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Interview with Michael Baroto

By Thomm Quackenbush

Welcome to Poked With a Stick. The premise is simple: I ask the questions of people that have scarred me for life with their "creativity" and the baby Jesus giggles like a monkey with a handful of smaller monkeys.

Most of my generation remembers a delightful little show about a ragtag little girl abandoned in a grocery store who somehow finds her way to an elderly gentleman's home and... well, the rest really isn't appropriate for mixed audiences. There was also a show called Punky Brewster that we all watched. One magical Halloween episode chilled me to much that I was twelve before I could sleep without fearing wall demons. Michael Baroto was largely to blame for this, as he summoned forth his unholy skills of puppetry.

  1. As I have told you, your work on the Punky Brewster Halloween special "The Perils of Punky" made an otherwise fine script--at least for a five year old--into something that stayed with me (and everyone I met who remembers it) for years. This meant that I had to sleep dead center in my bed for years for fear of ghouls coming out of the wall for me. What do you remember about working on this episode?
  2. Well, for one, I remember it was a very rushed schedule. The Halloween episode was slated and the spiders and effects were not realized. I remember receiving the call to come in and work on a small prop spider. This later would develop to become the giant six-foot spider you see in the show. I also remember this project took place over a couple of weekends. I worked through it to get the job done. NBC, at that time, was a wonderful place for budding creativity and that kind of atmosphere always brings about successful results. I also believe this was about the time I developed the motto, "You have everything you need to get the job done." You see, in television there is rarely enough time given to you and so to be successful in this medium you need to think fast, be innovative and use whatever resources are in front of you. That actually is the secret to my success. You see aside from the talent they knew they could rely on me to get the job done and on time.
  3. What is your favorite horror movie?
  4. This might sound a little odd but the movie, THEM. If you've ever seen it than you know it's about these mutated giant ants that attack humanity. It had this creepy aura about it. As a kid I recall being fascinated by both the plot and imagery. Imagination is a wonderful asset to a young mind and I remember using it to bring those ants to life. I also remember the movie having this haunting effects score though I haven't seen it in a while and I could be wrong. Of course, on a pure classical note: THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is such a multi-level work of cinematic art no words are necessary.
  5. What inspired you to begin creating puppets?
    I remember being about four and my brother coming home from school one day with this hand puppet he made in class. It had a Styrofoam head, button eyes and a blue shirt. I was so enthralled at the time that ran away to school the next day. Of course, I wasn't old enough for school and my mom had to come pick me up. That is my earliest recollection. Several years later my interest would be peaked by a photo from the World Book Encyclopedia, of Bil Baird's Marionettes. I would sit for hours and stare at this photo and was in complete awe of their artistry. At the time, I was unaware that Bil had his own puppet theater NYC. And looking back on those early memories it is amazes me now that my first professional job in puppetry would later begin at Bil's Marionette Theatre.
  6. What was your strangest job?
    Strangest, by that I gather you mean unusual. I worked a couple of weeks for a small display company in NYC that was run by this elderly husband and wife team. It was located in old run-down warehouse building on the Upper West Side. They had a very dark showroom, with no windows, that was filled with these mechanical doll figures. I remember them showing me the room. It was painted a deep red with black trim and when they flicked on the lights all of these figures started to move. The whole thing was very creepy and right out of a Twilight Zone episode.
  7. What was your favorite puppet/doll/costume to make?
    Without a doubt Chandelier, from Peewee's Playhouse was my favorite puppet to make. It was the most challenging, the show was exciting, the star was a genius, and there was no rulebook to follow. My favorite doll was probably the caricature I created of Edith Piaf. I remember wondering whether I could create a doll that could translate emotional impact without relying on the use of glass eyes. I sculpted her with her eyes closed in an open mouth expression but it wasn't until I the figure was complete that I understood the power of art.
  8. What puppet do you wish you had made?
    Honestly, there is no puppet I wish I had made however; there are many opportunities I wish I had.
  9. If you weren't doing this, what do you think you would be doing?
    I don't know. I have a great love for music. It inspires my work and my soul. And I studied a bit in New York City, as part of my theatrical training. I even got as far as performing with a Jazz Trio for a number of years. My initial intent was to become a film director. In a sense, my introduction to the world of puppets allows me to utilize all of these skills.
  10. What is the hardest part of your job?
    Finding clients who allow me to do the job they hired me for. It is very frustrating when someone wants to "sculpt" with me or wants to design by committee. It may work for shopping malls but it doesn't for art.
  11. What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the business?
    Follow you heart and your passion. Make sure you get up every morning loving what you do and that you continue to do it whether you are paid five dollars a week or five thousand.
  12. What was it like to work for the Sid & Marty Krofft Company?
    A smile comes to my face. You see I went from working in NYC Theater, to network Television by following my dream. At the time I started working for Sid & Marty Krofft, they were in the process of scaling down again and had just moved from their huge warehouse size studio on Vineland to a smaller one in Sun Valley. They were re-staffing from a very tiny talent pool. I guess it was a question of talent, being at the right time and the right place with a healthy dose of persistence.
  13. What do you see as the future of puppets?
    In the early eighties, I remember writing in a journal that I saw the future puppeteers as computer programmers. And as beautiful as some of the CGI work is there is a long way to go. For one thing, the industry must take its head out of the box. Puppets are not props or special effects. Good puppetry, one that creates a persona and emotion is a work of art and an ongoing one at that. There are many opportunities for puppets that have not be realized yet because there are very few visionaries out there. Still, I am hopeful and glad to be part of the process. The journey, so far, has been a wonderful one.

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