Like the Narren and the Hermann Monument, the Puppet Wagon is a unique feature of New Ulm. This year, the wagon is sporting a new makeover courtesy of Jim Hofmeister, Dave Schroeder, Ed Tietel, Rae Runck, and Mike Rubey. These Park and Rec employees gave their time this past winter to rebuild the wagon in the same style it has had in years past.
The wagon has had this style since the 1960's. It was the Newcomers Club that helped start the puppet wagon in New Ulm. The wagon traveled around town giving performances until it was burned in about 1983. In the summer of 1984, Rachelle Perry, Darla Olson and others reconstructed the puppet wagon with only two pieces of plywood. Eventually, a new wagon was built, and the performances continued. This new wagon was fashioned after the first wagon.
However, over the years, the idea of the puppet wagon faded, and it was put into storage. It was Annette Perry of New Ulm who brought it back to life about ten years ago. "I realized that the puppet wagon wasn't performing in the parks, and it made me sad," she said. Perry asked Rebecca Henle, a Girl Scout at the time, and her Girl Scout troop if they would join her in reviving the puppet wagon. All of them volunteered their time to bring the wagon back into the parks. "We learned a lot. None of us knew much about puppets," said Perry. She and the Girl Scouts were encouraged in their efforts by the excellent turn-outs at their performances. Eventually, Rebecca Henle became the coordinator for the puppet wagon until she went off to college in 2009.
Although she is no longer directly involved with the performances, Perry continues to be a strong advocate for the puppet wagon. "I think theater and entertainment are so important for little kids," she explained.
Now, the puppet wagon is run by Park and Rec, and members of the Healthy Communities Healthy Youth performance troupe SPOTS (Students Performing on Tough Situations) are the puppeteers who put on the performances.
Mindy Malecek, the current coordinator of the puppet wagon, is pleased with the new wagon which is modeled after the first two wagons. "The old one was definitely falling apart," she said. "The new wagon is taller so we can stand up inside, and they painted the inside white so it's not as dark and we can see when we're performing." The new wagon also boasts extra storage, new tires, and windows on both sides so the performers can have puppets on both sides during parades. "In the future, we're also hoping to do performances from both sides as well," said Malecek.
The performers write their own plays and also perform ones from the past. "Last year, we used more of the plays from the past," said Malecek. "We have binders of plays that people have used over the years." This year, the performers are taking skits from Sesame Street and other well-known cartoons and adapting them to their puppets. "Each week is different," explained Malecek. "We're trying to be more creative and come up with new skits this year."
New speakers also adorn the wagon. When Annette Perry was running the puppet wagon, the music was run on a tape player. Now, the music is on an iPod which is simply plugged into the sound system.
The audience numbers alone speak to the popularity of the puppet wagon. "We're getting a lot more people this year than last year," said Malecek. "On Monday nights at German Park, we've been getting fifty to eighty people." The numbers at other parks vary throughout the week. "If day cares come, we have more kids," said Malecek.
Monica Farasyn runs a day care at her home on Hazelwood Avenue, and has been bringing kids to see the puppet wagon for years. "They love it," she said. "It's really nice to be able to just walk over to the park. It's so much fun for them."
The kids she watches are more than enthusiastic about the puppet wagon. The silly stories and fun songs and dances capture their attention, and their favorite puppets range from dogs to giraffes to dinosaurs. "I like when the puppets give high-fives!" exclaimed Ellie Dake. The five-year-old recounted some of her favorite stories. The kids also like talking to the puppeteers after the shows. "We get to pet the puppets," said Miley Flor.
It's clear that what make the puppet wagon special are the numerous people who dedicate their time and talents to continue this one-of-a-kind tradition in New Ulm.
When Ellie Dake jumps up and shouts, "I love the puppet wagon!" a chorus of "Me too!" comes from every other child in the room. That is the kind of joy that the New Ulm Puppet Wagon brings every time they perform.