Gardena puppeteers Ric and Julee Morton believe that the show should start before the curtain goes up.
So as their audience gathers, one of them walks around wearing a portable stage--looking a little like a red, yellow and blue tent with legs--and Froggie the puppet greets people.
They also think their audience ought to know something about puppetry, so when the show is over, they pull aside the curtains, demonstrate how they manipulate their hand-held puppets and let audience members hold Froggie and his friends.
And they bring along a disparate collection of materials, showing how an empty plastic bleach bottle can become the head of a puppet, or how a paper plate--with button eyes and nose added--can become a face with a wide, flat mouth.
"We want kids to enjoy and experience puppetry live," said Julee Morton, mindful that most children see only TV puppets. "That's why we do the demonstrations, so kids can make their own."
The Mortons hope that 120 kids of many ages--that's the capacity of the Torrance Community Theatre--will share their excitement for live puppetry when the couple and their cast appear Saturday morning in "Froggie Meets the Wizard."
The show is set in a magical forest where Froggie sets out to help a wizard find his lost magical powers. Along the way, Froggie encounters a lion, a dragon and a Jaws-like shark character with cardboard teeth before coming upon the forest's lost-and-found department.
Froggie was created as a Frog Prince in the 1970s when Ric Morgan did puppet shows at the Old Towne Mall in Torrance. When he inevitably is mistaken for Kermit, the famous Muppet frog, Froggie is quick to say: "No, he makes more money."
Between them, the Mortons work all of the puppets, animating their arms and hands with rods. Ric Morton does the voices, ranging from nasal twang to vibrant bass. "I make them all different as best I can," he said.
"Every child should go through a puppet stage," said Morton. But he and his wife--who met at a puppet convention and are both in their mid-30s--are proof that you never have to outgrow it.
Puppet enthusiasts since childhood, they have worked at other jobs but are now making Wonderworld Puppet Productions a full-time pursuit, performing at parties, schools, malls, service clubs, theaters and fairs. In July, they will do a show with puppet dinosaurs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park.
Their small garage has become a cluttered studio where they make their puppets out of polyfoam, a spongy material used by upholsterers, and costumes out of discarded children's clothes.
"I get the same enjoyment out of this that the audience gets," said Julee Morton. "I can feel an audience and know when I have them in the palm of my hand."
Better make that Froggie's hand.