For the last year, my partner Kevin and I have been quietly plugging away on a project completely unlike anything I've ever attempted before -- Earth Music Odyssey. Following the adventures of space alien Jheri and their pet Borborygmus, this short-form children's series explores world music and the diversity of instruments and artists in said (extremely broad) genre. We were lucky to receive sponsorship from the BrittKids Klub, an educational arm of the Britt Music & Arts Festival in Jacksonville, OR. Kay Hilton co-produced the series on that end. Thank you Kay.
I've collaborated with Britt for a long time -- first with The Meriwethers (our Lewis & Clark Band) and then with the video projects Junebug's Forest Friends and Junebug's Curious Year. On all of these previous ventures, by best friend and frequent collaborator Manda Bryn Severin was the main creative engine and liaison with Britt. It was always a delight and privilege to work in service of her vision and I hope for more in that department. But the beginning of 2022 saw me yearning for some kind of new creative endeavor of my own. Manda mentioned that given the history, Britt might be open to hearing a pitch from me -- and Earth Music Odyssey was born.
Really, it felt like a bubbling-to-the-surface of something that's been brewing inside of me for years and years. Probably since childhood. I remember watching Punch and Judy shows on a vast lawn in Stanley Park in the late 1980s (my mom often took us with her when she was on a lengthy shoot -- in this case, for Stephen King's IT). I wish I could say these viewings immediately launched a lifelong obsession with puppets, but it I think they just planted the seed. It wasn't until 2014 or 15 that it germinated -- at the original location of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in downtown LA. Watching the puppets parade on the red carpet, I fell in love instantly. Maybe it was that I'd never seen string puppets up close before. They're delicate, expressive and demure (by which I mean they don't have a hand shoved up their ass). In my mind, they're so wholly different from rod-arm and hand puppets as to be another species. Not that I don't love the Kermits and Lambchops of the world, it's just...marionettes grabbed me in a special way.
Pause for a plug: The Bob Baker Marionette Theater has since moved to a new location on York Boulevard in Highland Park, an old vaudeville house that the company has polished into a jewel. From the murals on the walls to the little window vignettes (perhaps a nod to Bob's Disneyland window displays?) to the ornate pipe organ stage right, BBMT's new home is more than equal to its previous one. And its players are as charming as ever: tiny drums beat themselves, particolored flowers waltz on delicate feet, black cats shimmy, skeletons ride motorcycles and gangly hens lay tiny eggs that (spoiler alert) hatch and make their own exit. Every time, I gasp with delight and giggle with glee. It's actually kind of embarrassing, but fuck it.
I watched a two-year-old on her first day at the Bob Baker Theater last year, eyes stretched in silent wonder, arms reaching out toward the unbelievable spectacle. An instant fan. She left chattering with excitement, her young mother and grandmother barely able to pry her from her seat. I could relate.
Puppets aside for a moment, I began gestating another obsession circa 2015. There's no easy or polite way to say it, so here it is: Huell Howser. He drives me NUTS. He asks insensitive questions, pushes people in and out of shots, barks at his cameramen (bless you Luis and Cameron), puts his hand on the small of ladies' backs in tight hallways -- all the old-guard, quotidian offenses. He's so ridiculously tone deaf, it's surely a bit. Except it's not. (The one possible exception I've come across is an episode where he weeps with hushed reverence in the presence of premature babies and their nurses.)
And yet...he's inquisitive. He's fearless. He made something out of nothing again and again. He delights in weird shit and lifts it up for people to see. And at least he exposes everyone equally to his boorishness; in every episode I've seen -- and I've seen a lot -- he appears to be color unconscious (for better or worse) and to sincerely love learning about new cultures, arts and practices, even if he asks the most obnoxious questions you'd never think of.
I love him, the way I love my late southern grandpa West.
So Jheri, the E.T. at the center of Earth Music Odyssey, is the non-binary bastard love child of -- you guessed it -- the Bob Baker Marionette Theater and Huell Howser. A uniquely California creation and one straight from the heart.
There are a lot of people who helped out that I'd like to thank and hopefully they know who they are -- but I'll urge you, reader, to peep the episode if you want their names. (Okay, I'm also just proud of our end credit sequence.) Britt plans to release an episode per month through June, so subscribe to their Youtube channel or sign up for the BrittKids Klub e-newsletter here if you want updates.
Life is so short. I'm learning to follow my heart even if it takes me in a direction that's strange and intimidating. Wish me courage in that department and I'll wish the same for you. Nell