Pete Ambagtsheer, a 57-year-old former sailor who dances and sings for tourists at Ports o' Call village in San Pedro, is mourning the theft of his puppet collection, along with other art works created over a lifetime as an itinerant artist.
Ambagtsheer said he suspects that a waterfront transient he befriended took the ancient camper truck he lived in with his near-life-size puppets, and "everything--my puppets, my tools, my sketches, my home!"
". . . I just hope (the thief) comes to his senses and realizes that he's taken my life's work, my future." Ambagtsheer said, his eyes filling with tears.
He said the truck was stolen late last month, but apparently because of a mix-up at the Los Angeles police substation in San Pedro, his report of the theft was not entered until last week.
An officer at the San Pedro substation said police are following up on Ambagtsheer's report. "But you never know," he said. "We get an average of 20 vehicle theft reports in here every day."
Ambagtsheer entertains tourists who gather around an elaborately decorated, old-world street organ that he built. Music comes from a hidden tape recorder while Ambagtsheer turns a handle, sings old Dutch songs and talks through the puppets clinging to the sides.
His puppets, including a recently completed figure of Lincoln, were carved over the past dozen years, Ambagtsheer said. Besides the six puppets, he said, he lost sketches and photographs dating back to his boyhood in Germany.
Joyce Tammen, manager of a candy store, said she and other village people are distressed by what has happened to Ambagtsheer.
"We all know Peter," she said. "He's friendly with everybody, always coming around to dance and sing and try to make people's lives a little brighter."
Tammen, who loaned Ambagtsheer $500 to buy an old Volkswagen bus that is serving as a temporary home, said she has the puppeteer's collection of original photographs, some showing Adolf Hitler as a youth and later as the German dictator visiting his mountain stronghold in Berchtesgaden.
Inducted as Youth
Ambagtsheer, who had German and Dutch parents and speaks five languages, said he was born and raised in a Dresden suburb, where he was inducted into the Hitler Youth movement.
"But I had a different dream," he said, recalling his early boyhood longings to become an artist. He said his teachers, including SS officers, beat him when he was caught sketching pictures instead of studying books about Hitler's life.
"The harder they beat me," Ambagtsheer said, "the better I got at sketching."
He said he escaped from Germany--before Dresden was destroyed by massive Allied fire bombings--by volunteering for the German merchant marine. At war's end in 1945, he said, he was serving on small craft carrying supplies along the European coast.
In the postwar years, he worked for Norwegian and Swedish shippers, finally landing in California in the 1950s. After a brief marriage--he has three grown children--Ambagtsheer signed on with the U.S. merchant marine. In the late 1960s, he served on ships supplying American forces in Vietnam, he said.
"But I never lost the dream," he said, "and I found my true direction one day at sea. I got a piece of wood and started whittling my first puppet."
After trying his hand as a free-lance photographer, restaurant worker and interior painter, Ambagtsheer said, he gave up "the stupid world of work and became what I always wanted to be--an artist."
For the last four seasons, he said, he parked his camper truck at Ports o' Call and made his living sketching portraits of tourists and entertaining them with his puppet shows.