Clad in trademark black tuxedo, the Tom Jones impersonator danced suggestively toward the audience in a posh banquet room and tickled the knees of the women seated up front. Later, a top-heavy belly dancer and a sensuous strip-tease artist flirted with the men in the crowd.
But the adult entertainment came with strings attached--the puppet kind. And puppeteer Jim Gamble of Rancho Palos Verdes was pulling no punches.
His lecherous wino was looking up the skirts of elegantly dressed women.
Gamble's evening cabaret show, dubbed "Puppets After Dark," was the finale to a dizzying schedule of puppet performances, albeit more innocent, that began in Redondo Beach at 9 a.m. with two productions of "The Nutcracker."
"The fun of this is every hour it is a different audience," Gamble said. "I love performing and I love performing in front of the kids, especially."
Gamble abandoned a career as a commercial airline pilot in 1983 to devote himself full time to puppeteering. His production company has taken off, growing to 10 puppeteers who provide 2,000 performances annually throughout Southern California and across the country--300 performances in December alone.
The job is a far cry from his days as an Air Force pilot in the early 1960s, when he did puppet shows on the side. After leaving the military, he settled in Los Angeles in 1966, taking a job with Continental Airlines. "I thought, 'Who could make a career out of doing puppet shows?' Little did I know," Gamble recalled.
Today, his audiences range from school assemblies to bachelor and bachelorette parties. In addition to the adult "Puppets After Dark" and children's "Nutcracker" shows, Gamble is known for his "Peter and the Wolf" production; school districts use a taped performance as an educational video.
His company is also the resident puppet theater for the Los Angeles Music Center on Tour program, matching classical music with puppets to foster music education and drama.
At Madison Elementary School in Redondo Beach, "The Nutcracker" last week was as much a lesson in appreciation of classical music as a marionette production. Linda Imai, president of the school's Parent-Teachers Assn., praised the educational component to the performances and Gamble's easygoing manner.
"I like the fact that his villains are lovable," Imai said. "Mr. Gamble has a wonderful rapport with the children. He knows how to relate to them. He's not imposing."
Gamble designs and builds his own puppets--he has 2,000--each seemingly with a life of its own. "They all feel different, like playing 10 different Steinway pianos," Gamble said.
His newest ones are his favorites, his studio in Harbor City a veritable child's delight of brightly colored clowns, elves, animals--and yes, reindeer too.
But his shows are equally pleasing to adults. Often, Gamble will run across parents who recall a Gamble performance at their own birthday parties when they were children.
Many marvel at how little Gamble, who is 54, has changed over the years.
"I think audiences really energize him," said Gamble's wife, Marty, who doubles as his office manager. "I've seen him really dragging before some performances but by the end really pick up because of the energy from the audience."
At a performance before Gardena preschoolers last week, a "Baby Rudy" reindeer puppet moved in and out among the crowd rubbing noses with children. The smiles from watching parents were as big as those from the children.
"He's just a lot of fun to watch," said Yosie Yoshimura, director of the Gardena Recreation and Human Services Department, which sponsored the show.
From there, Gamble hurried off to his next performance, shaving in his van as he made his way to Rogers Park in Inglewood. The children greeted him with a chorus of "Feliz Navidad" and other Christmas songs.
The show featured elf and animal marionettes riding skateboards and jumping over boxes. A juggling elf asked Gamble if he could bounce an ornament off the childrens' heads. "Anybody out there have a hard head?" Gamble asked.
Dozens of hands shot up.
After the show, Gamble raced toward a rendezvous with his wife at a Torrance gas station, where he changed into evening clothes, switched cars and headed toward downtown Los Angeles for the cabaret show, his fifth performance that day.
A "Dirty Old Man" puppet started him off. Dressed in a trench coat, the puppet "flashed" his audience. A piece of embroidered cloth covered his loins.
"It's Show Time!" it read.