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HIDDEN TALENTS : Behind Every Famous Puppet Is a Very Special Player

January 24, 1991|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

The Fab Four Together Again! Liberace Comes Back to Life! Mother Goose Croons With Ella Fitzgerald!

Headlines from a supermarket tabloid? Guess again. This is just part of the lineup from "Colors in the Dark," a unique family revue that combines contemporary music, life-size puppets and blacklight artistry. "Colors in the Dark," presented by the Famous People Players, will be performed twice this Tuesday in Orange Coast College's Robert B. Moore Theatre.

The Toronto-based touring company, which was founded in 1974 by Diane Dupuy and which played to capacity crowds at OCC and Fullerton's Plummer Auditorium last spring, returns to the county packing some impressive credentials. It won raves from the New York press during a successful 5-week run on Broadway. It has had stints on TV's "Donahue" and "West 57th Street" and was featured in a CBS television movie, "Special People," and an Emmy Award-winning documentary, "A Little Like Magic." In 1982, Dupuy was honored with the Order of Canada, the highest form of recognition the Canadian government gives to its citizens.

The Players are a group of developmentally disabled adults, ranging in age from 21 to 43. Wearing dark clothes and positioned against a black backdrop, they manipulate an all-star line up of mostly life-size puppets who strut their stuff to tunes ranging from popular dance music to contemporary jazz to '50s be-bop. At the Players' command, the Beatles, Tina Tuner, Michael Jackson and Liberace come to life; Mother Goose belts out Ella Fitzgerald tunes, and a menagerie of animals swing and sway in a nostalgic revue. By painting the puppets in brilliant fluorescent colors and staging the show under blacklights, the Players create an almost movielike effect.

"Children seem to be especially fascinated by us," said Dupuy, reached by phone at her Toronto office. "It's hard for them to grasp that these are real people doing this. Often at intermission, the kids will come up to me and ask when the movie's going to start again."

Dupuy, a straight-talker who prefers to emphasize her performers' abilities over their disabilities, said that as a child she was a "slow learner" who found "artistic things more challenging than learning to put numbers on the blackboard." Dupuy recalls an early incident that may have been a turning point in her decision to establish the Players.

"When I was in grade eight, a new kid came to our class," remembered Dupuy. "She was an epileptic. She'd have these terrible seizures, and all the class would yell and scream and make fun of her. That was probably the only time in my life I stood up and fought back, and I was fighting for somebody else."

Later that year, Dupuy dropped out of school and began earning her way doing puppet shows. When, during a performance for a mentally handicapped group, a child attending the show had a seizure, Dupuy was impressed by the supportive attitude of the other audience members.

"Everybody instantly got up to help," she said. "At that point, I asked myself who was retarded here, and I realized that, in a lot of ways, it was the 'normal' people."

By the time she had reached her mid-20s, Dupuy, armed with plenty of ideas and a $15,000 government grant, was ready to establish the Famous People Players as a professional touring company. Under her direction, the primarily Canadian cast members train anywhere from one to three years before going on the road. The Players, who travel up to 10 months each year, now maintain two touring companies: one for public shows, and a second, smaller group for private shows and speaking engagements sponsored by IBM, one of the group's major donors. The troupe is also at work on its own 500-seat facility in downtown Toronto. The theater, scheduled for completion in 1993, will feature ample wheelchair access, a state-of-the-art amplification system for the hearing impaired and an art gallery where works by "exceptional artists from all over the world" will be displayed, said Dupuy.

At least part of the Famous People Players' success is due to the efforts of real-life famous people. The idea of combining puppetry with black light came from comedian Bill Cosby, who caught one of Dupuy's early shows at the Canadian National Exposition. According to Luisa Cariaga, the Players' U.S. manager, Paul Newman and singer Ann Murray have contributed funding and moral support--Newman has twice donated proceeds from his line of food products, and Murray has given them a percentage of her album sales.

The biggest boost, however, came from the late Liberace.

"Once the group was established, the first life-size puppet we created was Liberace," explained Dupuy. "Six months later, he hired us and put us in his show in Las Vegas. We worked for him (as and opening act) on and off for close to 10 years. He challenged us, criticized us and worked with us every step of the way."

According to Dupuy, when he first saw them perform, Liberace was unaware of the Players' disabilities.

"When he did find out, he said, 'You make people laugh and cry not because of who you are, but because you're truly talented people who have the same rights as anyone else.' "


Famous People Players present "Colors in the Dark."


Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 9:45 a.m. and 11:45 a.m.


Robert B. Moore Theatre, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa.


Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Fairview Road, go west about 1 1/2 miles. The theater is near the school's Arlington Street entrance.


All seats are $3.50.

Where to call

(714) 432-5880.

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