Phillip Huber

Phillip Huber

Suspended Animation

Kresge Auditorium, Stanford University
Monday, October 29, 2007, 7:00 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: While passing the fountain near the Stanford Bookstore on Sunday, there were dozens of flyer posted announcing "Phillip Huber's Suspended Animation— Monday, October 29th, 7 pm, Kresge Auditorium". A photo showed Huber holding a stringed robotic figure on his hand. What got my attention is the quote on the bottom of the flyer from Heinrich von Kleist's The Puppet Theater: "...when consciousness has, as we might say, passed through an infinity, grace will return; so that grace will be most purely present in the human from that has either no consciousness or an infinite amount of it, which is to say either in a marionette or in a god."
    I recall reading this inspiring passage in von Kleist's On the Marionette Theatre (1810) in Prof. Butkatman's "Cinema-Machine" class last spring. Afterwards I wrote this haiku on May 23, 2007: "Puppets not weighed down / by gravity. Like God, they're / in a state of grace." Now, I'm excited on going to this performance.
    When I got to Kresge at 6:45 pm Monday, there was around 20 some students. I asked one student what this show was about. He said it's part of the IHUM (Introduction to Humanities) class required for all undergrads. This semester the course is on "Humans and Machines". I asked "Are they going to show a film of Philip Huber and his marionettes? The student said that his instructor told the class that Philip Huber will appear personally to give a talk & demo. There was some stage set-ups for a puppet show. As 7 pm approached, more students showed up, and by 7:05 pm, the whole center aisle of Kresge was full. Prof. Scott Bukatman came as they reserved a seat for him in the second row. He saw me sitting in the sixth row on the aisle and waved "Hi Peter!" I waved back.
    Then Philip Huber appears on stage and tells us: "I'm going to create an hour of illusion with cloth and wood. I'm going to treat you with my marionettes in cabaret style action. You'll be seeing vignettes. There are no secrets and I'll explain how it works afterwards. You'll see a simple unabashed performance." It was simply brilliant! I was overwhelmed by Salzburg Marionette Theater performance of Magic Flute while visiting Mozart's Geburtshaus in Salzburg (August 1972). One of my favorite spiritual stories is Anatole France's Our Lady's Juggler (1892) which I saw a puppet performance at Cornell. The mime performances of Marcel Marceau have inspired my work in biochemistry and poetry. Now I'll include Phillip Huber's Suspended Animation with these inspiring moments. He is that good!
    I took 11 pages of notes, five in the dark during the performance and six pages of Q&A in the light. Below are the marionettes in the order of the performance at Stanford. I've used the images from Huber's web site and his description at left with my haiku notes at right.

Huber's Puppets & Introductions

Images of Huber's Puppets

Time & Peter's Haiku Notes

(1) Louisa (Trapeze Artist)

High above the center ring,
A graceful bird in flight.
Acrobatic skills that give you chills.
She'll dazzle and delight.
7:10 pm

Simply dazzling—
My heart is flying with her
soaring to the skies!
(2) George M. Cohan (American)

Mom's apple pie and the Fourth of July
are symbols of American pride,
But a song and dance man
like George M. Cohan
brings flag waving to a new high.
7:13 pm

Flashes of Cagney
dancing Yankee Doodle Dandy
on the Fourth of July.
(3) Otto Halfminder (Instrumental)

In the Bavarian peaks an instrument squeaks
with sounds like ten tightly squeezed birds,
and a voice that is strange
in it's style and it's range
sings lyrics without any words.
7:15 pm

Love his yodeling
with his accordian high
on the Bavarian peaks.
(4) DeDe Kupp (Singer)

A star of brightest magnitude
Who's quite beyond compare.
A lady who spells attitude
With A's & T's to spare.
7:20 pm

Showing off her legs
and shoes, singing & dancing
under the starlights.
(5) Pierrot (Tightrope Walker)

To the circus we go to visit Pierrot
who has a new act you'll admire.
His tricks are a bore if performed on the floor
but outstanding when on the high wire.
7:25 pm

Looks like Marceau's Bip
but more like Blondin crossing
the high wire over Niagara!
(6) Mary Annette (aka The Brat, singer)

