Still hilarious after 400 years

In an age of sophisticated amusements, a Bel Air man enchants children with magic tricks and the antics of `Punch & Judy.'

July 21, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

If you can imagine a child today who refuses to be swept away by Harry Potter, you can imagine what Mark Walker must have been like as a youth.

At 51, he remains interested only in what others are not: the uncommon, the old, the antique. But like children of every age, he most loves to laugh or, better still, to hear kids laughing so hard they hiccup, roll on their sides and squeal so that, soon, the adults are laughing, too.

That was the scene at the Randallstown library recently, as more than 250 kids enjoyed Walker's performance of what he believes is America's oldest continuously running Punch & Judy, the farcical puppet show featuring a battling married couple and a cast of characters who end up in slapstick situations and interact with their audience.

In a half-hour, he demonstrated that even in an age of television and other electronic amusements, kids go wild for trick voices, surprise entrances and a comic's apparent befuddlement. In sum, there is nothing like a lone creative man and a 400-year-old puppet show.

"It obviously takes a lot of practice," said Jasmine Hall, 11, a Garrison Forest School student at the library show. "These seem so realistic."

In July, to reward summer readers, Walker takes his act to Baltimore County library branches, playing a hurdy-gurdy, enticing kids to pull endless lengths of silk from a red velvet bag and staging Punch & Judy shows.

He has four or five sets of British-made wooden puppets, a range of voices for his characters, a velvet stage to hide behind, and a stage name: Professor Horn.

It takes him one hour and five trips to unload his car -- and nearly killing himself to finish his year-end numbers as senior financial analyst for the Johns Hopkins Health System to take time off for puppet season.

He loves his job, he says, but Punch & Judy is an adventure:

"Your life isn't ordinary when you do this."

You could argue, as his wife sometimes does, that Mark Walker's life was never ordinary.

At 5, he was performing magic tricks for his friends and, five decades later, he is the unchallenged authority and author of books on magic in Baltimore.

Since 1897

It pains him when unique art and people disappear. Like a good magician, he yearned to bring them all back to life. He had the chance to preserve only one -- the Punch & Judy show that has been played for children in Baltimore since 1897.

Walker was in his 30s when his mother called one evening to say the Englishman John Styles, one of the greatest Punch & Judy performers then working, was on TV. As Walker watched, he experienced a flashback to the 1960s when he was 10, at a school picnic in Patterson Park, eating hot dogs and playing dodgeball. A man named George L. Horn performed a Punch & Judy show at the picnic that intrigued Walker enough that he spoke to Horn and promised to visit. He never did.

But Walker remembered his name, and when he found Horn in the phone book, he hired him to play at his niece's birthday party. Horn was a funny guy, Walker says, and like Walker, a magician. The two became friends, and Walker took him to magicians' banquets and dinner every few months.

For 60 years, in an old amusement park during the Depression, in parks throughout the Mid-Atlantic states in the 1950s and '60s, and at Baltimore's Club Charles into the 1980s, Horn performed Punch & Judy.

Horn had learned the show in the 1930s from Edward Ross, whose stage name was "Professor Rosella" and worked into his 80s. Walker thought he would like to similarly inherit the show from Horn when he retired and carry on the Punch & Judy tradition.

The show had been around forever, it seemed to Walker, and the thought of it not being around was overwhelming. "I can't let it happen," he said.

Punch & Judy, after all, had been in America since before the White House was built. The shows are mentioned in the earliest references to puppetry in this country. While other puppeteers have performed Punch & Judy shows for a few decades, Walker says no one else has handed down essentially the same show for more than a century, preserving many of the same lines, from one puppeteer to the next as Ross, Horn and he have done.

A Punch & Judy expert agreed. "I can't think of any other," said Glyn Edwards, editor of World Wide Friends of Punch & Judy, a British Internet journal, and himself a puppeteer in Britain.

Punch & Judy dates back to the 1600s. Originating in Italy, the puppet show was made famous in England. Walker loves all things British and finds London "very nostalgic." A few years ago when he visited Broadstairs, the preserved Victorian beach town where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield, he had to pinch himself. "You were like in another time zone," he says. "I didn't want to leave."

With his fair skin, thin pointed nose, rosy cheeks and sandy hair curled at the brow, the Bel Air man could pass for a Brit himself.

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