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Man plans to open puppet theater in Martinsburg

July 14, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The original production of a musical black comedy about a nerdy florist shop worker who raises a plant - brought to life by a series of elaborate puppets - that feeds on human blood became a life-changing experience for Joe Santoro.

After watching "Little Shop of Horrors" more than 20 years ago in a tiny, narrow theater in New York City, the puppetry left a lasting impression in the Brooklyn native's already artistic mind.

"I've always done art since I was a kid," Santoro said.

Now, after years of dabbling in the art made famous by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, the 55-year-old schoolteacher is putting the finishing touches on his own puppet theater in downtown Martinsburg at 412 W. King St.

"I've been looking for a site for years," Santoro said while giving a tour of the late 19th-century home that he and his wife, Jane, purchased in February.

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Tucked between two substantially larger buildings, Santoro said the appearance of the Victorian-style home and its gingerbread trim exuded the feel of "a little sanctuary" for the little people, if only at heart, that he plans to entertain when he opens for business in the coming months.

"It looks like a little house, a fairy house," said Santoro, who lives near the Morgan County community of Unger and teaches art at Hedgesville (W.Va.) Elementary School.

Expected to open in the next month or so, Santoro's Wonderment Puppet Theater and Birthday House is an outgrowth of the traveling shows he has staged for children and adults since 1995. Before teaching art at Hedgesville, Santoro said his special education students also were exposed to his puppeteering, something he said blends well with instruction.

"The shyest kid would want to try it," Santoro said.

When the theater opens, the home's former living room will be converted into an intimate theater, similar to the up-close and personal experience Santoro said he had while watching "Little Shop of Horrors."

A stage for "Punch & Judy," a popular puppet show featuring Punch and his wife, Judy, is planned for an adjacent room for birthday parties, Santoro said. An outdoor, bricked "Pinata garden" for children and an interactive exhibit hall also are part of the business plan for the property.

"It will be a controlled show from beginning to end," Santoro said. "It's going to be fun."

Santoro said the upstairs of the home will be converted into space for his office, storage and a studio for new productions. He plans to stage six productions each year, including a Christmas show.

"When I do my shows, it's going to be fun for everyone," Santoro said.

Fred Thompson, membership officer for Puppeteers of America, said there are fewer than a dozen permanent puppet theaters like Santoro's in the U.S.

Thompson said Germany alone "easily" had 100 theaters, and attributed puppetry's relative obscurity in the U.S. to a lack of public funding for puppeteering and a common misperception that it's only purpose is to entertain children.

"I think puppetry for a while has not been considered a serious art form," Thompson said.

Founded in 1937, the national nonprofit organization claims between 1,700 and 2,000 members, including Santoro, Thompson said.

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