Our little girl is cute and sweet
except when she pouts and stamps her feet.
She cries and sighs and sticks out her tongue
until we give her some bubble gum.
7:27 pm

Sugar and spice and
everything nice— she's always
blowing bubble gum.
(7) Sir Cedric (Pianist)

From the Eighteenth Century with a name absurd,
comes a "Liberace" of renown, or so we've heard.
Sir Cederic Raymond Wensley Ian Oliver Nigel
Pithy Kingsly Hardwick... the Third.
7:30 pm

Music sheet moves to
the right with his fingers and
tings like a typewriter.
(8) Ray C Panda (Skater)

Shy in nature is his way,
But loves to skate in grand display.
Twirls and leaps in a careless pass
soon land this panda on his...derriere.
7:33 pm

He's extremely shy
but once he's skating—
watch out for his
twirls and whirls!
(9) Nicole (Singer)

A lady of glamour,
A lady of soul,
the elegant, classy, and sassy Nicole.
7:36 pm

In glittering yellow
dress adorned with diamonds
she sings "it's a paper moon".

7:40-7:50 pm— 10 minutes intermission for stage scenic change.

(10) Priscilla Pipes (Diva)

Our Diva's fame is Opera's shame
with every breath she takes.
To hit a high note that no one wrote
is a stretch she has to make.
7:50 pm

Her neck stretches high
when she hits the high notes
with her chest heaving!
(11) Manuel D'Exterity (Violinist)

Through a meandering maze of explosive sighs,
This gypsy voice, stratoshphere thin,
Skips from valley lows to Everest highs
In Eloquent voice of the violin.
7:55 pm

His dextrous fingers
plays the Carmen Fantasy
by Sarasate.

8:00 pm— Phillip Huber gave a 5-minute talk-demo on the number of strings used on his marionettes.
Most puppets had 16 strings to manipulate their movements. The opera singer (Priscilla Pipes) has the most—
23 strings for her actions. The trapeze artist (Louisa) has 8 strings. The strings on her trapeze are 45-pounds
nylon fish lines, the strongest strings in the show. During her swings, she can flip on to the bar with her hands
or feet. She has magnets on her feet so when they're hooked on the bar, she's more stablized. She can also
swing with her chin on the bar— a feat that no human can do. Huber says he's the only puppeteer that lets go
of the control bars in his act. Puppeteers fear to do it because they'll lose control of the strings to manipulate
the puppets. Huber does it during Louisa's trapeze swings. He demonstrates by dropping his controls and
just let Louisa swing freely on the trapeze. Huber says the only caution is that he must keep his motion
even-keeled. A tiny jerk and Louisa will not keep her balance on the trapeze and tumble off the bar.

(12) Arianna Blade (Figure Skater)

With gliding circles & blurring twirls
This lady's path is deftly made.
She carves a line of frozen swirls
In sprite-like lightness, Arianna Blade.
8:05 pm

Figure skating at
its finest— Arianna
wins Olympian Gold!
(13) Shirley U'Jest (Singer)

From jive and swing
to Harlem jazz.
Here's a red hot mama
with raz-ma-tazz.
8:08 pm

She's belting out the blues—
"First you say you do
and then you don't.
I'm sitting on the fence,
you keep me in suspense."
(14) OsKar (Contortionist)

A solo form in silhouette atop a crystal stand,
A body sleek in shiny gilt conducts a careful plan.
How strange this creature, oddly shaped,
In golden aura glows,
While twisted limbs in angled drape
Concoct each pretzel pose.
8:12 pm

Robo-sapien with
body of gold can twist and
turn like a pretzel of old.
(15) Taffy (Dog)

A special gift from us to you,
described in a riddle, now here's the clue.
It's not a new car, jewels or clothes,
but it has a fur coat and a cold wet nose.
8:15 pm

He has a cute bark,
chews on a bone, sharing it
with his furry friend.
(16) Charley Crowstomper (Dancer)

It's hoe-down time,
and this scarecrow's primed
to dance the night away.
He has the art to break apart,
because he's made of hay.
8:20 pm

His body parts can
fly apart as he dances
to hillbilly tunes.
(17) Liza (Singer)

The spotlight shines, and there she pines,
An old woman with a dream.
Her country way is too blasé,
She needs a change of scene.
She strips away her masquerade
to reveal the star within.
The city lights are in her sights.
Now Liza can begin!
8:25 pm

No more hens and eggs—
Gone from farm to city lights
where she sings and shine!

