Puppetry Journal – Fall 2010 Volume 62, No. 1
Complimentary Online Expanded Article
I'm very sorry to hear this news of Jim Menke's passing. He was about my age. I hadn't heard that he was ill.....
I just today mailed Jim his renewal, with a little note scrawled on the envelope. Just a 'Hope all is well.' kinda thing.
After a few years of somewhat contentious exchanges and silences which followed, Jim decided to rejoin PofA.
I though it was an opportunity to mend fences and so asked him if he'd like a few back issues since I had plenty. He was very pleased for the offer and wrote me a little thank you. I am glad that at least there was that.
Jim and I were at the 1953 PofA festival in Minneapolis, at the U of Minnesota. We were part of the junior brat pack. And brats we were. (Or tried to be.) Kathy Piper was with us and tougher than ANY of us guys. Rod Young was there as a young man. It was quite a festival. Such names and what shows. Proctors, Milovsoroffs, Shirley, Williams, Parsons, George Merten from Canada, and others. A great beginning for young puppeteers.
I recall that at around 2 or 3 in the morning, following a rain storm, we kids all walked from Minneapolis to St. Paul (if I recall correctly) over a small bridge
and thought nothing of it. Such larks! Things were different then....
Jim was a lonely guy as best I knew, and unhappy. He felt that he got little back in the form of recognition for all his hard work in puppetry.
I think he was working right up to the end.
He posted items often on PuppetHub. I never saw him perform.
Those of us who have someone in our lives can count ourselves blessed.
I am saddened by this loss. I might have made more of an effort. Distance - however it manifests itself - can be difficult to bridge.
ROB AND CAROL ALLEN
I first saw Jim Menke perform as a puppeteer when I was just a boy. There is an amusement park called Fantasy Island--a place for kids with rides, western town and a fabulous puppet show. As a child I owned marionettes and was very interested in the style in which he worked. It was kind of a vaudeville show, where each marionette performed an act but the puppeteer wasn't hidden behind a puppet stage. The marionettes performed their acrobatics and showed their skills as ice skaters, trapeze artists, weight lifters and a clown in front of the audience with the puppeteer operating them for all to see. It was fascinating! In show business, to gauge how good any show is you can count the reactions from the audience--the number of times they spontaneously applaud, laugh, gasp, ooh, ahh, jump, smile or feel sad. Jim could have his puppets do all that and more throughout his show. His puppets came to life in his hands.....they were alive, they were real!
I had many interests, another being magic. Little did I know that years later my wife Carol & I would end up having our own show at Fantasy Island for five summer seasons in the 1970's. The park was still owned by it's original owners--a group of business investors and the focus was not on big amusement rides but on the shows. Unlike amusement parks of today where a production company hires kids to do stock singing and dancing shows, Fantasy Island had Jim Menke as their entertainment director. They had a real circus starring Tarzan Zerbini and his trapeze high-flying wife Jackie as it's stars. Jim was the ringmaster dressed as a jungle adventurer complete with pith helmet and a tiger tail hanging out of his rear shorts back pocket. (remember the ads from that time when Esso gasoline put a tiger in your tank?) There were in the western town, five shootouts daily and Jim would return to the Western town wearing a cowboy hat & bandana to MC the action of the Bad Brandon Brothers invading the town and terrorizing the saloon's dancing girls. The western town had a saloon complete with stage, lighting and a live band. At the conclusion of the gunfights, the assembled crowd of hundreds would line the boardwalk to see one of the five daily Golden Nugget Reviews. Again, this wasn't just a stock pre-taped , lip-synced reactionless show that one might see at an amusement park today. This was an annual production, a must-see Broadway -style show that Jim Menke wrote, produced and directed each and every summer. The place would be packed and the over-flow crowd turned away til the next of the five daily shows.
