I am Oaklandish // 3 // Lewis Mahlmann, Puppeteer

Posted on September 14, 2011

“Shhh!”, said Chinaka while writing about herself in the third person. “If you just put up a new post and back away slowly, perhaps no one will realize that you missed an entire week and a half of this brand new, month-long blog. Or maybe, you do double time all of next week, and get caught up. Oh, that’s a great idea. Two a days. Two folks per day for the next two weeks. 30 posts total. Great idea. Now back away slowly. And no one gets hurt…”

Lewis Mahlmann is a legend. A real-life, no hyperbole, praised-the-world-over, sort of legend.

I met him accidentally, in the hallway of my friends’ building. These friends shared a beautiful apartment for years, and once upon a time, I contacted the building manager to see if there were any vacancies. I dialed the number on the “For Rent” sign hung outside of the apartment, and got through to Lewis. I knew who to expect; I’d run into him a few times as I helped these friends move furniture in and out, and always encountered Mr. Mahlmann as a kind, generous, giving sort of spirit. Sort of like that one dude from the ’97 Pixar short , he’s someone who almost inspired me to learn to play chess.
I liked him instantly and felt there was something about him that was familiar. And not just in that we may have passed each other at Peet’s here and there sort of way. Nerp. I got a feeling like I’d known this man all of my life, but couldn’t place his face to save my life.

Good thing he invited me into his apartment as he searched for the unit application. I stepped in and wondered how many treasures one cavern could hold. Lemme tell you, wall to wall, ceiling to floor, everywhere I looked had a puppet in it. Not the sock kind I used to make with my brothers neither. I’m talking Geppetto got nothing on Lewis, hand crafted, eyes brightly painted, life imbued into otherwise inanimate wood puppets. There were marionettes near the rafters, hand puppets in chairs. I asked why he kept so many of them. He said he used them for work. I asked where he worked. He told me he was the lead puppeteer for Children’s Fairyland.

Now, now, now you shut the front door, Mr. Mahlmann. You’re the man that single-handedly (or maybe two-handedly), crafted my introduction to one man shows? You’re the dude behind the tiny little curtain, who makes the best part of Children’s Fairyland magical? It is you? The reason I used to beef with my sister over tiny little plastic keys and who’d ride in the front seat towards Lake Merritt. Oh! The decades you’ve spent bringing mirth to the youngest of Oakland’s gentry. What safe, miraculous space you carved to encourage wonder, inquisition and genuine audience interaction.

For those of you not from The Town, or whichever of you has lived under Oakland’s largest rock and don’t know about Children’s Fairyland, here’s a brief refresher course: it is a storybook theme park at the literal and figurative heart of our city. Adults aren’t allowed in on their own. Must have a child in tow in order to enter. Rides, games, nursery rhymes come to life, and puppet shows. And every birthday party I attended between 1983 and 1990 happened at Fairyland. Well, a few happened at Chuck E. Cheese’s, but only when Fairyland was booked. It was the hot spot near Uptown before Uptown was Uptown. Disney visited Fairyland 5 years before creating an Anaheim home for mice. It is the real thing. See?

Did you see him at the end there? Here’s his bio, unabashedly jacked from fairyland.org:

Lewis Mahlmann has been a guiding light of Fairyland’s puppet theater since its early years. Already a prominent Bay Area puppeteer when the Storybook Puppet Theater opened in 1956, he served as puppetry consultant, a builder of puppet shows, and a designer of many Fairyland features, including the Japanese Tea Garden (a popular area for catered birthday parties) and the Emerald City Stage. In 1967 he left a successful real-estate career to become the puppet theater’s fourth director. His puppet-show creations—“Alice in Wonderland,” “Aladdin,” “Cinderella,” “Thumbelina,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and many others—are among Fairyland’s most beloved puppet productions. Lewis grew up in Chicago and began collecting puppets as a child; he says he loves all types of puppets, but has a special fondness for hand puppets. Although he retired from his director’s post in 1990, Lewis still stages puppet-theater productions at Fairyland, usually working with a young apprentice. “I especially enjoy it when children come backstage after the shows,” he says. “It’s all part of the joy of working with kids.”

In the course of his career, Mahlmann’s work has inspired and been in conversation with the likes of Frank Oz, Jim Henson and the aforementioned dude named Walt. Though not originally from Oakland, Thickwit salutes this long time town resident and craftsman of dreams. Here he is with one of the world’s best known celebrities.

Left to right: Burt, Lewis Mahlmann, Frank Oz

If you’re interested in supporting Children’s Fairyland’s efforts, you can make a donation here: DONATE.

This blog is brought to you, in part, by local textile and cultural purveyors, Oaklandish. Oaklandish will be throwing a party on the 1st Friday in October at their new Downtown Oakland store. Everyone I profile is invited to attend as an honored guest and will receive a limited edition “I AM OAKLANDISH” t-shirt. In a city of roughly 500,000 residents, there’s no way I can cover everyone or everything, but I’ll do my best to rep a cross section of folks that reflect our city’s varied perspectives and populations. Also, it is important to note that none of the honorees know that they’re being highlighted until the blog post is up, because surprises are sometimes fun, cuzzo. This means that some folks profiled might not closely align themselves with Oaklandish — and that’s fine by me — I mean no ill intent, nor make any assumptions — just want to shout out some folks who make a real impact on the world, from this pearl of a city on the East Side of the Bay.

2 Replies to "I am Oaklandish // 3 // Lewis Mahlmann, Puppeteer"

  • C.J. Hirschfield
    September 15, 2011 (8:30 am)

    Chinaka, thank you so much for your wonderful piece about Lewis. His impact on our community and our kids is profound. Fairyland wouldn’t be as magical without his kind and creative influence.

  • Cynthia
    July 15, 2014 (3:18 pm)

    Through some special magic at Redux in Alameda, I have inherited large boxes of dolls belonging to Lewis. I am an enshriner, artist, and the cofounder of InterPlay at the corner of 23rd and Telegraph. I’d love to check in with you some time about the mission I am on to celebrate the spirit of the dolls and to honor Lewis, someone I never met.

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