The Puppet Guy
Apr 24, 2018 02:56PM
By Steven Hoffman
It's a Thursday in the middle of March and the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament is on the television at the Deer Park Tavern in Newark. Lee Zimmerman, a.k.a. The Puppet Guy, just got back from a show in Dallas a few days earlier, and the next day he will be heading to Canada for a two-week circus arts camp where he will be teaching at-risk children. But for now, Zimmerman is in Newark―home, the city that he grew up in―and he is quite comfortable to be here.
Zimmerman talks about the Deer Park Tavern's impressive history. He gushes about growing up in Newark. He jokes with a waiter-- “Deer Park. It's a great place to park your deer.”
The waiter grins. Of course, he has no idea that he is talking to someone who has spent more than 30 years touring the world with Jimi Hendrix.
Wait a minute, you say. Jimi Hendrix, the most electrifying guitarist in the history of rock? How can that be? Hendrix's career was like his legendary performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock―dazzling and brilliant and memorable and insendiary―but also spectacularly short. When Hendrix passed away in 1970, he was only 28―and his mainstream musical career had lasted just four years. Hendrix's innovative and virtuoso performances on the guitar are still inspiring musicians 50 years later. Hendrix also inspired a young Zimmerman, which led him to make a little Jimi Hendrix puppet. That puppet then led to the improbable birth of The Puppet Guy.
Zimmerman fondly recalls his childhood spent in Newark. He attended Christiana High School. He was always drawing, and he liked various kinds of art. One day, he went to the old State Theater on Main Street and watched concert films featuring Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. His life would never be the same.
“I had never seen anything like that before,” he recalls of the musical performances by two legendary acts. “I walked out of the theater stunned.”
As soon as Zimmerman saw Jimi Hendrix in the concert film, he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He wanted to be a rock star. No! He wanted to be Jimi Hendrix! He took up playing the guitar, but quickly discovered that he wasn't very good at it. And there was no chance he was ever going to be Jimi Hendrix.
“I quit playing the guitar,” he explains. “I took my brother up on his offer to teach me how to build marionettes out of wire and papier mache.”
Zimmerman said that he and his brother, Drew, checked out a book, “Puppet Circus” by Peter Fraser, out of the Newark Library, and set out to create a Hendrix puppet.
Zimmerman was a teenager at the time, so it goes without saying that one of his motivations for building a puppet was to impress a girl. Zimmerman had no reason to think that that first puppet would help shape the course of his life.
Before they graduated, the girl that he wanted to impress with the Hendrix puppet wrote in Zimmerman's yearbook that he would spend his life in a way that combined his love of music and art. More on the girl later.
After high school, Zimmerman enrolled in the Art Institute of Philadelphia because he did have a talent for art. While he didn't play the guitar regularly anymore, it was difficult to let go of the dream of becoming a rock star. During his high school years, it was really all he wanted to be.
“I never wanted to be anything else, except maybe a comedian,” Zimmerman explains.
At some point in 1981, he ran short of money for art supplies for his classes at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. He decided to give street performing a try.
It's safe to say that he was the only street performer in the city who ever had a Jimi Hendrix puppet as the centerpiece of the show.
Zimmerman found out that he had a talent for staging a lightning-fast puppet show, complete with air guitar, air drums, and lots of energy. The show attracted attention, and before long Zimmerman had been featured in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
If you're going to do a rock and roll marionette show, it helps to look like a rock star, and Zimmerman had the look of the rock stars that were starting to dominate the airwaves. With the unique combination of humor and skill, he was able to bring some of the greatest muicians in history to life.
Zimmerman still did not comprehend that the Jimi Hendrix puppet could be the conduit to a career. He continued street performing and eventually left Philadelphia for California. He found a job working in special effects, while continuing to develop the rock and roll marionette show. He added Tina Turner, David Byrne, and Homer Simpson on the drums to his repertoire of rock and roll puppets. Focusing on what makes each rock star so unique, Zimmerman crafted a show that appeals to all ages. Children don't have to know who Jimi Hendrix is, or have a concept of his musical legacy, to understand what Zimmerman is doing with his show.
“It's just a little guy with a guitar who is beating up the amplifiers,” he explains.
Within six weeks of moving to Venice Beach, California, Zimmerman achieved something that many performers can only dream about, securing a spot in the lineup of one of the most prestigious comedy clubs in the world. On June 24, 1991, Zimmerman got an opening slot at The Improv in Hollywood, California.
Across the years and all the miles, Zimmerman can still recall that evening's performance almost as if it took place yesterday. He says that he could feel the crowd wanting him to succeed that night as he went through the performance, their cheers pushing him to do his best work in the moment, on that big stage.
“I remember thinking, this is my moment,” he explains, smiling at the memory of it all.
Before long, Zimmerman was a regular at The Improv. Top comedians like Tom Arnold, Rosanne Barr, and Jerry Seinfeld played there. He had reached the pinnacle with absurd speed.
But let's go back for a minute, because The Puppet Guy's story is filled with improbable moments and events that double back on each other.