This is the time and place where our lives became entangled with Jim Menke. My wife Carol & I were working in the Adirondack Mountains at various amusement parks and wanted to return home to Western New York after being on the road for a number of years. I contacted Fantasy Island with our credits and because of their emphasis on shows , they decided to put us in the Golden Nugget Saloon with our own show. We worked for five summer seasons doing three shows daily between the Golden Nugget Review shows. It was here that we got to know Jim as for all five summer seasons we worked closely with him. Jim was a perfectionist so there were times that were stressful as there are in any working situation with show people but mostly it was was a lot of fun and we all thought it would never end. We were all happy there and would have been glad to have stayed a lifetime.
Fantasy Island was Jim's life--he lived it year round . An extremely talented artist, he worked all year making that place special. Each and every sign a work of art. Fiberglass figures of Jack & the Beanstalk, Pinnochhio and the Whale, fantasy houses filled with figures made by Jim were featured throughout the park.
Jim would be backstage every show, working the lights and making sure that everything was the very best that it could be. It was here that JIm Menke made life-long friends with Marshal Steve Jakiel of western town and Mary McMahon lead singer and star of the Golden Nugget Review. In years to come, even after Fantasy Island was sold to new owners, Jim and the cast remained friends and was godfather to Steve & Mary's daughter. The new owners of Fantasy Island had their own ideas of what an amusement park should be --big rides to thrill an older audience. The shows were pushed to the side and Jim was pushed out of a job. It was no longer a place of fantasy, there was no longer a place for Jim.
Carol & I moved on, spending the next 15 summers with our "Ala-Ka-Zoo" Magic show at the Buffalo Zoo. Jim could not adjust and couldn't find another place to be. We remained friends with everyone from Fantasy Island and would often reminisce about the good-ol' days.
Jim still did shows in schools and other dates but Fantasy Island had allowed him to be the show person that he was. With that gone it was a struggle for him. Being an artist, he taught ceramic classes and had an unbelievable following of loyal students.
Over the next couple of decades, months would go by and sometimes years of not hearing from him. With the computer and email we reconnected and kept in contact with updates on our lives. He would make an annual visit to see our show in recent years at the Aquarium of Niagara and would videotape our show so that we'd have a recording of it. It was always a treat to get an email with an attached photo of his latest creation--a talking Christmas Tree, a beautiful Santa and most recently a polar bear puppet.
Last summer Pix Smith came to Western New York while on his national tour. When working in Buffalo, we invited Jim to come with us to see Pix work and to attend a reception afterword at our house--a gathering of show people. Pix and Jim had never met but after the first few minutes of their meeting it was obvious that a friendship was made, as for the entire evening they were back & forth talking puppets and show business til the wee hours of the morning when the party broke up. When Jim was leaving , I don't think I've ever seen him as happy as he was that night! He remarked to us that this was one of the best days of his life in recent years.
It came as a shock to hear that he had taken a fall in his home and was in the hospital in a coma with a head injury and broken arm. Once finding out where he was, Carol & I went to the hospital to find Jim sitting up and conversing with two of his ceramic students. We were very surprised--he knew who we were and conversed with us about old times and friends, Tarzan and his lions and of course, Fantasy Island; when we left, he thanked us for coming. He seemed to be a little out of it , but he had just come out of a coma and moved out of ICU. We expected him to recover, although the process might be slow, and return home.
A week later in a forwarded email from Mary & Steve, originally from Jim's brother, we learned of his death. We couldn't believe it. In talking with his brother and sister-in-law who are from Montreal we found out that they had never seen him awake in the hospital! it appears as tho the only day Jim was awake, alert was the day we visited! OPutside of the two ceramic friendsand a couple of nurses , Carol & I were probably the only people that he got to talk to after the fall.
The funeral mass for Jim was held at St. John the Baptist Church in Kenmore , NY, Jim's hometown. It was held at 10:45 in the morning on Sept. 1, 2010. We were the first to arrive and wondered how many people would be there as there had been no death notices in any newspapers. Shortly after we got to meet Jim's brother Caj and his wife Deana. It was obvious that Jim touched many lives as the church filled up, mostly with neighbors, friends and ceramic students. A few show people, including Steve & Mary Jakiel. It was Jim's wishes that he be cremated and he was, along with his most recognizable hand puppet Wallingford J. Walrus.
