Las Vegas puppeteer still showing the marionette magic

You wouldn’t expect to find Donald Trump hanging around in an office park near McCarran International Airport, but there he is.

So is his White House predecessor, Barack Obama. Opponent Hillary Clinton, too — sporting a Wal-Mart vest that matches the one worn by John McCain after he lost to Obama in 2008.

More familiar faces emerge from the crowd, from Josh “Chopper” Towbin, reality TV’s “King of Cars,” to the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson.

The real Jackson died in June 2009, of course. But he — and dozens of other characters, real and imagined — live on in marionette form, thanks to master puppeteer Scott Land, who rules over a strings-attached land populated by the meticulously (and sometimes ridiculously) crafted characters he’s brought to life.

Land’s Trump puppet, for example, was commissioned by Vanity Fair magazine — before the 2016 election — and starred in its online video series “Hail to the Trump.”

Audiences around town — and around the world — have seen Land pull the strings on a variety of characters at casinos and clubs and aboard cruise ships.

And those who recall 2004’s “Team America: World Police” — the irreverent puppet-powered movie from “South Park” (and “Book of Mormon”) creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone — caught Land’s act as the lead puppeteer who provided the performances for dozens of marionette characters, including real-life figures from Michael Moore to Kim Jong Il.

From Hollywood to Vegas

At the time, Land was a full-time Southern California resident, acting in commercials and pursuing puppetry — exactly as he’d been doing since 1985.

But in 2008, “everything changed,” he notes. And he’s not just talking about the Great Recession.

“Everything went digital,” which meant puppeteers “were no longer needed,” Land explains.

And that meant he and wife, Lisa, who paints all the puppets he builds, no longer needed to deal with two-hour Southern California freeway commutes.

“I loved it for 28 of 32 years,” says Land. He and Lisa bought a condominium in Las Vegas in 2010 and decided to rent out their Southern California home.

“Once you live here, why would I go back to L.A.?” he says. It’s “not a place for an artist to survive.”

Besides, Las Vegas is a more natural fit for the variety artists — magicians, jugglers and the like — Land calls his best friends.

Marionette magic

As a kid growing up in Redlands, California, Land began his showbiz career in the local YMCA circus. Starting at age 9, he learned how to clown, juggle, walk the tightrope, swing from a trapeze, and ride a unicycle.

“I started off as a magician,” he recalls. But once he found out that he could buy tricks, making them “all the same,” puppets piqued his interest.

The circus’ lead clown introduced Land to marionettes. But watching Baker performing with his own marionette troupe inspired the young Land to “spend the whole summer in the library” — because it had air conditioning,” he jokes — learning about the craft.

At 12, Land started performing at kids’ birthday parties as a clown, juggler, balloon sculptor and puppeteer. (He earned $10 for an hourlong performance.) At 16, he won the part of a circus performer and puppeteer in a Mountain Dew TV ad.

During his college years (as a psychology major at UCLA), puppetry financed his education.

As a UCLA freshman, Land landed a job with his childhood hero, Baker, building puppets and working as lead puppeteer. During his subsequent career, Land added hand-puppet manipulation to his skills, thanks to former Muppeteer Michael Earl (“Sesame Street’s” Mr. Snuffleupagus).

Working with Baker taught Land an important lesson: “Don’t own a theater. Otherwise, you’re a theater owner.”

Variety On Strings

Instead, Land takes his show, “Variety on Strings,” to other people’s venues.

The cast members range from the aforementioned Trump puppet to Fatima, a belly dancer with “Angelina Jolie’s face and Rihanna’s body,” their creator explains. A juggler marionette inspired by comedian Gilbert Gottfried has 17 strings, controlling his mouth, eyes, hands, legs, eyebrows, tongue (which he can stick out at impudent moments) and two juggling balls.

“His head has a lot going on,” Land observes. “And at the tail end, his pants come down.”

At least the marionette juggler has pants. That’s more than we can say for another character, Happy Pants the Clown, whose let-it-all-hang-out personality makes him a hit at nightclubs.

“When I was a kid, everything was squeaky clean,” notes the 55-year-old marionette master. “Young people today like dirty puppets.”

A ‘dying art form’ lives

Whatever kind of puppet Land’s bringing to life, “he has a different style than anybody else,” says comedian Bob Rumba, who recently taught a voice session at one of the three-times-a-year workshops Team Land presents.

Land is “extremely talented and detailed — and he understands the soul of the characters,” says Strip magician David Copperfield, who’s hired Land to make “some things for me” (for his museum-quality private collection that includes such TV treasures as Paul Winchell’s marionettes and Shari Lewis’ puppets).

Scott and Lisa Land “have another talent that really helps — the sculpting and the characters themselves look really great,” Copperfield adds, resulting in “a wonderful combination” of artistry in creation and performance.

That combination may be a relic of the past, Land acknowledges.

“Sadly, it’s a dying art form,” he says. “Live entertainment isn’t important anymore, because everything is digitally produced.”

Yet “my form of entertainment connects people,” Land adds.

And touches them, too, as when audiences see his sad-faced balloon clown and “I hear the audience crying,” Land says of a recent cruise-ship performance. “People want to talk to you about the clown,” and “a theatrical experience that brought you back to when you were a kid.”

Contact Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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