Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Learning, entertainment go hand in hand in CES puppet show

By Naomi Hagelund
For the Redoubt Reporter

With six puppeteers, a stage and an emcee decked out in full firefighter gear, Central Emergency Services showed a roomful of preschoolers how to practice fire safety Nov. 12 at Kenaitze Cuya Qyut’anen Head Start in Kenai. More than 20 children gave their attention to an assortment of puppets, which sang about ways to be safe about fire, such as stopping, dropping and rolling, calling 911 and testing smoke detectors.

Gary Hale, CES fire marshal, said this is the 13th or 14th year the puppets have been used to educate children about fire safety. The program started with an original set purchased in 1987 of seven puppets, a VHS training tape and two prerecorded audiocassettes with scripts. The show has expanded to more than 75 puppets, more than 150 songs and a full sound system.
The educational puppet show has become so popular that the fire marshal had to turn down seven performances this year.

“We go for five weeks and four shows a week,” Hale said. “It’s so demanding.”

The show started in the second week of October, which is also when more than 150,000 fire departments in the nation began participating in fire prevention week, Hale said. The performances ended Nov. 13, totaling 19 locations from one end of the Kenai Peninsula to the other, more than 22 shows and almost 2,000 children. Each show needs at least five puppeteers, who perform six songs per show. The show lasts about 45 minutes, with lessons taught by Hale in between each song.

The puppeteers work behind a fully encompassed stage, changing puppets for each different song and moving the puppets’ mouths while reading a script. “It’s chaos, organized chaos,” said Brad Nelson, CES’ new assistant fire marshal, now in his third month as a puppeteer. “The fun part is deciding which puppet to use for which song. Anything to get the kids laughing.”
Many people are incorporated into the show.

“We’ve used spouses, our on-call people, which are volunteers, and our paid personnel,” Hale said. “All of them have contributed to making this a huge success for so many years.”

One of the challenges the traveling puppet show faces is finding upbeat, interesting songs to incorporate into the program.

“We have 150 songs, but some of them are very bad and some of them are very good,” Hale said. “We find them everywhere we can.”

“In the jungle, the safety jungle, oh we are safe tonight,” lip-synched a lion puppet to an altered version of a classic oldie.

“The lion was my favorite,” one boy said. “And I learned to never touch a lighter.”

A lot of the songs are based on “oldies but goodies” tunes with new lyrics from the Colorado Springs Fire Department. Keeping the program fresh and interesting for all ages is a challenge, so the program is generally limited to second grade and under, but CES still gets requests from grades as high as sixth to bring the puppets back.

As big as it’s gotten, the show isn’t done expanding. CES is ordering 16 more puppets and is hoping to ask Hobo Jim to perform new songs for the show.

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