Zimmerman has a clear memory of when he was a 14-year-old, and he and a friend were looking at a recent issue of Playboy magazine. Zimmerman, like thousands of boys before and since, pointed to the woman on the cover and said, “I'm going to marry that woman,” to a buddy.
Enter Debra Jo Fondren, the 1978 Playmate of the Year, who was well known for her stunning looks and long hair.
Years later, when Zimmerman was in California and met Fondren for the first time, he did not recognize her from the Playboy cover. She was looking to book The Puppet for a show. He auditioned in her apartment, and not long after that they were dating.
Zimmerman said that he and Fondren enjoyed the Hollywood life, encountering celebrities, sometimes partying, and working on the production side of the movie business. When a big-name celebrity received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, they would attend.
“We were together for about ten years in Hollywood, which is longer than 30 years anywhere else,” Zimmerman says.
Zimmerman's show became a regular feature at Universal Studios for nine years. He would do nine shows a night for five or six nights a week. Universal Studios is close to the epicenter of the entertainment industry, and people in the industry were always seeing his shows―and offering him the chance to do performances, sometimes in private for some of the biggest names in show business.
Having such a unique entertainment show in Hollywood opened many doors for Zimmerman.
He appeared on dozens of television shows and films, including “The Drew Carey Show” and the cult film, “Eddy Presley” with Quentin Tarantino. The Puppet Guy entertained the cast and crew at the “Seinfeld” wrap party.
He did intimate shows for many notable people, ranging from Hugh Hefner to Arnold Schwarzenegger, from the Sultan of Brunei to Guns 'N' Roses. He performed for Terry Bozzio, the respected drummer who is perhaps best-known for his work with Missing Persons and Frank Zappa. Moon Unit Zappa saw his show and loved it so much that she enlisted him to play for her father in his home. The performance happened to occur about six weeks before Zappa would pass away, and Zimmerman has fond memories of being able to entertain him at that point in his life.
“I was able to meet so many people that I really admired,” Zimmerman explains. “I don’t know how that happened, but I do know that I listened to my instincts. I never challenged them.”
Zimmerman also developed an uncanny ability to rise to the occasion―the way that he did during his first night at The Improv.
One time, he found himself in Singapore without his gear, and he needed to provide entertainment as a roving act for a group. He went out and purchased two Etch a Sketch toys and, on the spot, created a new character, Etch a Sketch Guy, using only his quick wit and even quicker drawing abilities to entertain. He added a costume of sorts, and still performs to this day as Etch a Sketch Guy.
For an episode of “The Drew Carey Show,” during which the entire cast turns into marionettes, Zimmerman made ten marionettes in just 22 days, which still amazes him to this day.
He traveled extensively, and made the most of his opportunities. He enjoyed some incredible experiences. When he went to a Street Performers Festival in Edmonton, Canada, he met people who were kindred spirits.
“These people are just the most unique, brilliant people,” he explained. “They are all geniuses.”
He described the group as a family.
One of the more meaningful efforts that he became involved with is the Winnipeg International Children's Festival Circus and Magic Partnership (CAMP), a circus arts program designed to help children who are at-risk. Neal Rempel is the executive producer of the event. During the camp, the visiting artists set up an artistic circus, do shows for the children, and teach them how to perform. Then, toward the end of the camp, the children perform, using the skills that they have learned.
Zimmerman has participated in the camp for the last 20 years. He said that it’s amazing to see how the children gain confidence and enjoy themselves during the circus. A child who is so shy that he won’t talk to the instructors on Monday will be up on the stage performing by the end of the camp.
“It’s the most important gig I’ve ever had,” Zimmerman states.
Zimmerman's journey eventually brought him back home to Newark. While he still travels a fair amount to perform, he enjoys being back in his hometown and enjoying his life here. It has been a joy, he said, to rediscover his hometown and its smart, friendly people. Zimmerman performs the marionette show locally when he can. In December of 2017, he was one of the honorary chairs of the popular Hockessin Art & Book Fair. He does a lot of private events.
He also wants to share his knowledge about how to put on a puppet show with others. He offers private workshops for children and adults. He also teaches at the Center for the Creative Arts in Hockessin.
“If I've learned anything in this life, it's that there's no age limit on playing with toys,” Zimmerman explains.
He uses his talents making marionettes to do custom gifts and what he calls pup-pet portraits―puppets that resemble a person's pet. He has done about 100 replicas of dogs, cats, horses, and other pets.
The rewarding work that he has done with the Winnipeg International Children's Festival Circus and Magic Partnership has really changed him, and he wants to do more to help children. He has launched a project on Kickstarter.com, a crowd fundraising site, where he wants to build and design teaching puppets that are specifically designed for children with Autism. He has met with local agencies like the Easter Seals and Autism Delaware to set up special workshops.
No one could have predicted the strange, amazing journey that Zimmerman has enjoyed as The Puppet Guy.
Well, almost no one.
Remember the girl in high school who said that Zimmerman would find a way to combine his love of music and art to make a living? The same girl that he first made the Jimi Hendrix puppet to impress? Her name is Lori Veale Cherney, and she and Zimmerman are together again. But that's a story for another time.
Reflecting on his incredible life, Zimmerman remarks simply, “Amazing things happen to The Puppet Guy.”