MARTINSBURG, WEST VIRGINIA - "Hello, baaby!" says a swaggering frog to a bratty little princess in a castle. The audience of about 20 children and their parents giggles during the performance at the Wonderment Puppet Theater in the small town of Martinsburg, West Virginia.
In this 19th century house, the fairy tale "The Frog Prince" is being told with puppets and props in a kaleidoscope of colors.
Master puppeteer Joe Santoro has his hands full — manipulating puppets, and controlling the lighting and prerecorded sound. The local elementary school art teacher and his wife bought the house so he could have a permanent home for his performances. He has used puppets for parties and other events, as well as to help teach special needs students.
Santoro writes his own stories, combining traditional fairy tales with his imaginative ideas to entertain his audiences.
"I try to put myself in their place," he said. "I want to see something different, and sort of immerse in this fantasy that's there."
A rarity these days
Santoro, who is in his 60s, says puppet theaters were popular when he was growing up in New York. Today, there are only about 40 of them in the United States, and his is the only one in West Virginia. Many people who visit his theater come from larger cities, such as Washington, which is about two hours away.
It may be the first time both the children and their parents have ever seen a puppet show. The kids like "stuff that's ridiculous and silly and with a lot of characters," Santoro said.
It's hard to believe that Santoro, who considers himself a big kid at heart, is shy and doesn't know what to say to people at social gatherings. But once he puts on his funny hat and funny voice, as he did one recent Sunday, he has the attention of 4-year-old Vincent, whose favorite part of "The Frog Prince" was when the frog fell asleep and started snoring.
He sounded like a "wolf or a big scary giant," Vincent said.
"Can you make that sound?" asked Santoro, who clearly understands kids. The boy made a snorting sound, and Santoro couldn't help but laugh.
This was the first time Vincent and his mother, Abbie, had been to a puppet show.
"This is so great," said Abbie, because "it doesn't have to do with TVs or computers. It's just about having fun and using your imagination, and that's how I like to live."
Casey Overby and her son, Oliver, were all smiles after the performance. "It was cute and really sparked our imagination," Casey said.
"I had fun," Oliver chimed in.
Fun for all ages
Kids weren't the only ones who wanted to check out the puppets hanging on hooks behind the castle wall after the show was over. To the delight of his son, Thomas Hastings began controlling the frog prince and deepened his voice, saying, "Hello, baaby."
"Perhaps this will become my second career," Hastings joked.
Santoro assembles each puppet by hand and estimates he has at least 100 in his collection.
It's easy and inexpensive for anyone to make a puppet, he said, explaining that he uses items like carpet padding, Styrofoam, fabric, paint, glitter "and a lot of hot glue" to create his characters.
He showed off a shaggy washing mitt that caught his imagination.
"I see two eyeballs on there, and a nose and a mouth, and I can see a bunch of dancing," he said while shaking the mitt. "You can take any object and make it come alive."
What keeps Santoro alive is the joy and playfulness of puppetry.
"I was made for this," he said. "I just love every minute of it.”