Pulling the strings

ESCANABA – Whether she’s singing with elephants or pulling strings, there’s never a dull moment in the life of Nancy Mitchell of the Mitchell Marionettes, a second-generation puppeteer who recently appeared at the Upper Peninsula State Fair.

“It started with my dad when he was in the seventh grade. One of his teachers had a puppet club, and he was very tall and very shy and when he joined the puppet club and had made his marionette bear out of paper mache and got behind a curtain, he found that he could have the bear say things that he was too shy to say,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell’s father, Howard Mitchell, also took an interest in magic. By eighth grade he and his best friend were performing marionette shows for Cub Scouts and church groups, but when Howard Mitchell entered high school, the line up of the performances changed.

“He traded up to my mom, and she did all the costuming, she became his magic assistant, and so they did puppet shows from 1936 to – in one way or another – almost 2000,” said Mitchell.

Growing up around her parents’ puppets left a mark on Mitchell. By the time she was six years old and her sister Susan was eight, the whole family was traveling with puppet shows, but for the younger generation of Mitchells, puppeteering meant more than pulling strings.

“At the time my dad was making ventriloquist figures for live TV shows in the 50s in Los Angeles, where we lived, and the ventriloquists would come to our house and say, ‘you know, you’ve got these two little girls and the secret of ventriloquism is to be a little kid when you learn. You could learn enough to teach them and then you could make them professional figures,'” recalled Mitchell.

Heeding the advice of his ventriloquist friends and clients, Mitchell’s father began to teach the girls the art of ventriloquism. It wasn’t long before the two girls were performing on their own.

“We became ‘Nancy, Nelly, Sally, and Sue, the Mitchell four to sing for you.’ By the time I was nine and she was 11 we were performing on television – local things in Los Angeles, but that was a very big television market. There weren’t too many nationwide programs at that time, ” said Mitchell.

Mitchell loved performing, and by the age of 10 she had determined that her future was in show business.

“They would say, ‘No you’re going to go to college, and become a teacher or a nurse or get married, and, you know, live happily ever after,'” she recalled.

“No,” she would reply. “I’m going to be in show business.”

Mitchell did go to college, much to the disappointment of Jim Hensen who first approached Mitchell and her friend Frank Oz with job offers when both puppeteers were only 16. Oz joined Hensen after he graduated from high school, becoming Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Grover, Cookie Monster, Bert, and many other characters from “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street.” He was also the voice and puppeteer for Yoda in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” series.

Six years after her first meeting with Hensen, Mitchell traveled to New York and met with Oz. At the time, Oz was disgruntled and thinking of leaving Hensen and striking out on his own as a puppeteer.

“Well, if you’re not going to stay there I’m not even going to come down there,” Mitchell remembered telling her friend.

After two years of being a folk singer in Greenwich Village, Mitchell moved back to California and operated her own puppet show company, performing at school assemblies, company picnics, and shopping malls. During this time she did a five-year tour where she gave 1,650 performances to 950,000 students in 40 states.

“It was a one-woman show, me and my cat – who did not perform,” said Mitchell.

In 1978 Mitchell was once again approached by Hensen who had come to California to produce “The Muppet Movie.” This time Mitchell said yes.

“I was in the scene ‘The Rainbow Connection,’ which was his favorite thing that he ever did in his whole life, and when he died at the age of 54 his funeral was held live at Madison Square Garden in New York and what they showed was ‘The Rainbow Connection,'” said Mitchell. “I was so happy to have been a part of that.”

Hensen also paid for Mitchell to be accepted into the Screen Actors Guild so that she could be in “Muppet*Vision 3-D,” a special attraction at Disney parks. Despite the working on Hensen’s projects, commercials, and other filmed projects, Mitchell was drawn back to traveling with her puppets and performing for live audiences.

“I’m not in love with working for a little red light on a camera, I am in love with working with live audiences, and almost every actor, large and small, will tell you they’d rather do a play, they’d rather perform live than in front of a little red button,” she said.

Mitchell’s parents retired from performing marionette shows in the 1990s but Mitchell, her husband Jack, and her daughter, have kept the family business alive. Now the Mitchells are the only nationally touring marionette show on the fair circuit. Jack and Mitchell made their first visit to the Upper Peninsula State Fair this year.

“I love the fairs and I love this life,” she said.