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Finding fun amid the flotsam

Puppeteer Paul Zaloom brings thrift-store wares to life, turning them into characters that lampoon society from NASA to the NRA.

May 27, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Paul Zaloom is poking through a thrift shop on Fairfax Avenue looking for something. He can't say what, exactly, because this demented puppeteer hopes to be taken by surprise. But as he paws past old spatulas and cheap lampshades, he's waiting for inspiration to strike.

He picks up an aperitif glass, a toaster, a few other pieces that don't quite suit his purposes. And then: Zaloom's deep, satisfied laugh. He's uprooted a black cast-iron candelabra with curved arms, and the 51-year-old performance artist -- best known as the title character in the 1990s TV science program "Beakman's World" -- has turned into an excited but potentially insane child.

"What's funny about this, you see, is that it looks like three gauchos," he says, pointing to the way each candleholder resembles a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. "Now I have, in my acting company, three gauchos! What will I need a gaucho for?" However odd the candelabra's new role, it's now hard to see it as anything else.

This is the way Zaloom finds his co-stars for the low-tech spectacles he's been writing and performing for more than 20 years: He discovers found object "actors" and casts them in roles to which they're best suited. It takes Zaloom two years, off and on, to put together a new show, and these thrift-store runs are an important part of the process. His latest show, "Mighty Nice," comes to Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica for two weekends, beginning May 29.

"What's nice, also, is look at the way it moves!" He rolls the candelabra base on a nearby table. "It can swagger! 'Three gauchos moved into town ... ' " The gauchos even seem to hold their hands on their hips, as if preparing for a duel.

Zaloom doesn't yet have a Western-themed show planned. "But this might drive it," he says. "The idea of the frontier, or something about the history of California."

His process involves free-associating -- what does an object look like, sound like, move like -- and coming up with visual puns.

A new piece, set in an apocalyptic future, is titled "2222." In the segment, Zaloom uses a salad spinner as a space station, a blue tarp for the Atlantic Ocean and a trophy for an immodest general. The "Mighty Nice" show also includes "Don't," a political piece in which Zaloom plays an LAPD anti-drug officer, and "Punch and Jimmy," a gay twist on the Punch and Judy show.

"I think he's hands down one of the best puppet manipulators I've ever seen," says Randee Trabitz, who directs the show. "Especially with the found objects. To take a dirty stuffed animal or a takeout tray, and work with it for hours and hours ..."

Dissecting an object's meaning

"The whole idea of foundness is really interesting to me," says Zaloom, who makes his living performing and occasionally teaching puppetry and performance at institutes that include CalArts and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. "How accidental it is, how fate is involved in it, how you can take the detritus of a civilization and use it to satirize the civilization. How an object can have these layers of meaning that pile up on top of each other."

Zaloom grew up on Long Island, N.Y., where he loved art and junk with equal passion. "I had a museum in my garage, when I was a kid, of found objects," says Zaloom, the son of a nut importer father and homemaker mother. A Quaker summer camp turned him into a political radical; seeing Bread & Puppet Theater, a politically charged puppet company, perform at Goddard College, gave direction to his urge to perform.

While still a student at Goddard, he became a member of the group, which is grounded in German expressionism. "I'm a product of American culture. And my interest is totally in comedy, in making people laugh," he says. "So I started doing my own shows in '77." (Zaloom still belongs to Bread & Puppet and performs with the group every summer at its home base in Glover, Vt.)

For his own shows, Zaloom's goal was to meld the dense aural attack of Lord Buckley -- a 1950s cult comedian whose verbal dexterity earned him the nickname "the Charlie Parker of rap" -- with the rich visual tapestry of puppetry. Zaloom's shows, in which he both manipulates puppets and portrays characters himself, depend equal parts on his wide range of comic voices and his complicated, sometimes cluttered sets. "You take the carny side of Coney Island, and art, and mush them together," Zaloom says, "and you get my shows, I guess."

Zaloom's first piece was "The World of Plastic," which he performed at an Oddfellows hall in rural Vermont in 1977. The segment spoofed the space program and consumerism, with a plastic rose playing a mother and a pipe-smoking football as a father. In others, a shower curtain with flowers stood for springtime in Vermont, and a gerbil cage became a prison.

Some shows include politicians as characters: Rudy Giuliani played by a squeegee, Jesse Helms by a stomping prop foot in a show about arts funding, Charlton Heston by a handgun.

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