Bruce Sedley—“Skipper Sedley” and “Sir Sedley” of Bay Area TV during the 1950s and ’60s—will make a rare appearance Saturday with his puppet, King (or Professor) Fuddle, at Children’s Fairyland, by Lake Merritt in Oakland, where he’ll present the millionth Magic Key for the theme park’s Talking Storybooks, an invention of his own in the late ’50s, to one of Fairyland’s young visitors.
Sedley will be attending the 53rd annual Puppet Fair, put on by the San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild, an organization closely associated with Fairyland, featuring an exhibit, “50 Years’ Worth of Puppets,” opening at 10 a.m. and performances from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Sedley and King Fuddle appearing at 2:30 Saturday.
The Puppet Fair will include a crafts workshop for making a simple puppet to take home, and a “Puppet Petting Zoo.” Randal Metz, puppeteer at Fairyland’s Open Book Puppet Theater—who started there as a boy, 40 years ago, trained by his predecessor, Lewis Mahlmann—commented, “We throw all the puppets out on a carpet, then the kids—and parents—pick them up and act out stories with the puppets and each other.”
Lewis Mahlmann, 82, now retired, but who still builds for puppet theater, will perform “For Whom the Trolls Bell,” tabletop puppetry, in the chapel at 11:30. Other puppeteers will perform every half hour, including Metz’s Puppet Company performing Mahlmann’s “Aesop’s Fables,” Nick Barone Puppets with “The Little Mermaid,” Magical Moonshine Puppets, and Fairyland Puppet Theater with “The Fisherman and His Wife” on Saturday; on Sunday, Fratello Marionettes with “Vaudeville Follies” and Blake Maxam and Vagabond Puppets presenting “The Dragon Who Wasn’t,” from a story by Frank Oz of The Muppets, who first performed when he was 18.
Oz was a teenage member of the Puppeteers Guild, before getting discovered by Jim Henson, founder of The Muppets. “A lot of great puppeteers came out of Oakland,” Metz said.
Metz, artistic director of the Fairyland Puppet Theater and its historian, has put out a book, Storybook Strings, available at the park, on 50 years of puppet shows there, with press photos. His book on Fairyland’s 60 years is being edited for publication.
“Fairyland was the first theme park for children,” Metz said. “There’s a book on the history of theme parks, with timelines and the 20 most important dates,” Metz said, “and Fairyland has three listed: its founding, in 1950; then the Magic Key and the Talking Storybooks; and the puppet theater, in 1956.
In 1948, Oakland nursery owner Arthur Navlet spoke to the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, a business improvement association, about a storybook theme park for children. The Breakfast Club, Oakland citizens and the City raised $50,000, engaging architect William Russell Everitt to design the charming, eccentric sets out of Mother Goose and other children’s classics for the 10-acre site. Fairyland opened on September 2, 1950, with costumed guides for the young visitors, who paid nine to fourteen cents, depending on their age, for admission.
Walt Disney, who would create a couple theme parks of his own, visited in 1955, later hiring a Fairyland executive and a puppeteer when Disneyland opened in Anaheim.
Crucial to the development and recognition of Fairyland were three men, William Penn Mott, Jr., Oakland’s chief of Parks and Recreation, who Bruce Sedley called Fairyland’s genius, and Burton Weber, Information Executive for Park and Rec., who joined forces with Bruce Sedley to publicize Fairyland, its innovative settings and programs.
Mott was later appointed head of California State Parks by Ronald Reagan, afterwards becoming chief of the Oakland Zoo, hiring Randal Metz as puppeteer for the Baby Zoo.. When Reagan became President, he appointed Mott director of National Parks.
Metz praised Mott’s contributions to Fairyland and to Oakland parks, then recalled the last time he saw him: “He was visiting Fairyland—’Just looking around,’ he said to me—smiling at every set. He died later that day.”
Sedley, who grew up in Berkeley, had been a radio announcer and disc jockey on local stations, including KROW in Oakland (now KABL), at one point replacing Don Sherwood, later famous for his morning program on KSFO, in a wake-up show, “Nick & Noodnick.” Other KROW talent included Phyllis Diller and Rod McKuen. Coming up with a character voice, Prof. Fuddle, an always-wrong weather forecaster, Sedley developed Fuddle as a puppet, learned ventriloquism, and as Skipper Sedley hosted Popeye cartoons on KRON-TV in the late 50s, and as Sir Sedley, Three Stooges programs on KTVU-TV, back in Oakland.
Professor Fuddle became King Fuddle of Fairyland. Sir Sedley would make appearances wearing his Train of Thought Hat, with a toy train running around its brim and a dangling microphone made of a potato masher (so kids could ask the hat questions) and a coat of chain mail, made from paperclips his young viewers sent him.
Sedley publicized Fairyland. He also came up with a recording tape loop for the Talking Storybooks, turned on with a key children could keep for future visits. This was adapted for the San Francisco Zoo with a plastic elephant key, prototype for many other zoos around the country. Eventually, Sedley invented the disposable magnetic card key for hotel room doors, first used for security purposes at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, 1968.
Sedley now lives in Hong Kong. He’ll have King Fuddle with him Saturday at Fairyland, and wear his paperclip chainmail suit and the Train of Thought Hat. (Sedley’s website is: www.sedleyandfriends.com)
Professional puppetry in the Bay Area goes back well before the Second World War, with major contributions to the art by actor and painter Ralph Chesse, later TV’s Brother Buzz, who was WPA liaison for the Bay Area, and performed Shakespeare marionette plays at the TreasureIsland World’s Fair in the 1930s. After the war, according to Metz, the craft slowly started up again, with puppeteers meeting in private homes. “They bonded over the Puppet Fair at Fairyland,” said Metz, an annual event since its 1956 inception.
Michael Nelson, president of the Guild, spoke of puppetry being on an upswing, how it’s more often employed now in theater and opera—Berkeley Opera used puppets last year. “The Muppets brought puppets back into the public eye,” Nelson said, “But because of Sesame Street, there’s a perception puppets are only for kids. Jim Henson wasn’t like that! But puppeteers who perform for adults have to maketheir own way. There’s been the Puppet Love adult puppet festival in the Berkeley area every few years—and shows at the Altered Barbie Festival in San Francisco and an aphrodisiac factory in Napa!. Art galleries and different venues feature puppetry as art-for-art’s sake. Whether for kids or adults, it’s a serious art form.”
After discussing theatrical use of puppets in the Bay Area—including by The Independent Eye theater company, co-producer with the Shotgun Players of Ragnarok at John Hinkel Park a few summers back, whose co-founder Conrad Bishop is a Guild officer and the important contributions puppetry made to theater and opera (including Japanese Kabuki, puppet opera in 18th century France and the origins of modern theater with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi), Randal Metz laughed and said, “Puppets can get away with anything! When I was ten and my parents were divorcing, puppetry became my way of being able to say what I wanted to say—and nobody ever knew it was me!”
STORYBOOK PUPPET FAIR
10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Children’s Fairyland, 669 Bellevue Ave., Oakland. $7, age 1 and up. 238-6876. www.fairyland.org. (Saturday only: To see Bruce Sedley’s appearance, adults coming without children should call in advance: 452-2259. Fairyland rules normally prohibit entry of adults without children—and vice versa.)