Christopher Oates, marionette maker and performer


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Christopher Oates has worn many hats. He was a second-grade teacher, a tennis pro, a professional clown and also used to operate the store Toy Madness. Now, he’s the hand behind the strings of Christopher’s Musical Marionettes. You may have seen him around the streets in Old Sac with his musical, dancing puppets. SN&R caught up with him to talk about cute dog puppets, and the difference between puppets and marionettes.

How did you get started?

When I was a second-grade school teacher, I’d done some work with puppets in my classroom, and kind of made half of a puppet, kind of a rod puppet, that could move its arm with a rod. And I invented a little mouth mechanism so that they could move their mouth and lip-sync words for some concerts in the class. After retiring, I built the rest of the puppet, so to speak, and added a lot of realistic movements and turned it into a marionette. It was all trial and error, looking on the Internet and watching other performers. Being retired, I still was looking for an avenue to work with kids and have a lot of fun.

Is there a difference between a puppet and a marionette?

Puppets is a general category, and a marionette is a puppet, just a puppet with strings.

How’d you decide to start working in music?

My marionettes, you know, they play a musical instrument and their mouths move so they sing the songs, and they move around and interact with the audience. And it’s something that if you go online and Google “street performers,” “musical marionette street performers,” South America, Europe, Russia, Asia, all over the world there’s performing artists that do marionettes just like I do them.

I think you were doing Johnny Cash when I was down there.

Old Sacramento’s a great spot. I get a lot of practice and I’m always trying new tricks, new interactions with the audience, without impeding their progress along the boardwalk. I just go by their smiles and enjoyment, the best feedback that I’m know I’m doing the right stuff. The puppet hug, when one of my puppets gives a little child a high-five or a hug, it’s great. And it’s just as fun when one of the puppets goes up to an older gentlemen and gives them a hug as well, even more so. Or an elderly person in a wheel chair … it’s a lot of fun and sometimes I get choked up with the situation out there.

It’s cool that you can reach people like that.

It is. I had no idea how powerful marionettes were and what they could do. It’s almost being hypnotized. Some people can and some people don’t [and] walk right on by. It’s always fun when their kids in the stroller are getting a stiff neck looking … to keep watching the marionettes. So many fun moments, even a slow day is a lot of fun. It just takes one family to make something really enjoyable.

How long does it take to make a puppet?

[When I started out] it’d probably take a few weeks to develop something. And then I started making others, and I had to develop a certain style. I started with really large puppets—maybe 2-and-a-half feet tall and they were so heavy my arms were getting really tired. I moved down to about a foot-and-a-half. It takes, if I went hard at it, I can make one in a week-and-a-half. It’s a lot of step-by-step building of the puppet, and making it work so it does what you want it to do.

What do you make them out of?

They’re made out of papier-mâché. And sometimes I have some simple clothing that I can put on. … A lot of the time the clothing is painted on. But papier-mâché and simple wood controls.

How many do you have?

Probably two dozen.

Of the ones that you’ve made, do you have a favorite?

Well, I’ve got seven or eight puppets that are just really awesome in how they perform. The ballerina is so amazing, she’s the most popular. I do the violin player when I want to show people I’ve got some classical moves, music or chops. And the variety really brings out the amazement. To have a country western cowboy and then mix in a piano player, you know anyone by themselves is OK, but when you put the whole group together …

Are there any marionettes you are working on now?

Right now, I’m kind of in a holding position … I guess a dog puppet. There’re a lot of cute [things] I can do with a marionette dog.