Master of puppets

Bernie Beauchamp, champion puppeteer extraordinaire, has a box full of friends.

A puppet, brought to life by Bernie Beauchamp, brings theatrics, artistry, music and pure childlike fun to the Riverwalk in downtown Reno.

A puppet, brought to life by Bernie Beauchamp, brings theatrics, artistry, music and pure childlike fun to the Riverwalk in downtown Reno.

Photo By Nick Higman

Bernie Beauchamp admits that he never went to puppet shows as a child. I think about this conspicuous absence of biographical experience as I watch Beauchamp carefully unlock the huge, black strongbox that houses his marionettes. The process is studied and looks suspiciously like work, even though Beauchamp moves with a light wind behind his limbs. He could be pulling in rigging on a ship rocking on the surface of a southern ocean, instead of a setting like the Truckee River, with Wingfield Park loudspeakers blaring and hoards of tethered canines lapping water beside parallel-parked kayaks.

A dark performance curtain is hung behind the box. One by one, Beauchamp slings the accoutrements of his trade behind the curtain of the moveable stage. Not a single string needs to be untangled. Everything was set in its proper place after its last use. Bernie tells me he is glad I could be here for the set-up. I nod my mirrored sentiment.

Beauchamp is a short man, constructed of muscles that leave their wiry origins and insertions visible at the skin surface. He’ll perform all around the city this summer. He tosses casual, amiable glances my way as, in typical springtime Renoite fashion, I prattle unoriginally about how nice the weather is this time of year.

Classic ventriloquist characters from Charlie McCarthy to Lambchop have made fortunes for—and sometimes stooges out of—their handlers. Beauchamp is in no danger of such a fate; he is in a different league. He doesn’t interact with his marionettes in the same way that a ventriloquist does with his puppets. For the most part, he is a shadow to the players he manipulates. They dance, he directs. They express, he empathizes. His inventions channel his own visions of classic stage performances. The artistry of what he does, though, is apparent and best appreciated up close.

Most of the marionettes on Beauchamp’s stage are modeled, in impressive detail, on real people, such as Bessie Smith, Scott Joplin, and Sophie Tucker—some of whom, history informs us, lived fairly rough lives. Yet the marionettes, along with Beauchamp, seem to have cultivated a healthy sense of humor.

During a swift performance change, Beauchamp calls out to the crowd, “We’re all over the map today, folks!” It’s true. Passers-by had just witnessed a sultry rendition of “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” by a frazzle-haired, false-limbed version of Sophie Tucker. Bedecked in a shimmery pink lamé dress and matching arm-length gloves, she delivered her burlesque croon while splayed out along the stage, pleading with the audience to feel, with her, the infectious influence of a hot savannah evening.

The next marionette is “Blinky,” the eldest character in Beauchamp’s menagerie. Blinky sings a Louis Prima tune, the irony of his moniker evidenced by his bulging, lidless eyeballs that stare out during a polished bit that employs all the physical comedy of his warm-blooded counterpart.

Performing by the river, Beauchamp stops often to have brief conversations with locals who are familiar with his act. Several ask him how long he’ll be out today and where he’ll be performing next. Beauchamp changes out the CD player as he talks, his gaze directly facing the burgeoning early summer sun.

Puppetry is an artistic craft. The grace of movement of the puppeteer involved is as critical to a successful performance as the skillful manipulation of rods, strings and the false flesh of pliable fabric.

Beauchamp says that the puppetry calling came to him relatively late—in college.

“It didn’t cost anything extra. It was just an optional class,” he says. “I had the usual laundry list [of classes] that everyone does. I wanted to do a little of everything, but the performing experience really stayed with me.”

Puppeteer Bernie Beauchamp is a shadow to the puppets he manipulates. Catch him at the Truckee River and around Reno this summer.

Photo By Nick Higman

The seed was planted while Beauchamp was completing his four-year theater degree. During a semester spent studying at Nazareth College, in Pittsford, N.Y., he met a unique set of performers, Margot and Rufus Rose. The elderly couple had earned their professional stripes decades previous, during the 1950s, as puppeteers on the Howdy Doody show. The pair took Beauchamp under their wing, allowing him to experience the trial and embarrassing error that comes with learning a craft.

“I don’t think that I realized at the time that I had an aptitude,” says Beauchamp. “I had to move on and see what I could make with it.”

He moved on, indeed, flinging himself far from his native Eastern shores and into the arid West, where he earned a decades-long living in the more practical trade of carpentry.

“Reno is one of the first places in my recent history where I performed with marionettes. I was looking for something to give me validation about performing. It took a few years, but I got what I was looking for.” It has not been easy, though.

Reno has played author to many artistic promises that never bore fruit. The social climate for entertainers is as transient as the varied characters that flow in and out of the city.

“I’ve been doing theater almost the entire time I’ve been here,” he says. “I want to make it a sustaining proposition. After five or six years, casino people still don’t know what to make of me. Thirty or 40 years ago, when cabaret shows were more popular, it might have been easier.”

Beauchamp says that he experienced an ideal venue for his art at Burning Man.

“People out there, as a rule, tend to be more accepting of things they don’t see every day,” he says.

The audience is next introduced to “Slim,” a thin-faced cowboy with a wide stance who is gearing up for a performance of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

A middle-aged woman in a tie-dyed shirt materializes next to me and shouts almost directly into my ear, “He looks like the shy type!”

Beauchamp, not missing a beat, looks up smiling, and replies, “He has his moments.”

Sitting cross-legged in the sun in front of the stage in cowboy boots and a western shirt, I feel like a puppet groupie. Apart from the newly-minted fan in throwback ’70s clothes standing next to me, I am the only stationary audience. Everyone else is walking by—slowing down for a hand-cupped whisper or two—but still moving on.

Slim turns my way onstage and goes down on one knee to deliver the song’s final line: “You may talk about your Clementine, and sing of Rosalee, but the Yellow Rose of Texas is the only one for me.”

He tips his head in a bow. I blush a little.