Folkmanis marketing director Elaine Kollias explains how Folkmanis’ amazingly-detailed and life-like animal puppets have the power to change lives. Seems a bit melodramatic? Read on…
What’s so magical about Folkmanis Puppets?
Folkmanis Puppets are magical because the magic is created by the puppeteer! Puppets are merely a toy, or rather, a tool that removes the wall of disbelief, allowing the puppeteer and their audience to suspend disbelief. In other words, the magic is created by believing, if even just for a moment, that the puppet is alive. It’s a subconscious thing that most of us fall for.
Elaine Kollias playing puppeteer with the new Grunting Pig and Ostrich
Why should every child have one in their toy box?
Puppets enhance learning, encourage creativity and discovery and have an ‘open-ended’ play pattern; meaning that they may be played with in a variety of ways. When a particular play pattern gets old or boring, the child creates their own new play pattern, making puppets a bottomless-well of inspiration.
“Sometimes designs are driven by the fabric or surface design, sometimes it’s a pop-culture thing, sometimes it’s just a personal fancy to the designer. There is no set formula.”
What other benefits do children get from playing with Folkmanis Puppets?
Fine and gross motor skills benefit from puppet use, as well as abilities like learning to engage, express feelings and communicate. Puppets can assist in problem solving and will make learning and lessons fun! Plus, puppets can be a friend and a companion — they bring comfort and joy, and they listen well too!
Now, this a hard one: Do you have a favourite Folkmanis creation (if you REALLY had to choose)?
I hate this question… LOL! Really, it’s so difficult to pick out just one favourite. I love our puppets that have a gimmick or hook, like the Mice in Box, or the Grunting Pig. But for me personally, I prefer to use puppetry as an illusion, like handling wildlife and having folks exclaim how well behaved my wild skunk, raccoon or bear cub is. For that same reason I love to puppeteer the dogs and cats as I get similar remarks and it’s pretty fun to fool people!
We read that it took two years to develop the eyes on the Enchanted Tree. That’s amazing! Are there any other innovations that have taken a while to perfect?
Certainly — the blinking eyes on the Great Horned Owl probably took a few years too. There are special moulds that need to be opened, sculpts to be made, fabrics to be custom-printed, special safety tests taken, and more. Most of our puppets are designed and on the market within six to 12 months of conception, but there are definitely a few dozen that have taken years to develop. One example is the Peacock puppet. While we always wanted to design a peacock, it seemed virtuously impossible until a special fabric was developed called ‘Pine Needle’ — then everything just fell into place. Sometimes designs are driven by the fabric or surface design, sometimes it’s a pop-culture thing, sometimes it’s just a personal fancy to the designer. There is no set formula for our designs.
How important is it to constantly evolve and innovate?
Extremely important. While the toy industry is extremely competitive, the puppet category is a bit less competitive as it’s a small niche market. And while we may enjoy many ‘evergreen’ products that are still top-sellers after a few decades; the collectors and the public do tire of the same designs. It’s crucial to stay fresh and current. But since we truly love what we do, it’s easy to stay challenged and innovate and always strive to make the next great ‘mouse-trap’.
“The amount of time it took the boys to empty the bookshelf was the amount of time that Judy would have to sew a puppet. Then she would repeat the cycle all over again.”
What are some of the new and exciting puppets you have released this year? Will these be available globally?
Yes, all the new releases will be available globally soon. My top picks are: The amazingly life-like Airedale Terrier; the Grunting Pig, which has an airbag squeaker that grunts and rumbles; an adorable fluffy Wolf Pup; an elegant two-handed Ostrich and a wonderful Perched Eagle puppet that could fool a naturalist!
Founder Judy Folkmanis (right): The beginnings of the company as a street vender at UC Berkeley
What’s something we may not know about Folkmanis puppets?
Folkmanis is a small, family-run, boutique, niche company with a huge global reach. It was started by Judy Folkmanis in her living room while her two small boys ran underfoot. Judy devised a method of filling a bookshelf with books that her boys would empty out. The amount of time it took the boys to empty the bookshelf was the amount of time that Judy would have to sew a puppet. Then she would repeat the cycle all over again. This is how Folkmanis® Puppets started. And her boys are all grown now with their own children. The sons are also active in the business.
“We cherish many stories of an autistic child finally speaking their first words to our puppets… we think that our work is more important than just creating a plaything.”
Can you tell us a memorable story when your puppets have particularly been able to brighten a child’s life (we know you are a charitable bunch!)?
Oh no. You’re going to make me cry. Stop. Was it terminally ill Michael’s beloved Dodo in Dallas Texas that we were able to comfort by sending him the owner’s archived retired Dodo? Was it the self-muted girl who spoke her first words in years after she saw her brother run over by a vehicle? Or is it the child that lost a beloved puppet and we scrambled to secure a long-gone version to complete their happy childhood? There’s no doubt puppets can change lives.
Folkmanis’ Elephant and Hippo Puppets with their proud new owners – Kenyan school children
Elaine’s tips for animating a puppet:
1. Stand in front of a mirror – this will help you to gauge your movements and make connections until you achieve the results you’re happy with.
2. Try different emotions: curiosity works well with most animals; as does shyness, eagerness, sleepiness, and excitement.
3. Always keep your fingers deep in the muzzle, nose or mouth of the puppet as much as possible to get the best control out of the expressions.
4. If your puppet has a tail, use your free hand to give it a wag or swish – another way to give believability to your illusion!
Puppet play and autism
A Year Five teacher recently wrote to Folkmanis with this story:
“I have the privilege of teaching a wide range of students and this year I had several students with autism. In August, when one student arrived, I was told that he wouldn’t write and he only mumbled when he spoke. This student made great progress through the year and, in May, asked if he could present a puppet show. I told him that it would be amazing if he did, but he just needed to tell a story. A few days later, he arrived with four Folkmanis Puppets — an owl, chipmunk, mouse and packrat. He had a four-page written script that he had memorised and has presented two different shows over the past few weeks about bullying and good manners. It was beautiful and brought tears to my eyes! If I could, I would buy this boy your whole collection! What a difference your puppets made! Thanks, from a teacher’s heart, for helping a boy with autism find his voice!
Elaine Kollias says the folk at Folkmanis hear these amazing stories practically every day: “We’re in contact with several autism spectrum specialists, therapists and teachers throughout our country [United States]. The thing that they all have in common is to witness autistic children open-up, engage and communicate — some for the very first time. In speaking with these experts, we get the sense that puppets aren’t threatening or confrontational, like people can be, so it makes it easier for the child to connect with an inanimate object that seems to be alive.
“We cherish many stories of an autistic child finally speaking their first words to our puppets. When we hear of a child making a breakthrough like that, we think that our work is more important than just creating a plaything — that puppets are forces capable of changing lives. This makes us proud.”
See Entropy’s complete range of Folkmanis Puppets.