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Performance art with strings attached
During Hot August Nights most of the muscle cars seen on the road are testament to the thousands of dollars owners are willing to pour into supporting a passion for things from an earlier era. But those who wander to Wingfield Park during weekend afternoons, may see a man truly fond of the ancient craft of puppetry.
In Bernie Beauchamp's hands inanimate objects of putty, balsa wood and cloth become wailing and writhing performers from the twentieth century. He has an all-star cast of 10 puppets including Fats Waller, an African-American jazz pianist; Bessie Smith, a famous blues singer; Emmett Kelly, the depression-era clown, and the distinctive Sophie Tucker, who sang bawdy Vaudeville tunes that expertly employed double meanings so audiences of all ages could enjoy her crooning.
These cartoonish caricatures don't come cheap. Beauchamp employs a man in New York $1,000 to create puppets that Beauchamp envisions. While his performances don't earn him anything beyond gas money, he performs for the joy it brings him.
"It makes me feel like I'm channeling these old artists in a way that I'm somewhat at a lack to explain," Beauchamp said. "When the puppets perform, I disappear."
Beauchamp said shortly after college he toured with a puppeteer company for 4 to 5 months. Then he moved to Nevada and had a family and a mortgage. But for 25 years the idea of puppetry continued to percolate in his head. He said he couldn't resist resuming his former craft any longer.
"I enjoy coming out here perfecting the craft," Beauchamp said.
He plays old recordings while his puppets appear to bebop and bellow. Those who stop to watch his performances are not limited to any age group.
"Kids enjoy it, but they don't have a very long attention span," Beauchamp said. "The adults have a greater enjoyment of what I try to convey."
As I interviewed Beauchamp, one man who looked older than 60-years old scolded me for interrupting the show. Later another man walked up and pointed to a raggedy-clothed clown puppet and said, "I know who that is. That's Emmet Kelly." When Beauchamp agreed, the man gave a nod of acknowledgment and walked away.
When Beauchamp performed, he was blissfully concentrated on his craft. He stood behind the puppet with a satisfied smile that crinkled up every muscle in his face.