As an artist, you are fortunate if you find another artist who inspires you to take risks and to reach beyond the limits you set for yourself. I was fortunate to have a friend and mentor who was amazingly talented and generous about sharing his knowledge as well as being a blast to work with. Steve Sleap was this and more. This blog is a tribute to Steve, a brilliant artist and a great friend. You might not know his name, but I’ll bet you know his work from Gremlins 2, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Captain EO, Gorillas In The Mist, and many other shows.
I met Steve through a group of friends from Jacksonville Florida who came to Los Angeles in the 1980s. They all grew up and learned to make puppets and monsters together. Many of them have gone on to make their mark in the entertainment industry.
I first began to work with Steve at Shaftons, a character costume and movie props shop. Steve could take a thumbnail sketch and bring it to life. He taught me much of what I know about soft sculpture, foam fabrication, and character finishing.
Working with Steve felt like a party. One of my favorite memories was from working with him at Shafton’s. We were putting in some long days and getting a bit punchy when Steve suddenly pronounced, “What this project needs is some Diana Ross!” He told David, the supervisor that our work would have to wait while we went out to buy some music. To my surprise and delight, the boss agreed. (Steve could often get away with things that the rest of us wouldn’t dare try) With the music procured, we sang and danced all day and into the evening, gluing body pods with the Supremes blasting in the background.
In 1985, I was hired to supervise the construction of puppets and character costumes for a Disney Channel show, “Dumbo’s Flying Circus” The original concept designs were by Disney animator, Ken Anderson.
They were wonderful designs, but very sketchy. Steve did full size sketches incorporating the actor’s body. The final look of the characters was very true to Ken Anderson’s designs , and yet to me, there was something about them that was very much Steve’s.
In 1989, Rick Baker took on the project Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Steve was on Rick Baker’s crew for Gremlins 2. The Gremlins were more diverse and numerous than in the original. Gremlins 2 features puppets with distinct personalities and features. Some were caricatures of famous film stars. Steve was part of the team that constructed the puppets as well as puppeteering on the shoot.
Steve was one of the puppeteers on Captain EO. I still smile when I remember Francis Ford Coppola putting Michael Jackson and the puppeteers through theater exercises like what you would do in a high school acting class. Steve puppeteered the Major Domo upper body puppet.
In 1987 for the second season of Pee Wee’s playhouse, the production was moved to L.A. Steve Sleap and Marc Tyler built the puppets Billy Baloney and Randy (the bully) for the second season of PeeWee’s Playhouse.
In 1986, George Lucas adapted the Marvel Comics character Howard The Duck into a film of the same name. The character was created with an animatronic puppet and also character costumes by the ILM creature shop.
Steve puppeteered on Howard The Duck along with Lisa Sturz, Mary Wells, Peter Baird and Tim Rose.
In 1987, Steve returned to I.L.M. along with Tim Lawrence to puppeteer the gopher for Caddyshack II. The animatronic puppet was built at ILM by a crew headed up by Ease Owyeung.
On the film, Gorillas In the Mist, live footage of Mountain Gorillas shot in Rwanda was inter-cut with puppet performances. I was Rick baker’s costume shop supervisor at the time. We built gorilla puppets and suits to match the specific gorillas that were being used in the film. Steve joined us in London to puppeteer baby gorilla puppets. I had a glorious time exploring London and London’s theater scene with Steve. Steve and I planned to go on to Italy, but that plan fell through, as Steve needed to return to the states. I didn’t know it then, but he was beginning to get sick.
We returned to the states, and I got the contract to build a “cute, cuddly” Chucky costume character for Childs Play. We worked in my shop along with Dorothy Bulac and Martha Vanek creating a 6 foot tall Chucky and 75 little Chucky overall sets for the puppets. Steve took breaks to lie down, but I never realized that he was unwell. Maybe on some level, I just didn’t want to know.
Special effects puppetry is usually the work of a team, rather than an individual. For me, having Steve on the team was a privilege. Steve’s friend and fellow puppeteer, Marc Tyler said something that really touched me, “Puppeteering with Steve was so seamless, sometimes it felt like there was no boundary between us. This is how I imagine musicians must feel when they’re really in sync” Marc put into words how many of us felt about working with Steve.
This is a mini home documentary of Steve and Mark Tyler building the puppets for Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Take a few minutes to watch. I guarantee you will smile and maybe fall a little in love too.
Steve stopped working on films projects towards the end, and began to throw himself into his artwork, painting prolifically. It was one of his most productive periods. Steve passed away in October of 1991 surrounded by those who loved him. It was a long time before I could talk about Steve without weeping. Nowadays I mostly smile when I remember. Much thanks to: Marc Tyler, Diana Hamann, Tim Lawrence, Norman Cabrera and Bart Mixon for sharing their photos with me.
“The death of a friend is like reading a book, yet having it end where it wasn’t supposed to” Cindy Vo Nguyen (Death of a Loved One)