The first thing you notice is the puppet’s cleavage.
“Most of them are quite sexy and well-endowed,” says Greg Ruhe, local puppeteer extraordinaire. For 30 years Ruhe’s been the man behind more than 150 larger-than-life characters—literally: Somewhere inside the giant, walking, talking puppets he’s created for his Houston-based party-entertainment company, Puppet Pizzazz, Ruhe or another actor is there, wearing a backpack frame, black clothes, and full hood.
“Hey, my eyes are up here,” one of Ruhe’s “party gals”—or socialites, as he sometimes calls them—might admonish you. Flushed, you’ll draw your gaze from the flesh-colored velvet stretched over her voluptuous foam body up, up, up to her painted face, sculpted from special papier-mâché.
The party gal’s eyes are bright blue and lined seductively. There’s a mop of feathery curls cropped around her face, and she’s positively dripping in costume jewels. Her nails are fire-engine red, and she wears a ring on every finger of the hand she uses to clutch a martini. She’s dressed to the nines, wearing a custom-made gown—“haute puppet couture,” Ruhe says, to fit in with a society crowd—and a pair of ladies’ heels, gamely donned by the puppeteer himself. A party gal, after all, wouldn’t be caught dead in flats.
Ruhe speaks for the decked-out socialite, making conversation through her carved mouth. “Oh, you look fabulous,” she’ll drawl to a well-heeled gala guest. “Where did you get that dress? It looks better on you than it ever did on me; I’ll let you keep it.”
She has friends, portrayed by other actor/puppeteers: cowgirls and flappers, Renaissance kings and Greek gods. Characters Carmen and Eduardo might join the partiers at a Cinco de Mayo fiesta, while “a beautiful Indian couple” might be found in the crowd at an extravagant Indian wedding. Around the holidays, when business spikes, Mr. and Mrs. Claus are often joined by their slightly randy daughter, Ms. Naughty Claus, who’s reminiscent of a Radio City Rockette. “I do what the guests make me do,” Ruhe says. “It could be G-rated, or it could be a little naughty. It depends on what they want.”
Ruhe prefers to play female characters, he says, because the crowd is more apt to flirt with them. “It’s different with the male characters—almost a little lecherous,” he adds. “The women can get away with anything. Even the good old boys in Texas, they get down. Guests lose their inhibitions when they’re playing with the characters.” This is especially true at high-society events, where his puppets inspire a stodgier crowd to let loose. “I’ve seen things I wouldn’t dare tell you,” he says. “After a while people forget that there’s somebody behind that puppet.”
Ruhe grew up a blue-collar Pittsburgh kid with Broadway dreams. His father, a steelworker, offered to pay for any college as long as he didn’t pursue a theater degree. Undeterred, he secured a full scholarship to study acting at West Virginia University. It was there that he was introduced to the art of puppetry, but it wasn’t love at first sight.
In 1983 Ruhe came to Houston as an intern with the Alley Theatre and ended up staying here, producing children’s plays and, with another former Alley intern, founding the city’s much-loved, now-defunct Children’s Theatre Company. To make extra money, he took a side gig as a waiter with upscale Houston caterers Jackson & Company and, working events like the Wortham Theater Center’s 1987 grand opening party, found himself captivated by the performance artists hired to entertain the ritzy crowds. “It was lots of actors in fancy costumes that would walk around and engage guests in conversation,” he recalls. Ruhe was already experimenting with puppetry in his children’s plays, and he’d noticed they always stole the show: “They couldn’t care less about who wrote the play or who made the costumes,” he remembers. “People would rush the stage afterward to see the puppets.”
Inspired, he started experimenting, using an electric meat carver to shape upholstery foam into life-size characters, some—like Big Daddy Tex and his girlfriend, Sugar Darlin’—as tall as eight feet. He enlisted a seamstress friend, also a cook with Jackson & Company, to create fancy custom costumes. The two would work together for the next two decades.
Puppet Pizzazz’s first gig was a Bayou Bend garden party, followed by bar mitzvahs, charity galas, and everything in between. Today Ruhe also performs overseas, either with his former apprentice, who runs a sister puppetry company in Paris, or while traveling frequently for his part-time job with the International Schools Theatre Association—the latter sent him to six different countries last year. “Sometimes I take a puppet with me for social occasions,” he says. “I talk to people wherever I go about what I do.”
For Ruhe the puppets are a kind of social shield—a way for the self-described wallflower to become the life of every party. “I’m a shy person,” he insists. “I would so much rather be there as a puppet.”
But there are challenges. Three years ago his longtime costume maker had a stroke and was unable to continue sewing. And Ruhe, now 57, recently had a hip replacement, which kept him out of ladies’ shoes and off the dance floor for a time. Since then he’s used more finger and shadow puppets.
There’s also the matter of finding interested—and capable—talent to man the puppets, which Ruhe admits is much harder than it looks. “It is extremely physical, the sheer weight on your shoulders,” he says, and it’s all off-script. “It takes a special person to do that level of improv. A lot of people will put the puppet on and then freeze up.”
Ruhe is looking for a protégé who loves puppetry as much as he does. “Who’s going to take this over when I don’t want to do it anymore? I haven’t quite found that person,” he says. “Most of the puppeteers are getting older, like me. I’m looking for new blood.”
As for those who consider puppetry old-fashioned, Ruhe points them to Broadway shows like War Horse and Avenue Q. “People will say puppetry is a dying art, but I don’t think so. I think it’s having a real resurgence,” he says. “There’s puppetry all around us, and people don’t even realize.”