Paul Wellman

In the Santa Barbara media-scape, no mustache is more beloved than that of John Palminteri, who works from the crack of dawn until way past bedtime most days of the week as a broadcaster for KjEE, KCLU, and KEYT. His salt-and-pepper coif, aforementioned ’stache, and exaggerated expressions are now also sported by a foam-filled, handheld, hilarious work of caricatured art. Palminteri the Puppet was born last month and will be one of the most recognizable faces to find during PuppetPalooza, which takes place Thursday-Sunday, March 1-4. We talked last week, and what follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Did you ever aspire to being puppetized? I’ve never had a problem spoofing myself, so John Palminteri in the third person is often in my conversation. To actually have a character created that can be part of my own conversation or hit me with a comeback is a welcome addition to my array of news and personality and comedy.

When did you first learn that you’d be a puppet? Somewhere right in the middle of covering one of the two disasters, I received a phone call from Rod Lathim. He ran the idea of John Palminteri the Puppet by me as part of the PuppetPalooza Festival, which, at the time, did not make that much sense to me. I was on my 25th hour in a 24-hour day. But because I know that anything Rod Lathim has his hands on is going to be fun, positive, community-oriented, great for kids, great for families, and showcased in the spotlight, I said, “I’m in. I’ll do whatever you want.” I didn’t really know what he was saying, but he put a smile on my face, and I said, “Let’s go for it.”

Did you have to sit for a modeling? I was somewhat teased by the fact that this was in motion and in the creative stages without a lot of my input. They made a suit with the white shirt and tie that I’m known for wearing and a microphone flag that looked just like the TV station’s and a big, broad batch of hair that has more gray than I have and a bushy mustache, but the puppet doesn’t groom as neatly as I do. The puppet picture was leaked out before I saw it, and I was gasping at how big it was. Is it a hand puppet? Is it a mini-me? Is it full-size? Is it a puppet on strings? I didn’t know what it was going to be until they unveiled it at Paseo Nuevo last month.

How’s it work? Dillon Yuhasz is the person playing the role of John with his hand up the back of the puppet and controlling the microphone. He’s watched me on the news and has added his own spin to it, but he is always ready to go with a quip or a question or a response. Sometimes the puppet tells me to be quiet because it is the big show, so I step back and the puppet becomes me. Almost in every case, the public stops talking to me and gravitates toward the puppet as the person they want to talk to.

Did you know much about puppetry before this? I haven’t really thought of puppets in years. But as a child, I had the small hand puppets. They were the most fun ​— ​whether you were with friends or alone, it just opens your mind to creativity and, in my case, a little bit of ad-libbing and comedy and playfulness. It grows the mind.

We were at the farmers’ market and ran into a man at one booth who had a hand puppet. He was talking to his daughter, and then we came up with Palminteri the Puppet and had a conversation. Then the man’s puppet growled at us, and Palminteri growled back. They ended up becoming friends, and the child thought the show was all for her. Kids’ eyes usually light up with puppets, and their minds start to spring into places that you don’t normally let out.

Where can we find you during PuppetPalooza? I’m not sure what my duties are during the festival frankly, but I am gonna attend as many PuppetPalooza events as I can. I’ll probably pop into the pop-up puppet shows ​— ​I love saying that, “pop-up puppet shows”; it’s great for a broadcaster to say ​— ​and maybe at some surprise locations.

There’s going to be a big event on the 1st Thursday, and I’m coming as part of a kickoff party that’s going to be fantastic. The public is really going to have a big smile on their faces and feel a big relief after all the anxiety that the community has been under by enjoying the creativity and comedy of puppets. It’s going to be a pressure-relief valve from the two disasters. It’s something like they’ve never seen before. It’s not a traditional Santa Barbara festival. It’s not the film festival, Solstice, or Fiesta. It’s puppets in tons of locations.

How have people liked the puppet? Now that the puppet has been shown around town and on social media, I have so many people asking me, “Where’s the puppet?” It is highly sought after. I think it needs a booking agent. Really, that’s true.

During the film festival, we went outside of one of the free movies at the Lobero, where there were 200-300 people in line. A man walked by, looked at me, and said, “Which one’s the dummy?” We all laughed, and the man kinda laughed, but then he kept his serious question out there. I think he walked in the theater without the answer he wanted.

What happens to the puppet when the festival is over? We hope it survives, but if it gets anywhere close to the crowd at Joe’s Café, it might be shredded before the weekend is over. I suggested taking it to the Gaucho basketball game and putting it in the student section, but there were concerns that it might wind up being thrown on the court like a tortilla. So we’ve opted against that.


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