After 35 Years, Memories Are Fuzzy and Warm for Blue Sky Puppet Theatre

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Listen up, boys and girls. Hare Prof. Bunné is going to clue you in on What Is Really Important.

(By the way, you all look so nice -- is it Picture Day today? No? You look this good every day? Wow!)

The man in the bunny suit holds up his furry gray hands: "Okay! Everybody say 'con-ser-va-tion.' " He cocks a long ear, waits for it . . .

"Conservation!" sings out the gym full of pre-K through third-graders.

"It means to save!" the bunny exhorts, punching the air. "We must work together, boys and girls, and save this world! Everybody repeat after me: Turn it off, turn it out/Don't waste water from the spout . . . "

Soon the rows of kids at Patuxent Elementary School in Upper Marlboro are singing along and clapping, little shoulder blades bouncing under white uniform shirts. Inside the bunny suit, even with sweat streaking down his domed forehead, curling his white hair, the big man is having the most fun of all.

Michael Cotter, founder of Blue Sky Puppet Theatre, is many things -- idea man, carpenter, quasi musician, actor, schlepper, number cruncher -- but at this particular moment, as Prof. Bunné, helming maybe the 4,000th production of "Lights Out on the Bunny Brothers," a show about saving the planet, he is what he loves best: the guy who can get hundreds of kids to laugh and take away his message.

He is also maybe the smartest/luckiest/pluckiest guy who ever rumbled into Berkeley by van in the '70s and had an epiphany in a haze of smoke.

Everybody say, "self-ac-tu-al-iz-a-tion"! It means to be 61 and bouncing around as if you're 6, to have put three kids through college on what started out as a hippie-dreamer's lark and turned into a full-time career. As a puppeteer.

* * *

Who starts a puppet company and makes it work for 35 years?

That's how long Blue Sky has been operating, from the basement of Cotter's home in University Park. It's long enough to make quite the reunion party, held this past Saturday night at a nearby joint in College Park. A bunch of puppeteers, musicians, school principals and others involved with Blue Sky over the years gather to perform excerpts of favorite shows, to sing indelible songs complete with all the hand gestures, to marvel over the rod puppets -- furry bodies on long poles, with movable mouths and arms -- that still look lively after all these years.

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