment parents groups are always clamoring for. And his last shows will be on July 4th.

It’s not that Meltzer hasn’t tried staying in Santa Monica. He recently prepared a proposal for the city in regard to moving his operation into the old Ash Grove space on the Santa Monica Pier. It’s a great location for what he does and it’s a great family attraction for the Pier. Just getting the materials together for his presentation was time consuming and costly. Despite some encouraging support, the plan didn’t move ahead.

At the afternoon matinee I caught recently, Meltzer was impressive and versatile as a puppeteer. But what really knocked me out was his ability to do everything related to theater operations – selling the tickets, seating the crowds, touting his recently released DVD – and then face a room full of wriggling children, pulling them immediately into his show with his affable personality and obvious enjoyment of what he does. Imagine pursuing your bliss and in the process bringing happiness to others of all ages. With a product that’s wholesome and that stirs young imaginations the old school way, without pixels or the voice of Robin Williams.

Keeping Meltzer and his puppets in Santa Monica is a story still being written. Maybe you know of an available space. Maybe in considering tenants there hasn’t yet been a serious discussion about puppets. Did I mention that puppets are energy-efficient, non-polluting, and so far have no link to global warming?

It’s a challenge to preserve any performance art form and sustain an accessible venue for it. A friend of mine performs regularly at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Imagine the special effort it takes to operate that facility in a world where the charming and unique is often bulldozed to make room for a plastic copy of the charming and unique. But I have faith that Steve Meltzer and his cast of hundreds will be back. Maybe someone will help him and pull a few strings…

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