Puppets are his life, if he does say so himself

June 30, 1994|By Howard Henry Chen | Howard Henry Chen,Sun Staff Writer

While most of us would rather detach ourselves from fake people and wooden personalities, Todd Stockman of Baltimore puts as many in his orbit as possible.

He's not in the film industry. He's not in politics. He's not even in public relations. He can, however, be seen on the PBS "Square One TV" program that airs all this week at 5 p.m. on Maryland Public Television.

Mr. Stockman is a ventriloquist, a man whose love for animating loose-lipped, swivel-headed puppets stretches back to when he was still a young boy.

"I saw Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop when I was 7, and asked my mom for a puppet that could sit on my lap," recalls Mr. Stockman. "It wasn't until I took it out of the box that I realized it couldn't talk for itself. I had to learn to make it talk."

Now "somewhere in my thirties," he has cultivated a career in giving life and voice to dummies, a career that has allowed him to crisscross the world, perform for former President and Mrs. Bush at the White House, and work with Jim Henson and Big Bird (he has a framed autograph and feather from the big yellow guy that hangs on his wall in his Baltimore home).

After studying mass communications and, appropriately, public address at Towson State University, Mr. Stockman moved to New York to start his cabaret show.

After 13 years in New York, Mr. Stockman, tall, curly-haired and rubber-faced, has just recently moved back to Baltimore, but he spends five or six months a year on cruise ships.

"They're the big employer now, as comedy clubs and cabarets are folding around the country," he says. "They're the new venue for vaudeville."

Nowadays, Mr. Stockman travels with six puppets in a "sort of musical comedy show." He works with a piano player and performs mainly for adults, though he's quick to point out it's not a dirty show.

Two of his co-stars are a large green bird that does Ethel Merman and Joan Rivers impressions, and a talking Bible -- yes, a talking Bible -- that he uses to spoof television evangelists.

On "Square One TV," which was filmed last year in New York, he appears with "Shawn," a punchy, tawny-haired dummy that looks like a 10-year-old boy.

Which puppet is his favorite? He couldn't be persuaded to name one, saying that would be akin to a father choosing his favorite child.

"I see a puppet at a puppet show or convention and I fall in love with it," he says. "There's just something about them, and often it's the eyes. It then takes about two years to develop a personality and voice and for me to feel comfortable performing it."

Although he's glad that he's "never had to wait tables," Mr. Stockman is wary of telling people that he's able to make the cabinet behind them sing, or the fork they're holding throw insults.

"It's always the same. They'll hold up an object and say 'Make this talk,' or say, 'My husband's a dummy, make him talk,' " he says. "So I usually just say I'm a puppeteer."

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