We were surprised to see a puppet on the altar sitting in a child's lounge chair. We got to talk with the priest, Father Dave. Jim had served mass with him many times as lector and Eucharistic Minister at St. John's. Come to find out, Father Dave is a puppeteer and uses puppets at his children's masses! Father Dave & Marcus, his puppet friend gave the homily!!! It was UNBELIEVABLE!!!!! So personal and touching.....
I only wish that somehow it could have been videotaped....It couldn't have been a better send-off for JIM! Carol & I will never forget it!
After the homily Jim's brother spoke about Jim and his life, hitting the mark perfectly when talking about who Jim was-- a person who dealt in fantasy--a man who had the heart of a child and in many respects lived his life as a child, often being easily hurt as children are. I don't know how Caj was able to portray Jim's life so eloquently, pointing out his good points and bad and making it all seem OK. Caj pointed out that DOG spelled backward is GOD and both of these were Jim's best friends. Lilli his dog, has a new home in Youngstown, NY with friends and Jim has gone home to God.
We got to stay for the entire mass but did not get to go to the cemetery and reception afterward although we'd loved to have been there. Carol & I rushed home, changed clothes and went off to the AQuarium for our 1:00 show. Jim would have understood--"On with the show!"
(About the author: Rob & Carol Allen are full-time professional magicians from Niagara.
I first knew Jim when we were very young Junior members of the P of A. We began a correspondence, exchanging technical information and photos of our puppets. We both were working professionally at a very early age, and in a hurry to get done with school!
About 1953, or 54, Jim, Kathy Piper and I (skipping school) performed at a fair sponsored by Jim's college in Chicago.I had no idea of how Jim and Kathy looked. When I arrived at the train station in Chicago, above the heads of the teeming crowd, I saw two hand puppets with heads of apples over handkerchiefs! Of course, the "Apple Sirens" led me to Jim and Kathy, and friendships that lasted over 50 years!
We had a ball! Jim had managed to attach roller skates on a suitcase full of puppets, which he rolled to the fair site each evening. They could hear us coming for blocks! Jim and Kathy were wonderful! The shows were great!
Two years later, Jim and I did a school circuit of Hansel and Gretal for a year. It was Jim's show. We had a big marionette stage of metal pipes. We toured in Jim's Nash rambler with the pipes on top. We did two set ups a day, usually two performances each place. We did the voices live, no mics. We projected! We were young! Jim was a wonderful actor and puppeteer! I learned a great deal from him. When we began, he did all the voices. Then he let me take on a couple. We had a rule to never pay more than 4.00 a night for our hotel rooms. I traveled with a TV set, Jim with a phonograph and many show albums. We also made puppets in the rooms. I remember stopping up the sink in one hotel room with Plaster of Paris!
I also recall being bothered by a ghost in Richmond!
As the years passed, my work was here in NY. Jim won the Army talent show, toured the world, and finished on The Ed Sullivan TV show. His work took him on the road, and in Buffalo. We stayed in close contact. He'd come to NY to see shows, and buy records, and visit friends.
I think his world became narrow these last few years. He made some splendid new hand and rod puppets. Did some shows. He would call, or e-mail almost ever day. He'd send pictures of puppets in the making for approval. I'd dare not criticize too much! If so, he vow to never make another! Yes, Jim could be difficult! But, I knew him well, and he'd come around in a day or so. I could always get him titillated with tales of some of my bizarre friends here in NY!
Jim was a most generous and loyal friend. He was a wonderful actor, puppet builder, and performer. I will always miss him.
Thorton Wilder said the highest tribute to the dead was gratitude, not grief. As I stated to his Brother and wife, I am feeling a great deal of both now. . . . .
Like many of his puppetry friends, I'd known Jim when WE were the young ones in Puppeteers of America. Now, that is a long time ago.
