Author’s Note: I wrote this Christmas article in November 2021 when I was assembling some pieces to send to Fellowship & Fairydust for its Winter 2021 newsletter. It presented an interesting opportunity to take a review I’d originally written in 2012 for a short-lived high school newspaper and expand it into something else. A different piece got accepted by Fellowship & Fairydust, and I didn’t look at this article again until recently. I decided this being the Christmas season, and since mixed talking about childhood and talking about the pandemic in an interesting way, the article was worth sharing.
An Elegy for Puppets: Remembering A Christmas Craftsman
In November 2021, I was asked to write some freelance articles on the meanings behind the four advent wreath candles. Traditionally, these candles represent hope, peace, joy, and love. Each of these themes is central to Christmas. Each of them is more substantial than we think. The more we learn about the Old Testament Hebrew word hesed (“loving-kindness”), the more we realize love goes beyond our sentimental clichés. However, Christmas is more than just hope, peace, joy and love. It has a sadness to it. It is the story of innocents slaughtered by tyrants. It is the story of a pregnant mother migrating across the country to satisfy a government policy, giving birth in a small barn. It is a story with its share of strife. For many of us, Christmas is also a time to mourn what we’ve lost.
The sense that Christmas is about remembrance and mourning as much as it is about celebration, hit me especially hard this year. The day after Thanksgiving 2021, I was looking through old files on my computer. I discovered a theatre review I had tried to publish in my high school newspaper. Here is what I wrote:
It is Black Friday, 2012, and my family is sitting in a room with twelve pews. The room is housed in Colorado Springs’ historic Old Colorado City area – a collection of buildings housing candy stores, boutiques, craft and art shops of every kind. This building contains the Simpich Showcase Theatre, operated by puppeteer and doll restorer David Simpich. My parents, sisters and I are here to see his production of “The Christmas Carol.”
The lights go out. David Simpich walks onto the stage dressed like a Victorian gentleman. He produces a feather on strings and moves it across an open book. He introduces himself as Charles Dickens and recites the “Marley was dead…” monologue. As he finishes talking about Marley, Simpich brings a marionette of Ebenezer Scrooge onstage. The play’s action begins in earnest.
David Simpich is the only performer in this play. He creates every voice, from Tiny Tim’s high-pitched pleas to Scrooge’s guttural snarl. He even creates sound effects like wind rushing down the streets. The stage isn’t set up to obscure Simpich, so you see him taking props on and off the stage, manipulating the marionettes. Somehow, even though he never tries to disappear, your attention is always drawn to the marionettes’ intricate wooden faces.
I was curious how Simpich would manage the scene where Marley leaves and Scrooge looks out his window to see chained phantoms in the streets. The program didn’t list extra ghost marionettes, so I assumed he would find some way to represent them. When the scene arrives, Simpich pulls a thin white sheet across the stage. A green light shines onto the sheet, Simpich moves his hands through it. He narrates the scene from Dickens’ book, letting your mind create images of ghostly hordes in chains.
Sometime later, Tiny Tim says “God bless us, everyone.” Simpich bows and everyone applauds. I walk out of the small theater and go through a corridor to a small museum showcasing handcrafted dolls. These dolls were made by David Simpich’s parents, who ran Simpich Character Dolls until 2007. I’ve been here several times, but I stop to see Tom Sawyer, Mary Poppins, and Bob Cratchit. After the museum, I enter a small shop in the building’s front. Less expensive Simpich dolls are on sale, along with books like Oliver Twist and Little Lord Fauntleroy. Around the front desk, paintings by local artists are on display.
Visiting Simpich Showcase Theatre reminds you of something you probably learned once but forgot: wonder. Disney introduced many of us to wonder for the first time, though we didn’t have the words to explain it. Even today, it’s hard to sum up wonder. The nearest I can get is that wonder is finding something so intricate, so creative, and yet so wholesome that I must stop and look. In a world where hardship and pain permeate so much, it’s good to know there are still places where you can find it. Simpich Showcase Theatre does that for me.
I wrote this theatre review on November 30, 2012. On November 26, 2021, I found the review again and looked up Simpich Showcase Theater. I found a notice on their website that the theatre, store and other operations were closing. The pandemic was the primary reason, along with a flash flood in May 2020 that damaged their storage facilities. I think about how many similar projects we have lost during this pandemic, little places where artists produce hand-crafted work that could never be mass-produced or replaced. I looked around the website for a while. I watch video recordings of past Simpich shows – “The Christmas Carol,” an adaptation of “The Firebird,” an original Christmas play called “The Puppet Maker.” Nothing in Old Colorado City’s array of artisan shops will replace those puppets. I know this season, and possibly several more, I shall mourn their passing.
Article copyright 2022 by Gabriel Connor Salter.
If you enjoyed this Christmas piece, you may enjoy this pieces of Christmas content from past years:
A Christmas Reflection, Published by Fellowship & Fairydust
Home for Christmas: Stories for Young and Old compiled by Miriam LeBlanc
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