San Francisco Chronicle Friday, November 20, 1998 NB 5

Yountville Puppeteers Turn Folktales Into Family Theater

By George Snyder

Mike and Valerie Nelson can bring inanimate objects to life, delighting crowds and tapping into their psyches with little more than pieces of colorful cloth and carved, painted wood. It's a phenomenon the Yountville puppeteers have witnessed for more than 20 years as the founders of Magical Moonshine Theatre. The couple travel the world performing puppet shows for schoolchildren as well as the public.

(click on photo to enlarge)

The Nelsons have won the 1998 Citation of Excellence in the Art of Puppetry, a national award founded by the late Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. They have been honored for their original production, "The Armadillo's Ranch," part of Magi cal Moonshine's "Animal Folktales of America" series.

"These are stories that are part of human nature," said Mike Nelson, a former folksinger and cabinetmaker who studied puppetry under the late Henson. Mike uses his woodworking skills to design and build the troupe's sets and puppets, more th an 200 of them, at his studio.

"We're kind of grassroots scholars of folktales and stories. We read a lot and listen," he said. In the armadillo story, based on an Argentine folktale and presented in Spanish and English, a sneaky and wealthy fox steals the armadillo's ranch. However, the armadillo and her son outwit the fox, saving the day - and the family ranch.

The tale brings a kind of traditional wisdom and enduring hope to the audience, in particular, to children, according to the Nelsons, who live with 1 i-year-old son Benjamin, also a performer, in a modest home in rural Wine Country.

"We do family theater," Valerie Nelson said. "And we do it with by working with a lot of old folktales. They have staying power. They often sound simple but by lifting off the layers in a performance, we discover all kinds of meaning. "

The Nelsons have been busy spreading their brand of puppetry not only to schools across the Bay Area but around the world, with appearances this year in Italy, Slovenia and Puerto Rico, where they recently participated in the Biannual International Puppet Festival. Magical Moonshine Theatre performs more than 220 times a year, most of them at schools, Valerie said. The Nelsons, both in their 40s, enjoy the work.

"Making children laugh is good for you," Valerie said. "It keeps the wrinkles from your face. It's important to get into the schools and the community and have them see the possibilities of life rather than what they see on television." That interaction, particularly with children, allows them to help youngsters learn about the diversity of the world around them.

"Some performances are in English and Spanish, where we interweave the languages so that everyone knows what is going on," said Valerie.

"I like to think of the animal stories as stories of other cultures, something to enrich the melting pot, so rather than approach people with intolerance, we'd rather learn to respect them." Mike said, "We try to do these stories with respect, like the B'rer Rabbit stories that are African in origin but that some people might think offend others. It's not the stories - those are old tales - but in how you do them: with respect for the stories and the people."

The Nelsons say they began their style of puppetry after they saw a film of Japanese Bunraku puppetry in 1980. Valerie, a fifth-generation Napan, earned a degree in music and voice and worked briefly as a nightclub singer before becoming a Montessori school- teacher. She developed a style of puppetry that mixes the puppet movement with expressions on the face of the manipulator, generally dressed in black against a black back- ground.

"We put a show together, a spoof on 'The Night Before Christmas' with marionettes trying to put on a play about it," Valerie said. "One thing happened. The little kids laughed so hard they fell from their chairs, and it was such a kick to have such an effect on those kids." The couple did additional shows, for family and friends, sometimes earning money; they worked at other jobs to keep afloat. Then, after getting married, they decided to approach puppeteering as a real business.

"We gave it a year," Valerie said "Even though we didn't quite succeed in supporting ourselves, we were at the point we knew

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