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Puppet Pals
Written by Kelly Chandler, Staff Writer

The current Puppet PALS team at Salem Christian School practices an upbeat song in "Heroes," a motivational, Bible-based program they will perform this year using about 40 different puppets.

        They have traveled to foreign countries, military bases, numerous churches, nursing homes, preschools and camps over their 30 years in existence, but the Puppet PALS team from Salem Christian School said their biggest thrill is just making people smile.

        The team, under the leadership of Jim and Bev Howard of Zionsville, meets once a week at the school in Upper Milford Township.  Students there learn the ins and outs of puppetry from industry pros while earning a fine arts credit.

        Jim Howard said he and his wife got into puppetry quite by accident when his daughter showed an interest in ventriloquism.  At a workshop, they both discovered their affinity for it and, at her urging, started a puppetry team at Salem Bible Church and its Christian school.

        This year there are eight high-school age students on the team.  Many are veterans who are well-schooled on how to hold a puppet and accurately mimic speech and movement, but there are always things to learn like the ins and outs of engaging an audience, backdrop work and how to use special effects like black lights.

        "They learn fast.  It's amazing how fast they pick things up," Jim Howard said of his students.

        Aidan Zeilinger, a sophomore, said while he has a background in theater, he wanted to try his hands at puppetry. 

        "It's always fun to pretend to be someone else," he said of the characters in the production.  "I can be angry or mean on stage, but it's just my character."

        During the shows, students work with about 40 puppets, each handmade by the Howards.  Over the years the couple has developed their own techniques and patterns.  Jim Howard said he bends his own rods for each puppet's arms and has developed a brass piece to connect each one to the puppet which extends each one's longevity.

        To date the Howards have crafted about 400 puppets ranging from people to ants, monkeys and sheep, to objects like newspapers and palm trees.  They also make their own backdrops and props.

        This year's show, "Heroes," features puppet news anchors interviewing students about heroic actions and comparing their lives to those of Bible heroes.  It includes lively music, catchy dialogue, some written by the students, and ultimately the message of the gospel, he said.

        The team records all the dialogue in a sound studio which belongs to a former puppet team member.  Each show takes about two years to produce, Jim Howard said.

        "You need something that's lively; something that keeps people's attention," he explained.  "The worst thing you can do with puppets is just having long mono or dialogues because you lose people right away.  We try to mix things up.  We've learned over the years you start small and keep building and adding things to keep people's attention."

        Howard said the fun thing about puppets is that they appeal to everyone from young to old.

        "To see puppets live is different than on TV.  We have people tell us their 9-month-old watched intently for the whole show…We also go out to the nursing homes and have the Alzheimer's patients watch us set up, perform and take down when people tell us they normally can't sit still or stay engaged for very long."      

        Howard attributed the project's longevity to a number of things, including the team's close-knit friendship.  They perform between 20 and 25 shows annually.

        "They just really enjoy it, they're friends with each other and there is a team spirit where we treat kids on the team not on a teacher-student basis, but a co-worker basis.  We're all working together for the same purpose.  We don't expect you to do something we wouldn't do.  Everyone pitches in." 

        Turner Schoenly of Macungie said he's been working with puppets since he was little.

        "I like traveling and we all get close," he said of why he participates each year.

        Both Justin and Emily Rosak, brother and sister, said their mom and sister were also former team members. 

        "It's a fun activity to do.  My favorite was Stan, a black light puppet but we also did a full-body puppet that was fun, " Emily Rosak said.  

        "I love kids and being with the kids and seeing them enjoy it; it's cool," said senior Kala Barnes.

        This week the team started learning "Christmas in the Desert," their holiday-themed show, which will be presented through early January at various venues.  For that piece, the students will use shadow screens and a giant pyramid prop, which opens up and showcases Pharaoh's palace. 

        No matter what the show's theme, Jim and Bev Howard said they urge the kids to use their unique talents and try to incorporate them into the show.  Previous shows have featured unicyclers, stilt-walkers and jugglers.

        "We want them to feel ownership in the program; be proud of it.  It gives them a chance to develop whatever talents they have." 

        For more information on Puppet PALS, visit





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