Culture » Visual Arts

The great puppet maker

In bringing marionette theater to the Springs, Simpich is reviving his family name



Go to Prague, Czech Republic, a medieval city rich with culture, and before you enjoy any of its literature, music or theater, you may be struck by the prevalence of ... puppets. Hanging from tourist stalls in the open plazas and dancing across the cobblestone of sidewalks and bridges under their masters' hands, the wide-eyed wooden creations charm impressionable international tourists.

Both the charm and impressionability stem, in part, from live puppetry being new to most people; not every major city claims sidewalk theater, or a sit-down venue. Aside from amusing cameos in film (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Being John Malkovich) puppets are often written off as Sesame Street fodder.

What people need to properly appreciate the art form, it seems, is someone who can prove that it can be more Tim Burton than Jim Henson. David Simpich is one of those people.

"There's something bigger than life about what marionettes can do," says Simpich, who, at 47, is in his 25th year of performing marionette shows of his own creation and construction.

And now he's planting that European ethos in Old Colorado City. By late March, Simpich and his wife, Debby, are expected to open the Simpich Showcase, a museum, gallery and theater space at 2413 W. Colorado Ave. But in addition to giving Colorado Springs a unique destination point looking forward, this arts addition will look back, by exhibiting the work Simpich's parents did in the same building for more than a half-century.

Capturing the legacy

Bob and Jan Simpich began hand-crafting the now-famous Simpich dolls in the early 1950s in the basement of their Manitou Springs cottage, as Christmas presents for their parents. Word of their prowess got around, and what began as a hobby snowballed into Simpich Character Dolls, which operated in Old Colorado City for 54 years before closing in 2007.

At one point, the business employed more than 100 people. But the costs of making everything by hand from the molds and wire bodies to the distinctive painting and garments became too much of a strain on the business, according to David.

Several people offered to buy it, David says, but he and his parents didn't want the operation to go to an offshore manufacturer.

"We wanted to uphold the family tradition of it being all handmade here in Colorado," he says.

Rather than sell out, the Simpiches decided to close.

David, however, remained dedicated to preserving the dolls' history and artistry. So in fall 2007, he decided to end 16 years of taking his theater (and family) on the road, and to bring his work which has earned him a prestigious President's Award from the Puppeteers of America back home.

"It kinda came together," he says, "that we could open a museum to uphold that tradition of what my parents had done with the dolls and show a lot of the one-of-a-kind and rare dolls they've made through the years."

The museum will chronicle the dolls' history and display them in more than 50 dioramas. It will also house a doll consignment store and souvenir shop containing rare items like vintage greeting cards and porcelain plates Bob and Jan made in the 1950s. The gallery space will feature local art, the first of which will include paintings Bob Simpich has been doing since he retired.

Also, at some point, you'll probably be able to buy a book David's putting together about the history of the Simpich dolls.

"There's all these grandparents right now who are excited about having their grandkids, or their children, inherit their doll collection, and the children aren't going to know what these dolls are," he says. "So that's one thing I want to do by writing the book [and] through the museum, is just offer a history of my parents' artistry and their contribution to this area."

One-man show

Besides designing and constructing the puppets each one takes 25 to 30 hours David also does their staging, movements and voices. (Think film-quality voiceover, not post-tickled Elmo or Ren-Fest part-timer.)

Though David's visible during the performances, the marionettes are so captivating that it's easy to forget his presence. Through his direction, his characters come alive with fluid, natural movements, and appear much larger than just 20 inches tall.

"The quality of production is outstanding," says Eve Tilley, president of the Pikes Peak Art Council. "The individuality ... there's nothing like it anywhere. [The theater] is a fabulous addition to the entertainment pool and the theater community."

For each show David writes an original script, usually an adaptation of a popular book or fairy tale such as The Secret Garden or Great Expectations. He hopes to open the theater with a rendition of Hans Christian Andersen Storybook, a script he wrote as a celebration of the author's writing style and themes. It's not a retelling of the stories, David says, but rather an in-depth analysis of Andersen's writing philosophy.

His larger plan is to stage five different shows a year, one for each season plus a Christmas performance. Each show will likely run three to four times a week for a two- to three-month period. Though he's performed for audiences upward of 2,000 people, David is especially excited about the intimacy of a new 70-seat theater.

"Live theater is a struggling art form, and I feel very dedicated to trying to uphold that, as opposed to just producing everything on a DVD and [people] can take it home and watch it that way," he says. "It's the whole experience of seeing it live with other people in an intimate setting that really excites me, and I think that's where it exists in its purest and best form."

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