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Rick Lyon, man behind ‘Avenue Q’

Puppet master Rick Lyon finds success and attention in the Broadway debut of ‘Avenue Q.’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two stars of the Broadway musical “Avenue Q” await curtain time in an upstairs dressing room. One is animated and expressive, the other more reserved.

After a while, meeting the quizzical, orange-eyed gaze of the first feels natural, even though he is little more than a bag of soft, brown fur trimmed with magenta ostrich feathers. Even though Rick Lyon, the man behind the puppet, speaks for both.

Few of Avenue Q’s residents are human. As for the rest, Lyon manipulates several and designed them all.

“It’s all sort of on me,” he says. “My thumbprint’s all over it.”

The charming, crass and unnervingly familiar puppets of “Avenue Q” have been good to Lyon, taking the 45-year-old puppet master from an extended off-Broadway run to his Broadway debut at the John Golden Theatre.

To such slyly funny tunes as “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet Is for Porn,” the cast romps through the dilemmas facing recent college graduates everywhere: sex, love, money and finding purpose. “‘Sesame Street,’” Lyon calls it, “with a couple layers of soot.”

Lyon puppeteers Internet porn enthusiast Trekkie Monster, slacker Nicky and one of the cuddly Bad Idea Bears who gaily lead unsuspecting twentysomethings down the road to ruin.

New workspace
A Broadway run called for more vivid colors — along with more puppets to head off awkward, limp-limbed costume changes — and Lyon and his crew had little time to make adjustments before the July 31 opening. So Lyon moved his studio to the top floor of an ivy-covered industrial building in East Orange on May 30 and took the weekend to set up before he began building puppets for his Broadway debut.

Inside the cavernous studio, tables of different heights stand beside the windows, the tallest table to accommodate Lyon’s lanky frame. A radio is set to a classical station. “It’s what I put on,” Lyon says, “and it’s what immediately gets voted off the minute we start building.”

The special foam that gives the puppets their shape is heaped on unfinished hardwood floors. Shelves hold containers filled with fabric scraps and puppet parts.

A confessed “scavenger,” Lyon stockpiles fabric and has an attic filled with identical backrest pillows because he someday hopes to use the furry material covering them.

“You’re always looking for that stuff that sings heavenly music to you when you see it,” he says.

‘Kinetic sculpture’
Before starting a puppet, he has to know everything about it. Will it have to pick something up during the show? Will its puppeteer be left- or right-handed? How long are the puppeteer’s arms?

A puppet, says Lyon, is a “kinetic sculpture”: Its success has as much to do with movement as appearance. “It’s nice to have a toaster that looks good, but it’s better if it makes toast,” he says.

Each puppet starts as a sketch, usually done on computer. From there, a silhouette is made from foam, covered with fabric and given hair, clothes and other details. Trekkie Monster has bags under his eyes, Lyon says, because “he spends way too much time at the computer terminal.”

At the Golden Theatre, the “Avenue Q” puppets reside in the rafters between shows. A few prototypes remain in the studio, including the play’s hero, Princeton, who is done in what Lyon calls “electric school bus orange.”

“Sometimes, the first ones you make are absolutely appalling,” says Lyon. “You have to start somewhere.”

Decades of puppet-making have taught Lyon a few things: Fur doesn’t take dye well, mixing greens is “alchemy, not chemistry” and wedding ring bearers are a puppeteer’s best friend since there’s nothing worse than making a miniature business suit from scratch.

Started young
Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., Lyon got his first puppet when he was about 5 — a cat hand puppet much like Daniel Striped Tiger on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” As a youngster, he made puppets from glue, tape, felt and anything else handy. By the time he turned 11, he was adept with a sewing machine.

His first public performances were school projects.

“For whatever reason, it’s something that was in me right from the get-go,” he says.

Some famous children’s shows that used puppets — “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” and “Captain Kangaroo” — were mostly before Lyon’s time, although he got to know them later in life. But cartoons provided inspiration.

He studied theater at Penn State University and puppetry at the Institute of Professional Puppetry Arts in Waterford, Conn., and the Institut Internationale de la Marionnette in France. In Connecticut, he met Jim Henson, “a bona fide genius” with whom he would later work and study.

A veteran of more than a dozen “Sesame Street” seasons, Lyon also worked in movies on “Neverending Story 3” and two “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” He has also performed in a David Bowie music video and Muppets productions.

Overcoming shyness
He has his own puppet performance troupe, too. The Lyon Puppets include master of ceremonies Percy, an amorphous, creature with a unibrow who was first made from a purple towel when Lyon was a child; the Poor-But-Happy Farm Boy, who teaches self-esteem; and three Grungekins named Sleazy, Filthy and Icky.

Since childhood, the variety involved in puppetry has appealed to Lyon: For “Avenue Q,” he sketched, built, detailed and clothed the puppets, and he gets onstage to sing and perform beside them.

“I use just about everything I know how to do,” he says.

Puppetry also helps him get beyond his own shyness: “You get to experience all these lives you could never live on your own.”

But the attention “Avenue Q” has attracted still makes him squirm a little. Advertisements topping taxicabs all over New York City bear Trekkie Monster’s face, but Lyon hardly mentions them. When given a copy of The New Yorker, opened to his photograph, Lyon glances at it and lays it down in his dressing room without a word.

“It’s very strange,” he says. “It’s a very foreign environment for me, and I look around and think, ‘What ... am I doing here?’

“Thank God for the puppets.”