I had a phone conversation with Jim in more recent times about an exhibit he did for a toy museum in Buffalo, after the museum contacted us for an exhibit from our collection (they had NO budget for shipping, so an exhibit from us did not happen). I was disappointed since it would have made a visit wih Jim possible.
The last time I saw Jim in person was at a Puppetry Festival at Kent State University, Ohio. He performed under difficult circumstances---all the variety acts were on the same program, so we saw several opera singers, skeletons & such, one after the other. Not the best way to spotlight such talent, and Jim was not the only performer upset. But I remember commiserating with him at the time.
Jim was helpful in providing accurate background information about the MGM movie musical, "LiII" released in 1953. Paul Gallico wrote a short story in the Saturday Evening Post, set in a Chicago TV studio, about an angry hand puppeteer.
MGM adapted the story, but set it in a travelling French Carnival. Helen Deutsch wrote the movie script, making major (improved) changes. THEN, Paul Gallico rewrote his original short story in book form, basing it on the film script. The book was then advertised as the inspiration of the movie. Jim explained to me why that was not exactly accurate, since the book, titled "Love For Seven Dolls" was published AFTER the movie was released. And to complicate things, the Broadway musical called "Carnival!", was based on the "Lili" movie. Since my collection includes three of the puppets from the movie, all this complicated background information Jim provided, was extremely helpful to us.
Incidentally, the three "Lili" puppets were in our Ogden exhibit.
Jim worked on the Lesselli's THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF show, making the goat puppets which we also have (a gift from a private school in the San Fernando Valley which had no use for them). Marionettes by Les & Ellie Heath (Lesselli Marionttes) were among the 108 puppets from our International Puppetry Museum collection, which were on exhibit at The Treehouse Museum, (a unique, well-maintained museum focused on 2 to 12year olds in particular).
We showed in a prominent spot, the marionettes from Les & Ellie Heath's production of SNOW WHITE. Jim had worked for the Heaths early in his career.
It was partly through his help that we were able to acquire important Lesselli Marionettes, and I was planning to send an e-mail like this one to Jim once the puppets were back in Pasadena at The International Puppetry Museum. I feel reaklly disappointed that I did not get to send Jim a full report
Jim loved puppets as you know, and I count his friendship among the important ones of my life. He was an ally in our efforts to preserve puppet history. For that I shall always be grateful.
I am one of many who will miss him.
In 1959, while stationed at Fort Dix, I met, in person, a Puppetry Journal pen-pal, Jim Menke, when he appeared there with the touring Army Talent Show. At the performance, I escorted his Mother, who had come down from Buffalo for this event. His act was a classic marionette Variety show, and it was terrific…I’m sure his Mom was pleased at the huge ovation he got after his set. I recall that he was also in some skits as an comic actor, as well.
We often met whenever I was touring in his area, and he always attended our performances there. As the years progressed, and work loads increased, we only met or wrote occasionally.
That would change thanks to the advent of E-Mail, when thoughts and pictures could be shared so easily.
He also sent the most wonderful e-cards (from Jacqueline Lawson) which were a great treat at holiday or birthday time.
He was a talented colleague, a funny and cranky and generous friend.
JEAN REGES BURN
After meeting and seeing Jim perform his Army show at a 1959 P of A festival in Detroit, he and I became good friends. He and Rus Gordinier stayed at my Michigan home before setting forth on a mid-west circuit of shows. They set up the stage in our basement where Rus worked some of his creative genius to make the stage and curtains more beautiful.
We had a great visit and the two professionals helped me improve the appearance of my variety show with subtle lighting and helpful suggestions. I was a novice and Jim encouraged me with kind words and support.
When Jim decided to do a one man marionette show, he stopped by the Mousetrap to showcase his new show - Ruplestiltskin for Margie, Steve and myself. He arrived late in the afternoon and set up his stage in their living room. A formidable task that took over an hour. He then performed the entire show for the 3 of us. It was an enchanting show - and Jim did all the voices live. Steve and Margie loved it.
This is how I would like to remember Jim. A dedicated and unique puppeteer who remained so throughout his life.