The Puppeteers

By Lynanne Lasota
Photographs by Vince Heptig

A Phoenix-area family combines Scouting with puppetry performances to carry on a tradition, strengthen family bonds, and create lasting memories.

As a child in Mesa, Ariz., Janel Wade couldn't be a Cub Scout, but that didn't keep her from attending den and pack meetings with her brothers.

In 1965, her mother, den leader Joy Wade, an experienced puppeteer, helped her Webelos den make puppets, design a set, and perform a show.

Although Janel was too young to realize it at the time, the experience was the beginning of an involvement with puppetry and Scouting that would become a significant part of her life and the life of her future family.

Entertaining audiences with puppet shows is a passion that includes at least four generations of the Durfee family. Shown with some of their dozens of puppets are (front row) Justin; Harmony; Tyler; Dallin; and (standing) Erica; Ryan; mom, Janel; dad, Rick; Delight (Durfee) Moser, and husband, Thomas Moser.

For the Wade family, puppetry wasn't confined to Scouting. While Janel was growing up, Mom, Dad, and the five children staged a variety of family puppet shows on a number of occasions.

In fact, it was at one such show that Janel, age 17, noticed her future husband, Rick Durfee, when the Durfee family was singing and dancing on the same stage shared by a Wade family puppet performance.

Two years later, Rick and Janel were married, combining the performing heritage of both families.

Puppets and marionettes

The couple's interest in puppetry continued. "In fact, after we were first married," said Rick, "we made a living doing local puppet shows for birthday parties, weddings, even bar mitzvahs."

Today, Rick is a lawyer, and Janel oversees their home, where the youngest six of their eight children reside. But they have continued the family tradition of involvement in both Scouting and puppetry.

Janel, a Cub Scout assistant district commissioner for the Grand Canyon Council's San Tan District, directs the family puppetry performances. Rick, a former Scoutmaster and now San Tan District camp promotion and outdoor chairman, handles each show's technical aspects.

The six children at home—Erica, Ryan, Justin, Dallin, Tyler, and Harmony—perform onstage with hand puppets, body puppets (like costumes), and marionettes, as well as sing and do magic tricks and juggling stunts.

Oldest daughters Melodie, 22, and Delight (Mrs. Thomas Moser), 20, were veterans of the family puppeteering troupe before each left home—Melodie on a mission for her church and Delight, along with her husband, to study at Brigham Young University in Utah.

Son-in-law Thomas had joined his wife and the other Durfees for a year of performing before he and Delight left for college in fall 2005. Last December, the couple returned to help with holiday shows. Thomas performed several marionettes as well as danced.

A variety of audiences

The Durfee family performs together for Scouting events, library programs, at senior centers, and on special occasions for the general public.

Dallin, Harmony, and Tyler display the Frontier group of puppets.

They create original shows, each lasting 45 minutes and containing about 20 songs. They design and make their own puppets, write some of the music, and choreograph puppet and puppeteer movements.

"I like moving the puppets around," said Harmony, 6, the youngest Durfee. She especially enjoys performing with her four Scout brothers: Wolf Cub Scout Tyler, 8, in Pack 481, and First Class Scout Dallin, 12, in Troop 481; plus Life Scout Justin, 14, and Eagle Scout Ryan, 16, in Varsity Team 6481.

One family puppet show marked the completion of Ryan's Eagle Scout service project. The Gilbert (Ariz.) Senior Center had wanted a mural painted on a large wall in a social hall for resident events, but the painter could not begin because the room was in shambles. The Durfee family and other volunteers assisted Ryan with cleanup and repairs.

The painter was then able to create an eye-catching mural depicting a spectacular outdoor scene. (Ryan was surprised to see himself portrayed in the painting as a Boy Scout in uniform assisting a senior citizen, to honor him for his effort.)

The Durfees returned with puppets to entertain the residents. "Senior citizens are one of our best audiences," said Erica, 18. "They really enjoy and appreciate the show."

Confident performers

The family makes performing look easy, even turning mishaps into opportunities on- and offstage. For example, after picking up a marionette and discovering it tangled in a mass of strings, a family member will stay in character, walk offstage, untangle the mess, and return performing.

One time, Dallin began a magic trick by saying that, because he was a Boy Scout, he enjoyed tying knots with balloons. Unfortunately, Rick had to play the theme from the TV show "Jeopardy" eight times while Dallin fumbled with the balloon knot.

"Dallin was laughing at himself, which added to the problem he was having tying the balloon," said Janel. Eventually, his Eagle Scout cousin, Ammon Curtis, came onstage to help. (Many of the shows include extended family members, especially the children's cousins.)

Despite the mishap, Dallin remains a confident performer. "When I first get to the performance, I'm scared," he acknowledged, "but once I'm onstage, I'm fine."

One reason for the Durfee children's confidence is the thorough planning and organizing that goes into preparing every show. If a performance glitch occurs, someone is ready to immediately go to another plan and implement it onstage without the audience ever knowing something has gone wrong.

"The kids learn how to do things quickly and reorganize on the spot," explained Rick.

Lasting memories

Janel, Erica, and Delight enjoy working with the dancing birds—each a combination of ventriloquist puppet and body puppet—which are attached to a puppeteer's knees and feet for added movement.

Each puppet performance creates special and lasting family memories. One year the Durfees and their Curtis cousins used a Southwestern theme for shows at many libraries in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. Rick created the background music for a Kachina-inspired rain dance, while the others made unique Kachina-style marionette puppets. (Hopi Indians believe Kachinas are spirits who return with the clouds and rain to help their people.)

"We [performed] four rain dances in one day," said Justin. "While we were doing the last performance, you could hear the rain pouring down. When we went outside, there must have been a foot of water!"

The older Durfee children acknowledge that at times they felt a bit embarrassed during puppet performances during their early teen years. But as they grew older, they became comfortable with the show and now enjoy helping out.

"Although I often complained about it," said Erica, "it's really fun and a part of our lives."

The family understands the changing needs and growth of each member. A couple of times a week, all gather for a family council to talk about issues, schedules, and opinions, including any upcoming shows. "As the kids get older, we must coordinate all the activities" in, and outside, the show, said Rick.

Family is strengthened

Today, in addition to performing with puppets, Rick spends more time on each show's technical aspects and Janel assists backstage. The children have also been adding elements to the basic puppetry: Harmony juggles scarves; Erica dances (clogging); and Ryan, Justin, Dallin, and Tyler work at improving their skills juggling balls and clubs, and performing magic tricks.

Rick and Janel point out that their family's puppetry involves much more than the coordination of a near-perfect show. For the Durfees, puppeteering is one way to fulfill Rick and Janel's keen desire for a spirit of generosity and mutual concern to thrive among their children, resulting in a strong familial bond.

"Our family standard is to treat each other kindly and do things together," said Rick.

Puppets—and Scouting— are two aids that help the family live up to that standard.

Freelance writer Lynanne Lasota lives in Queen Creek, Ariz.

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