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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Success in Hand

Ventura Puppet Maker's Creations Gain Exposure and Popularity

March 27, 2000|ALEX FIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — Steve Axtell's workshop has been overrun by animals.

They are climbing up the walls, scaling cabinets and perching over his worktable, as if waiting to see what he will come up with next.

Axtell is president of Axtell Expressions Inc., a company that designs and sculpts animal puppets used by ventriloquists and including everything from monkeys to pterodactyls.

Axtell's puppets have appeared in shows at Disneyland and Legoland as well as on episodes of television's "Jack Houston's Imagineland" and in video productions such as the "Prayer Bear." The company's puppet characters can also be found in stores nationwide.

Although his business is relatively small, Axtell's popularity is growing quickly as his puppets gain more exposure. He has an online store, steady catalog sales and a number of video and television projects in development.

"I want to combine technology with fundamental storytelling in a way that creates a wholesome message," Axtell said.

The warehouse that houses Axtell Expressions includes a movie and video studio complete with a sound booth for voice-over recording. There is also a puppet shop, where Axtell's curious animal creations come to life.

Local ventriloquist, clown and all around entertainer Kathy Gravino has used Axtell's puppets for 12 of her 18 years as a performer.

"I actually wore out my favorite puppet. It's a great big rabbit puppet, and I even tried to patch it up," Gravino said. "I also use one of his birds. The kids love [the puppet] and I have to be careful because they want to hug him and love him."

Despite the company's continuing expansion, Axtell Expressions remains a family business.

"We all enjoy working together and keeping it small and family oriented," Axtell said.

His wife Suzi is the vice president and also coordinates sewing designs. His school-age kids, Jessica, Tyler, Melody and Ryan, all have their own fortes, with jobs such as assembly artist, catalog manager, catalog assistant and data entry.

The 42-year-old master puppet maker grew up in Ohio and made his first puppet at age 6. The faded rag doll was crafted with finger slots in the back of its arms. Axtell still keeps it in his desk.

He remembers his father, a small-town minister, bringing home guest speakers and entertainers who had been in church that morning.

"I got to see the secrets to all their tricks when my dad brought them home," Axtell said. "That was when I started learning ventriloquism."

But he suffered terrible stage fright and continued his hobby with hesitation. At age 12, he saw a popular new show from Jim Henson.

"When I saw the Muppets, I knew it was all over," he said.

By age 14, he had created his own Muppet imitations and even sent a picture of the Muppet copies to Henson. Henson wrote back, introducing Axtell to the Puppeteers of America, a national nonprofit organization that promotes puppetry. Henson encouraged Axtell to create his own characters.

Axtell followed Henson's advice and at age 15 sold his first puppet to a professional ventriloquist. A year later he had developed a stable group of original character puppets including Dwight D. Duck, Woody, Fancy Flamingo, Rusty and Herbie the Mouse. Later, Axtell began to work with latex to create his puppets.

Axtell's custom puppets, which include human-like dolls with ultra-detailed facial expressions, don't come cheap.

"We built a character for a future project, a very well-known character, that cost around $25,000," Axtell said. The average cost for a custom latex puppet is about $3,000, and first or second-time reproductions cost about $2,000. The puppets available in the online store and catalog are significantly less.

Financial rewards aside, one thing is certain: Axtell loves what he does.

"It involves my passion and creativity in so many areas," he said. "I can write songs, make videos, sculpt and invent. All of these things are areas I've wanted to dabble in. You pursue that and it brings happiness."

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