Alex Hoffman admits it: he has, quite possibly, the most fun job in the world.
Hoffmann works full-time for Columbia Marionette Theatre, a non-profit theatre in downtown Columbia that is just months shy of its thirtieth birthday. Sometimes his job is a pubic relations specialist, and sometimes it involves hosting children’s birthday parties in one of the theatre’s themed areas, including the Undersea Kingdom, Dino Park, Land of Oz, and the Medieval Castle. But Hoffmann says that by far, his favorite part of his job description is puppeteer.
“There is definitely a magic behind it,” said Hoffmann. “No one really wants to be an adult – it’s just something you end up doing. But things like puppet shows and cartoons allow adults to remember what it was like being a kid.”
Hoffman is now the sole performer in a one-man, one-hour puppet show, Santa’s Christmas Party, at the Marionette. Santa’s Christmas Party has two performances left: 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 23. The star of the show is Spangler, Santa’s head elf, who has organized a Christmas party for Santa that is going disastrously wrong. The show’s host, Jack Frost, has come down with a cold, and Frosty the Snowman is, quite literally, struggling to keep whole. But the biggest problem Spangler faces is that he can’t find Santa Claus.
“We can all remember what it’s like to be a kid at Christmas, and that excitement you feel the day school lets out for break, all the way up until Christmas morning,” Hoffmann explained. “This show celebrates that anticipation, that exuberance for Christmas. Just like kids are really feeling, the show has hope beyond hope that you get to see Santa.”
Hoffmann is no stranger to the stage; he has been performing in theatre since the age of six, and has been in puppetry for about five years. He said his parents attended this past weekend’s opening of Santa’s Christmas Party. “They’ve been watching me on stage for 25 years, but I don’t think they ever smiled as big as they did watching the show this weekend,” Hoffmann said.
Hoffmann said he is not the only employee at the Marionette Theatre who considers himself “beyond lucky” to work in puppet theatre. “Everyone who works here loves to be here and loves what they do. We live, breathe, and bleed for this place and its magic,” he said.
Throughout the year, Columbia Marionette Theatre hosts a variety of shows in the theatre and also on the road; this season has included Snow White and the upcoming Jack and the Giants. Hoffmann said some of their performances have a “pop-up book” aesthetic and others have a simpler design. Some performances are in a variety show format, such as Santa’s Christmas Party, while others tell a continuous story. Some of their performances do not feature the puppeteers onstage, and instead involve elaborate sets that help mask puppet strings. For Santa’s Christmas Party, though, Hoffmann is on stage every minute, operating every one of the marionette dolls by himself. While children enjoy dancing and singing along to the puppets, adults can get a kick out of watching Hoffmann operate up to three puppets at a time.
Santa’s Christmas Party is a musical featuring original songs and some traditional holiday tunes like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and children are encouraged sing along with the characters. During opening weekend, children and adults cheered the loudest for “the puppet show within a puppet show,” a complex moment in the show where Jack Frost performs his own puppet show for the audience. Hoffmann craftily navigates al the involved puppets alone.
Hoffmann attributes his performance to his own quirky personality. “Yes, there is a lot of hard work and technical skills involved in puppetry,” he said. “But if you don’t have a little bit of crazy in you, the performance will fall flat.”
One of the most rewarding moments about working at the Marionette is when children see his performance and tell him they want to learn to perform with puppets. “I always say, just do it,” he explained. “Sure, it’s difficult to make a fancy, professional puppet. But you can put a sock on your hand or glue a piece of paper that looks like somebody on a stick, and you’ve got a puppet to practice with. A lot of people don’t realize how simple it is. So I always tell kids, just do it. Play. Have fun. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do what makes you happy.”
Santa’s Christmas Party continues igniting imaginations and bringing holiday excitement this weekend at the Marionette. Tickets are only $5 for ages 2 and up, and may be purchased before each show at the marionette, which is located at 401 Laurel Street in downtown Columbia. Questions may be directed to (803) 252-7366 or via e-mail.
The sole puppeteer of Santa’s Christmas Party is sure this Saturday’s final two shows will delight families.
“I don’t care who you are, there’s just something special about the holiday season,” said Hoffmann. “The show may have a Christmas theme, but we don’t want to exclude anyone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas. There’s something fun and magical in this show for everyone.”