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The Man With Quite a Hand in 'Carnival!'

Puppet designer Ed Christie with some of his creations for the Kennedy Center revival of
Puppet designer Ed Christie with some of his creations for the Kennedy Center revival of "Carnival!" At left is his take on the diva Marguerite. Christie, who has a 25-year background with the Jim Henson company, wants to raise the profile of puppetmaking. "It's a dying art," he says. (Photos By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

Christie, who studied sculpture in college, offered his services to Longbottom and the Kennedy Center in part because of his knowledge of the piece, but also because he felt the need to preserve a tradition. "It's a dying art," he says.

Computer animation has rendered obsolete a lot of what puppetmakers do. And when puppets are employed in the theater these days, it's often with a bit of malice: Witness the popularity of Broadway's "Avenue Q," a "Sesame Street" sendup with devastating parodies of Muppet characters, who swear and have sex.

Christie was offended by "Avenue Q," mostly because the puppets closely resembled the characters to which he and his Henson colleagues devoted so much of their working lives. "Carnival!" seemed like an opportunity to remind audiences of the more refined aspects of the craft.

"Not only do I want to keep puppetry alive, but I feel a certain duty to puppet history," he adds. As a result, the puppets of this "Carnival!" are Christie's homage to great puppeteers of the past. The faces are meant to evoke the memory of Bil Baird -- who created the puppets for the "Lonely Goatherd" number in the film version of "The Sound of Music" -- and the slot-jaw construction is reminiscent of the visage of Charlie McCarthy, the alter ego of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.

"I wanted subtle clues to the audience that these were period puppets," Christie says. There's also a wink to his "Sesame Street" roots. The theatrical Marguerite is fashioned with a decolletage that brings to mind the bodice of another high-maintenance puppet: Miss Piggy.

The puppets, which are 18 inches tall, have heads made from fiber carbon, a material that is light and durable and can be made to look like wood. Christie sent clay sculptures of the heads to James Chai, a moldmaker in Queens.

For their witty costumes, Christie turned to a New York colleague, Muriel Stockdale Grabé. And he had to be sure their outfits meshed with those of Paul Tazewell, who designed the costumes for the flesh-and-blood actors.

The detail is pretty remarkable, down to the puppets' watch fobs and bracelets. Christie is especially proud of the little toy mandolin he's given Carrot Top to play -- though for that particular coup, he must give equal billing to the Web. "I typed in 'mandolin,' " he says, "and bought it on eBay."

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