My daughter, Daphne, rapidly approaching 4 years old, has been asking me to take her to the theat-uh ever since she could talk. Granted this is more because she hates it when I leave the house at night to head to a show than because of her innate love of the arts. But still I must admit this theater critic assumed that introducing her to the magic of an art form that has enthralled me for most of my life would be, well, child's play.

After all, it's not every preschooler who names their teddy David Lindsay-Abaire and carries around dog-eared copies of "Waiting for Godot." Of course, she can't actually read, so that's a lot less impressive than it sounds.

My quandary has always been how to balance the desire to expose Daphne to the arts without scaring her off with an intimidating or stuffy experience that scars her for life. One friend of mine will never forget being dragged to the opera as a little girl and being so bored she cried herself to sleep. On the other hand, I remember my early experiences with drama with an intense fondness that I am dying to pass on to the next generation.

So you can imagine my chagrin when the first time I mentioned the puppet theater at San Jose's Happy Hollow Park & Zoo, one of her favorites places on the planet, I was met with not only a "No!" but also "I don't like plays." Wonderful. How on earth was I going to expose her to the world of art and culture if I couldn't even get her to buy in on a 20-minute puppet show? Here I was bound and determined to create a pint-size theater patron who would some day turn up her nose at "Frozen" in favor of Fellini and Feydeau.


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Indeed, I tried on multiple occasions to tempt her to the puppet show, to no avail, until the day her playdate-BFF Maddie, 4, wanted to check it out. Suddenly, we were there, not only sitting quietly and attentively, but well nigh hypnotized by the tale of how the elephant got its trunk. Peer pressure can be a magical thing.

Theater junkie that I am, I leapt on this newfound enthusiasm and quickly arranged for Daphne and her buddy Ysabella, 3, to not only take in the show again, but also get a VIP backstage tour. That kind of red-carpet access has always gone over big with friends of mine. I felt certain it would be a special treat that would intensify their interest in the art of puppetry. Not so much. Comedy of errors is more like it.

From the cramped hallways to the looming shadows, there was nothing the tiny tots liked about being backstage. Even the most valiant efforts of Ysabella's stuffed rabbit/security object, Mr. Henley, could not make the little girls feel safe. The marionettes hanging in every corner struck them as creepy, and the huge whooshing sound the curtain made when it went up sent both of them scrambling to escape: "Mommy, time to go!" The tour would have ended then and there if not for a quick-witted puppeteer who brought the giant Uncle Giraffe puppet onstage for a visit. The girls loved petting his soft fur and watching the way his spindly legs wobbled as he walked.

It was almost enough to continue with the rest of the tour. But. Not. Quite. We cut our losses and staked out prime seats in the front row.

Alas, Daphne was also not a huge fan of sitting in the theater for 15 minutes waiting for the show to start. Getting her to stay put instead of running off to ride the Frog Hopper required a blueberry muffin, assorted fruit gummies and the promise of a post-show reward (ice cream as motivational tool). Still, I felt the sugar bribe was worthwhile in my quest to create a lifelong love of the arts.

Certainly, the petite patrons were quite agog with "The Elephant's Child," a cheerful riff on the Rudyard Kipling tale that enchants from the hip-hop hippopotamus to the snappy crocodile.

Even Ysabella's 1-year-old sister, Lilliana, seemed to enjoy the show, though she did wander off a few times. For the record, that's perfectly acceptable behavior at Happy Hollow, where wee culture vultures are allowed to come and go, eat, talk and generally behave like themselves throughout the performance. It's puppet impresario Judy Roberto's mission to make the arts inviting for toddlers.

She can definitely count Daphne as a convert. In the car on the way home, she raved: "The puppets put glitter in my eyes." A few days later, I found her putting on her own little play, "a blanket and pillow" show starring a stuffed Dalmatian and a mermaid.

Perhaps theater runs in the family after all.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, and follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4.