Q & A Session: (8:30 pm)

Q: How much does the average puppet weigh?
A: The trapeze artist weighs 1.5 pounds. The opera singer weighs 6.5 pounds.
There are 23 strings for the Diva. She has facial animation, neck stretch for high notes.
Then there is her mouth twist, double eye animations, eyelids can cross over them.
She can do heavy breathing and the double strings in the hands let her pick up her dress.
Also the fairy wings on her back can flap. When I was 16 years old, I built a diva like
her made of wood and cardboards and it weighed also 6.5 pounds.

Q: Do you develop relationships with your puppets?
A: I don't talk to them in the dressing room. But I need to understand
the personality of each puppet when creating their character. Otherwise
the audience will not be involved in the different acts on stage.

Q: Do you dream up your acts?
A: The little dog Taffy can do several acts. Generally there is only
one act per puppet. The ideal is to find the music for each act. When I was 6,
I learned tap dancing. My business manager gives me ideas on some of the acts.
I'm limited in what to do. When George Cohan and I did the tap duet routine,
I do the shadowing. He has tap on the bottom of his shoes but the music drowns
it out so you can't hear it. There are two strings for him to tip his hat.
He has an all-American tooth-to-tooth grin. He has dentures held by magnetic catch.
Only Carol Channing has a smile like his. He has a flag tucked in his suit.
It takes 2.5 feet of strings to pop out the flag at the end of his act.

Q: Can you tell us about the hand movements of the instrumentalists?
A: For the piano player (Sir Cedric), I rest one hand on the keyboard
and run the other hand across. Originally the puppet had moving fingers.
Now I don't do it. It's too much work! People's imagination will give
the puppets more their due.

Q: Do you have a favorite puppet in your act?
A: These are extremely technical performances. I made mistakes today.
Nicole's fur wrap was stuck by a pin and I had to remove it myself instead.
In the case of the dog Taffy, I couldn't hold the cord to the bag because
I didn't set it up exactly right. So the dog had trouble to untie the knot.
My favorite puppet is Shirley U'Jest the singer which was made in 1983.
She's modelled after Nell Carter [1948-2003], the American singer & actress.
The recording used for her performance is from a 1939 Ella Fitzgerald rendition
of "I need her to shake...". I was booked on a cruise ship to perform with
Nell Carter. She performed live and I did my puppet rendition of her.
The audience loved it. They took photos of Nell Carter and my puppet look-alike.
Then Nell said my puppet version of her was kind of robust. She pointed to my
Nicole puppet and said "This is the real me!" We all had a good laugh.
My Shirley U'Jest puppet has velcro on her hand so she has a firm grip
of the microphone stand while she's singing.

Q: Why did you choose your acrobat to look like a robot?
A: After designing puppets for the Being John Malkovich film, I had to develop
high-tech puppets without trick photography. The audience can see all the joints
in my marionettes. When I build The Contortionist OsKar, I toured with a circus
[Cirque du Soleil] to observe some of their acrobats and their muscular movements.
I wanted a marionette with controlled actions. I want you to see all the bodily actions.
I used the gold body to interact with the lighting. OsKar has only 8 strings. One string
to lift up leg in front and back. I have a magnet on the table and on his hands to stablize
his movements. The same strings are attached to his feet. His mask comes with a magnet.

Q: (Prof. Scott Buktaman) Where did you find the quote of Heinrich von Kleist's
"The Puppet Theater" on your flyers? Also your craft as a puppeteer? [In addition to
the von Kleist quote in my Preface, there were two other quotes on Huber's flyers—
"He... dared assert that if a mechanic would construct a marionette according to his specific
requirements, he could, by means of it, present a dance such as no other accomplished dancer
of the time... was ever likely to achieve." and "However, in another sense that line was
something very mysterious. For it was nothing other than the way of the dancer's soul;
and he doubted whether it could be discovered otherwise than by the operator's putting
himself into the center of gravity of the marionette; in other words, by dancing."]

