Darned if I was going to be dragged down into senior citizenship without a fight by letting my grandchildren call me “grandma.” The very word conjures up images of little old ladies hunched over knitting needles, warmed by fuzzy cardigans and sporting chunky black lace up shoes – not an option for a boomer ex-soccer mom who grew up with bell bottoms and the Beatles.
So, after the birth of my first grandchild, I borrowed an idea from a hip friend who successfully avoided the same dilemma by adopting the Greek term for grandmother, Yaya. I blithely announced to all my children that their offspring should refer to me the same way, but living up to a cool yaya image isn’t always easy. So when my eldest grandchild, Tommy, arrived from out of state for a summer visit, I sensed our first “date” would need to be out of the ordinary. But how do I ratchet up the fun level for a precocious 6-year-old who has read the Encyclopedia of Star Wars from cover to cover?
Agonizing over the perfect place to go, inspiration hit. We spent an afternoon at the charming Puppetry Arts Institute in Independence – an unassuming and underwhelming store front on the outside, but a magical world of color, history, creativity and imagination on the inside that literally sucks you back into all the fantasy of childhood. No wonder Rand McNally picked it (twice) as a “Hidden Jewel of the Road.” We began with a never to be forgotten performance of a live show featuring just one puppeteer, a talented lady named Joanna McMillan, who, with some fairly minor sound and light effects, whisked us off to far-away lands, using giant puppets that fairly burst into life in her talented hands. Why is it, I wonder that grownups think puppets are just for kids? The entire audience, yours truly included, was mesmerized and there wasn’t a peep from the audience of kids ages 5 and up during the 45-minute show.
After the show was over, Tommy was able to go up and touch and see the puppets, then we wandered through the museum exhibits of puppets from around the world, historic puppets from the Kansas City factory of Hazelle Rollins (largest one in the world) and special displays. Tommy’s favorite was a large ventriloquist’s dummy of Mickey Mouse. Did you know the Vietnamese use water puppets? Or that in Thailand, amazingly lifelike shows are put on using shadow puppets? We saw and were amazed by them all. But the best part of the date was yet to come. For a $5 fee, visitors can choose a professionally made puppet head, don a smock (OK it was just an old man’s dress shirt), and become an artist by using tiny brushes and specially made puppet paint to paint eyes, hair, face and head of your own take-home puppet. Feeling trollish? There’s a head for that. Rather make a princess? There’s a head for that, too. How about a skeleton? Yep, there’s a head for that, as well as an alligator, pig, bird, fish and many more. Tommy chose a wolf.
When the paint on the head dried (with the help of a hair dryer), kind helpers sewed a cloth body onto the head, and the puppet was ready for a debut on stage. Tommy and another boy who made a puppet were able to put on a spontaneous puppet show right then and there with their creations and their eyes simply glowed with excitement, and yes, a little pride. The new friends were real puppeteers! Yaya scored big time with her grandson. How did I know? He wanted to take it to bed and sleep with it, not that night, but for many nights afterwards as well.
If you’d like to explore the world of puppetry and are coming to the Kansas City area, make sure to take time to stop in. The Institute is located at 11025 E. Winner Road and their excellent website is www.hazelle.org. For a full list of Independence events and attractions (plus discount coupons and information on lodging), you can visit www.visitindependence.com.
Written by Yaya, better known as Janeen Aggen, media relations consultant, from the Independence Department of Tourism.