Fabric covered hand puppets. Elegant puppets manipulated by strings. Stretchy mittens that look like goofy animal heads. And all manipulated by someone “behind the scenes” animating their little personalities and telling a story perhaps better than a book.
At least that’s the opinion of Tallahassee puppeteer Jan Kaufman. While some people feel the same existential dread of a puppet as they do of a clown, for Kaufman, puppets have charmed her ever since the 77-year-old started taking her dolls apart to see how they worked.
Over the years, she combined her anatomical curiosity with degrees in theater and education, added a flair for accents and a desire to emotionally touch children whose feelings were frightening. The result was a lifetime of Kaufman’s interactions with imaginary fabric and wire personalities who, in turn, often aided those who found the real world intimidating. And Jan Kaufman made them laugh along the way.
Kaufman and her husband, 86-year-old retired FSU professor Roger Kaufman, welcome visitors to their home with the enthusiasm of true believers, showing puppets mounted on the walls, sitting in the corners and occupying a whole room where their tiny clothes are made. “I probably have 25 or 30 original puppets,” Kaufman says, “each with their own accent and their own backstory.”
And though several are squeezed together in plastic bags in a blue steam locker, at any time the puppeteer can pull them out, mount them on her hand, and strike up a lively conversation with anyone nearby. It seems her “inner child” is never far away either.
By the time adopted baby Jan was 13, she was already creating her own hand puppets. Playing at a card table, she entertained children at birthday parties whenever she could. At 14, she was performing for a modest salary at a toy store where she was demonstrating puppets for sale, improvising stories as she went.
“I think she was doing ‘doll therapy’—on herself,” her husband says. It seems that Jan Kaufman’s family life was not ideal.
“His mother was mean,” Professor Kaufman flatly states. “Jan was working through the difficulty of being dyslexic and having a mother who didn’t accept who she was.” It also turned out, as Kaufman discovered several years later, that his biological mother was a “deaf-mute”. The young woman who made voiceless characters speak was the daughter of a woman who had never had this ability.
A life-changing trip to a Puppeteers of America convention showed young Kaufman that she could actually make a living doing something she loved. It was there that she met Burr Tilstrom, who created Kukla, Fran and Ollie, rising young star Shari Lewis, and pioneering puppeteer Bil Baird. And she immersed herself in the history of the profession that so enchanted her.
It is likely that early human efforts at storytelling involved both puppets and masks. Neolithic stone masks dating back 9,000 years suggest a ceremonial or ritual purpose. Either to assume other personalities, perhaps as a god or deity, to convey cultural information, or to instruct and intimidate a superstitious populace who could neither read nor write, the masks and their smaller and more completely formed – puppets – found in all civilizations.
Puppets, small effigies of people and animals, come from Egyptian tombs containing clay figures with articulated joints; Greek and Roman tombs where elegant puppets are fashioned into togas and chitons, as well as Indonesian Waywang puppets performing in dramatic silhouette, Indian Kathputali string puppets from Rajasthan, and delicate and filigree Chinese puppets.
Later, Jan Kaufman will study theater at the University of Miami, but the puppet will be the elixir of his life.
“That’s how I met Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett,” she says. As a student at a mecca of nightclub entertainment and with a personality that exuded a fun and lively chutzpah, Kaufman found her engaging puppets to be a “sweetening agent” for crowds at nightclubs where big stars were performing. “I worked the house before the headliners happened,” she says.
After a year away from school, staying with her family in Switzerland and playing gigs with the puppets at ski resorts there, Kaufman headed to New York, ready to roll the dice where the great puppeteers. Along the way, there have been some memorable ups and downs. “Do you remember Señor Wences?” I had suggested a puppet act…an idea I wanted to use, and before I could turn around, Wences was playing it. I stole it right under me.
But despite the small-town girl’s entry into show business reality, she was enjoying herself like never before.
“For a while I worked as Leonard Bernstein’s right-hand man. I was friends with jazz trumpeter Johnny Hodges and Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler and Duke Ellington. I helped Shari Lewis make the puppet, Lambchop, and became friends with Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets. I joined the New York Puppet Theater, covered Muppet Magazine, and performed for kids in all five boroughs. Then I got an amazing invitation to perform at the New York World’s Fair with Henson and Bil Baird.
But she didn’t. Instead, Jan, who had now become Jan Kaufman, wife of the future Ph.D. Roger Kaufman, decides to move to California where her husband is finishing his studies. There, Jan Kaufman earned her own master’s degree in education and began a series of television shows featuring her original puppets and their stories.
“It’s been a wonderful life,” Kaufman says, smiling with the same charm that spills over each of his little fabric-covered figures. When her husband came to FSU as a professor of educational psychology, Kaufman wasted no time getting involved and offering his talents: spring performances in Tallahassee, book seminars at the library from Leon County, a statewide puppet-explained nutrition program, and Sheriff’s Department workshops on how best to deal with abused children and how puppets can help.
“We have also been able to travel to more than 100 different countries where not only have I collected puppets, but I have been able to work with children where it is not necessary to know their language, but where the puppets can communicate directly. with their little hearts.”
Kaufman is silent for a moment as she reflects on some of the highlights of her career and the future of puppetry in general.
“The old type of puppets are dying out. He may already be dead,” Kaufman says grimly, thinking of old ventriloquists and Howdy-Doody puppets of the 1940s and 1950s. Yet she acknowledges that The Lion King and even the Olympics, where puppets at large scale have raised the public, are more popular than ever. “I think it’s likely that some sort of robotic version of a puppet is what’s coming up now.”
But it’s the memories of the children that remind Kaufman that these little facsimiles she created have lasting value.
“There was the little girl in Guatemala who had autism. They said she never spoke, until she came, put on my skirt and asked to speak to the puppet. And the kid who came on stage after a performance of not allowing anyone to touch you in a place that made you feel uncomfortable…and told us that her uncle did that, and she had was afraid to tell anyone. But she told the puppet. It always amazes me how children relate to… so easily trust… a puppet.
Jan Kaufman hopes to leave some of her long legacy in the world of puppetry at Florida State University. Costumes, examples of puppets from around the world and steaming trunks of sweet little “people” who, with the spark of liveliness, sometimes do inhuman good.