A: I have four or five translations of Heinrich von Kleist's essay "The Puppet Theater"
and have combined them on my flyer's quotes. When von Kleist wrote the piece [1810], puppetry
was quite simple. Since then, we have discovered more on the movement of the body and the
center of gravity. It's not the number of strings but their placements on the puppet that
controls their action. One needs to find the right center of gravity to use the arms and legs.
If you add more strings, you accomplish less and less. Strings can get tangled. Flat piece
of wood for paddle control. In the film Being John Malkovich, the previous puppeteers
used very complicated German-style controls that got tangled up. Six months later,they hired me
to rebuilt the puppets. I used simple paddle control to make quick movements for the puppets
and it worked. Because they're shooting a film, I had to move around the lighting equipments,
so it was more challenging than my usual stage performances where I had more control.

Q: What are you thinking about when performing with the puppets?
A: Mostly the personality of each puppet. My hands are connected to the controls.
I'm so comfortable with it that the puppet will do something they've never done before.
Once Liza did some new movements that I'd be impressed. I live through the characters.
I must keep focused on the strings for the Contortionist's acrobatic movements.
For each performance, I try to get to their specific personality. Thank you all.
(The Q&A session ended at 8:50 pm with a huge applause from the audience.)

    After the show, Huber invited the students to look at his marionettes on stage and even take photos of their favorites. I wished I'd brought my camera here to take pictures of him and his amazing marionettes. My favorite was his little dog Taffy and patted him on the head. During Huber's performance, he was so cute and even let out a little bark. Prof. Bukatman got on stage and requested a photo with the marionette Liza Minelli which his students took. Because of the Heinrich von Kleist quotes on his flyer, I thought Phillip Huber was from Germany. I had communicated with Robert Huber of the Max Planck Institute who sent me crystallographic data on bovine pancreatic trypsin inhibitor while I was predicting protein structures (1973-1980). Robert Huber won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1988. One of the students asked if Phillip Huber is from Europe, and Huber said he's from Nashville, Tennessee, but is often on tour. I asked Philip Huber to autograph his flyer and exchanged business cards. I thanked him for an amazing performance of dextrity and musical entertainment that transported us to fantasy land.


Web Links to Philip Huber

Huber's Web Site
(About Huber, News, Schedule, Cast, Review, Media, Gallery, Awards)
"Suspended Animation"
(Reviews of Phillip Huber's marionette show)
The Huber Marionettes
(Links to the 20 marionettes in "Suspended Animation")
Phillip Huber's Résumé
(Film, TV, Theatre, Cabaret, Concerts, Lectures, Music Video, Commercials, Awards)
Behind the Strings
(Huber's lecture on the creative process of puppetry and marionettes)
Printable Info on Huber Marionettes
(Brochure, Huber's Resume, Show Synopsis, Publicity Bio, Lecture, Stage Layout)
"String Theory" (Phillip Huber's Marionette Show at Stanford)
(Stanford Report, October 31, 2007, page 9)
"Puppetry College: where puppeteers learn the ropes"
(By Heather Berry, Rural Missouri, Trenton, MO, April 2007)
"Playing with Dolls: Phillip Huber"
(By Martin Morrow, Calgary's News & Entertainment, January 20, 2005)
"A Master at Stringing the Audience Along"
(By Lynne Heffley, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 17, 2002)
"Puppets give voice to universal emotions"
(By Wayne Harada, The Honolulu Advisor)
"Being John Malkovich"
(Huber's role in the 1999 film)
Reviews for "Being John Malkovich"
(On Huber's puppetry in the film)
Huber Marionettes in Busker Alley
(Tommy Tune as Charley Baxter with Phillip Huber, Puppeteer)
Audience Comments on Huber Marionettes
("WOW!", "Best show on earth!", "I felt your puppets were truly alive.")
Phillip Huber: Advanced Marionett Manipulation
(The O'Neill Puppetry Conference, Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, Waterford CT)
Puppet Rampage 2007 (Minneapolis, MN)
(The P of a National Exhibit, Phillip Huber, Curator)

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (10-31-2007)