Joe Ayers

A Life in Puppets

Joseph Guy Ayers Jr., 85, of Spring Mills, died Wednesday, 11 March, 2009, at the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg, WV. The Journal (in Martinsburg) contains a nice obituary. The following tribute is partly based on my recollection, but mostly based on the 20-minute video that I recorded of my Dad talking about his work.  – Lydia Ayers

When Joe Ayers was a small boy, he was inspired by the Uncle Wiggly Stories. One day, his mother took him to see the Jean Gros Marionette Company perform the stories, and he was so inspired that he tied strings to all of his toys to transform them into marionettes. Over the course of his puppet productions, he worked in hand puppets, marionettes, rod puppets and shadow puppets.

By the time he was in high school, he freely adapted a production of Rip Van Winkle which was inspired by Tony Sarg’s marionettes.

Eventually he formed a company with two friends and they performed Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, but nobody came because it was the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  Shortly after that, he was drafted into the army, but fortunately the war ended before he saw active duty, and the GI Bill provided him with the opportunity to attend Virginia Polytechnic Institute, where he officially studied electrical engineering and at the same time was actively involved in theatre productions.  While there, he engineered a “come-apart” skeleton that danced to some appropriately eerie music, such as A Night on Bald Mountain. He also was one of the founders of WUVT, the campus radio station. "According to popular legend, student radio arrived in a blast of wild horns and pounding drums, when three cadets, Joe Ayers, Tom Blaisdell and Ed Talmadge sent out a pirate signal of big-band music in 1947 over an illegal 500-watt transmitter." (16blocksmagazine)

After graduation, he married my mother, Nancy Ayers, and moved to New York to become an engineer at IBM, where he was a pioneer in electroluminescense.  He built his own sound system, which included a turntable and several reel-to-reel tape recorders, in an old computer casing recycled from IBM.  His children (Lydia Ayers, Jay Ayers and Sara Ayers) inspired him to continue his passion for puppetry.  His children’s shows included Punch and Judy using hand puppets, and Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast and Rumplestiltskin using marionettes.

Joe and Nancy, 1974

Scene from Mozart's The Impressario

Around this time, he also created Mozart’s one-act opera, The Impressario, and the first act of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman as shows for adults.  (Act I is the story of Hoffman falling in love with the mechanical doll.)  Again inspired by Tony Sarg, he created a version of William Thackery’s The Rose and the Ring, which includes some interesting transformations, such as turning the butler into a doorknocker.  He performed these shows in a small home theater under the back of a stairwell in the late 1950s, but by the 1960s, he upgraded this production and performed it at the Roberson Center in Binghamton, New York.

By 1965 he created a marionette production of Saint Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, and in the late 1960s he played the duke in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and hosted a Puppeteers of America Festival in Binghamton, New York.

Then he created one of his most elaborate productions, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Nightingale. This show featured two-foot-tall rod puppets.  The sets were projected from two projectors in the back that dissolved in and out, and the rod puppets performed in front of that in a curtain of light that glowed with the beautiful colors of their silk brocades.  The scene with the boatman, the Lord Chancellor and the little maiden going through the swamps looking for the nightingale uses a deeper stage with six-inch puppets which give the impression of a cinematic “long shot.”  This production was presented at a Puppeteers of America festival, and he took it on tour with The Three Wishes and the Carnival of the Animals.

Another elaborate production was the shadow play, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s translation of an ancient Arthurian legend.  It took about a year to reorganize the story to fit within 45 minutes, and add medieval music and sound effects, and to record the finished reel-to-reel tape using razor blades and tape splicing for the sound editing techniques.

The prototype shadow puppet was two feet tall (the same scale as the rod puppets), and was similar in operation to the Indonesian wayang kulit, but with Ayers’ artistic style.  He soon discovered, however, that there were too many characters and too many scenes to make the story work with such large rod puppets.  He hit upon the idea of using two viewgraph projectors and much smaller puppets projected onto a large screen.  He cut out 167 intricate scenes, with little wires working pieces of the mostly embedded puppets.  One of the scenes had a turntable-like spinning device, and four scenes had a puppet working over scrolling scenery.  He premiered Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at a Puppeteers of America festival in State College, Pennsylvania and the review described it as a symbiosis of art and technology.  He also gave two performances at the World Puppetry Festival at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in 1980.

He became less active as a puppeteer after his second marriage, and in later years he was the editor of Le Grand Baton, the newsletter of the Sir Thomas Beecham Society.  In recent years he was reconstructing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in order to document it as a movie. I will add some of the video to this web page later. Sadly, he was unable to complete this project.

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