Poet Randall Jarrell wrote, "One of the most obvious facts about grown-ups, to a child, is that they have forgotten what it is like to be a child." That was never a problem for Lewis Mahlmann, the master puppeteer at Children's Fairyland from 1967 until his retirement in 2006.
"When I'm around children I find them very dear, and I feel so responsible for what's happening to them." he once told me. "They're like my own children." Lewis passed away in his sleep last week at age 86. It was a gentle death for a gentle man.
Fairyland's executive director, C.J. Hirschfield, said, "Lewis reminds me of Mister Rogers -- wanting a world for our kids that's sweet and civil. And, in Lewis' case, filled with art."
The comparison is apt. Like Mister Rogers, Lewis was a moralist.
"I do puppet shows to entertain, but not just to entertain," he said. "I want to show the children that there are wonderful stories out there that they can read, and I also want to teach them the right way to live."
For instance, in his version of "Pinocchio," Pinocchio doesn't get to be a real boy until he learns to be kind to others. The Blue Fairy says to him, "If I give you a wish, would you rather be a real boy?"
He replies, "I'd rather my father get well."
And at the end of the play, when Pinocchio doesn't recognize his friend the cricket anymore after turning into a boy, the cricket turns to the audience and says, "Maybe there's somebody else out there who needs me."
That's pretty sophisticated stuff, but Lewis believed children are capable of understanding a lot more than we give them credit for.
"One thing I never do is talk down to a child," he said. "That may sound phony, but it's true. I'll tailor the language to their learning level, but that's not the same thing."
Lewis loved puppets since childhood, but he decided to make puppetry a career after meeting his mentor, Burr Tillstrom, of "Kukla, Fran & Ollie" fame. A charter member of the Bay Area Puppet Guild and twice president of the Puppeteers of America, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award just a few weeks ago from the Oakland Heritage Alliance.
My deepest sympathy goes to his partner, David Jones; his protégé and successor as Fairyland's puppet director, Randal Metz; the entire Fairyland staff (especially the Blue Fairy, Jacqueline Lynaugh); and the millions of children whom he enchanted over the years, many of whom later brought their own children and grandchildren to Fairyland so Lewis could work his magic on them, too.
If you were one of those children and would like to help honor his memory, the best way is to donate to his beloved puppet theater. Send a tax-deductible check to Children's Fairyland, 699 Bellevue Ave., Oakland, CA 94610, and write Lewis' name on the memo line.
The last word belongs to his fellow puppeteer, Jean Mattson:
The hand puppet bodies lie empty.
The marionettes droop on their strings.
The silhouettes cast no bright shadows
And set pieces stay in the wings.
For the spirits that move them have left,
As they do at the end of the show,
But the joy that they shared we'll remember
As we whisper our final "Bravo."
Reach Martin Snapp at firstname.lastname@example.org.