The Jukebox Puppet Band were a crucial part of the SHINING TIME STATION series in America - Thomas' launchpad in North America. Flexitoons founder Craig Marin created a rag-tag band of wee performers who live and perform inside (yes, inside!) the station arcade's jukebox. Here, Orion Anderson shares a short interview he had with Craig about his and his crew's work on the show.
~ Interview submitted by Orion Anderson with our thanks! (2008)
~ New Questions with a * suffix were sent by J. Gratton and answered by Craig 2019-07-30
How did you become involved with Shining Time Station?
We were working with eccentric National Lampoon writer Sean Kelly on various projects, and he called us up and said he was over at WNET-THIRTEEN (Public Broadcasting Station) and that "the producers were working on a show that needed puppets, and they need the Flexitoon puppets but they just don't know it yet." So we packed up some of the puppets and marionettes from our Nickelodeon series PINWHEEL, and went over to meet the producers. This was on a Friday. They called Monday and said that "the other puppeteers said they could bring something different to the party, and we were the only ones who proved it." So Flexitoon was hired to build and perform the Juke Box Band on Shining Time Station.
Was the meeting with Rick and Britt (not sure who else) informal, or set up something like a formal audition where you demonstrated your creations?*
It wasn’t really an audition. They were looking for a puppet making group, and we turned up as that, plus, our entire team of puppeteers. So once we got the go-ahead, we brought in our performers and we all became the STS family.
Did you all leave the meeting with positive feelings that it went well?*
Always hard to read that moment. We thought it did, but in show business, you never know. Kept positive and sent our imaginations out to play, picturing what it would be like to get the gig. And sometimes, thoughts are things.
After receiving the good news, I imagine that you and the team were jubilant, but now the real work begins! Was there a tight time constraint/deadline that you were under?*
There is always a tight schedule in television, but I don’t recall it being “tomorrow”.
Can you describe the creative scrums you and the team went through to define the characters? Was anyone from STS production involved in the creative process?
Rick Sigglekow was a wonderful advocate for our work. And as luck would have it, they loved all the voices we brought to the characters. In the first season the gang mostly stayed in the musical places, except for the trap door runway that allowed Tito to swing on over to Grace. At this point Grace was only a hand puppet. Same with Didi and The Boys. However I had an idea for Didi to sing in that trench. And once we got her out from behind the drums, a whole world of possibilities opened up. With the next Christmas special and the subsequent seasons, we added marionette (puppets on string) and the band really came alive!
Grace and Tito in the "trench", with Didi stationed at her drums in Season 1 (left), compared to how mobile Didi & Grace are in later seasons (right)
Would you be able to share what inspired the creation, naming and personalities of the band characters? They certainly cover-off a gamut of musical genres!*
Rick and Britt devised the characters, and the initial character sketches were by Wayne White. Each member of the JBB represented a different musical genre who, by playing together, formed an harmonious relationship to the music, the world, and one another, and to you all.
Did you have a character “bible” set up for the band, and are there any character backstories that the fans may not know about?*
Not that I am aware of. I know the writers would write for them and we would interpret the words with voice and action. As time went on, I was able to take the JBB scripts and "puppetize them". So if the writers wrote “Hey Didi, what’s going on?” I would take that and tweak it into something like:
TITO: Hey Didi, my fave drummer with the helium hair, how it be shaking from your offbeat
The producers seemed to like that and so their importance in the show grew. The only real backstory I know is that Rex would always refer to himself as “the handsome one on the right”.
What was a typical day like working on the set of Shining Time Station?
We shot the first 20 episodes in New York City (where we're stationed), and all the rest in Toronto. The Juke Box Band were usually the first segments shot for the series. I'd get the scripts earlier and "puppetize" them (as mentioned earlier). I'd also draw storyboards and work closely with a co-director on integrating the scenes and musical numbers within the context of the rest of the show. We'd shoot all the two or three camera-stuff first to get it out of the way. Then we'd go to single-camera film-style and the fun would begin. We'd redress the puppets and marionettes, add custom props and sets to the juke box, or move to one of the other sets (the dressing room or Tito's vault, for instance.)
Many of the props, hats and set-pieces were constructed before, during and after hours. The six of us puppeteers were always busy behind-the-scenes: Olga Felgemacher (Didi the Drummer) and Jonathan Freeman (Tito Swing) were making the costumes and hats. The late Peter Baird (Grace the Bass) restrung the marionettes. Alan Semok (Tex) constructed intricate mechanisms; Ken Miele (Grace's assistant) did woodwork; and I (Rex)designed/painted/ constructed/ supervised and co-directed. One time a business person came back into our magical enclave and declared "Oh, just like elves" to which Peter Baird - - looking up from his newly-minted Finnigin Pin declared "More like trolls!"
A sampling of Craig's storyboards for the Season 3 episode: "Schemer's Special Club"
Speaking of the props, the band performances were often accompanied by animated instruments (e.g. self-playing banjo) and other dancing objects, sometimes animals. Were these spontaneous creative touches added by the team to liven-up the band’s musical performances?*
Many of those were from our arsenal of puppets and props from other productions. We
would always get the music early in production (sometimes even before the scripts) so we’d hear a banjo and go bingo! Another time we used a Turkey puppet we used in a commercial or one of the songs. But we were busy building props and instruments from morning on.
In Season 3’s “Billy Saves the Day”, the Jukebox Band plays a rockin’ psychedelic version of “Get on Board, Little Children”. It’s one of my favorites because of the costumes, music and visuals. Was that one fun for the team to perform?*
Yes! That’s one of my fave’s too. We looked forward to that one. Love the lighting designer (can’t remember his name though. Sorry.) He and I plotted that one. I wanted flashpots and the background to be like the Joshua Light Show of Fillmore Fame. And he did it! Got an overhead projector and mixed oil and water and food color and BAM! Instant Acid Test.
Ed. Note: Fans can watch this musical number on YouTube!
Do you have your own favorite musical number that the band performed? *
“Get On Board”, “Michael Row The Boat Ashore”, “Jamaica Farewell”, and maybe“Patriotic Medley”. The one I loved doing the most because it was the most off-beat, was “What’s New Pussycat”. Here’s an interesting thing: For some of the numbers I had all the puppets sit in their places, and then the cameras could dissolve between the characters. This was a fast and effective way to get a lot of quality material in the can. Most of the songs though were storyboarded which meant we shot single camera film style. Much more production and post production time, but as Rick told me, “so worth it!”
Did you control the jukebox as well?I'm not sure what you mean by CONTROL, but we were very "instrumental" in all things Juke Box. The six of us performed and voiced all the characters (Grace's voice was dubbed in later).
Alan Semok guest-starred in the Season 1 episode “Show and Yell” with ventriloquist dummies. Can you share what circumstances gave him the opportunity to appear in the episode? Did “Lazlo” and “Eugene” belong to him?*
Alan Semok is a well known ventriloquist in the States. The fact that he was one of our puppeteers (TEX) made it a no-brainer for the producers to hire him. Lazlo & Eugene are Alan’s best know characters. Nowadays Alan mostly creates and repairs vent figures, and is known as the “Dummy Doctor”.
In the 1995 Family Special “Once Upon a Time”, there’s a funny sequence with the “Rat
Pack” performing “What’s New Pussycat”. Most appropriate. Did the rat characters exist
beforehand and you later chose the song to perform, or were the characters created after the song was already decided upon?*
Rick said “we’re doing WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT” a-la Tom Jones. I said great!!! And storyboarded the whole thing, using puppets and marionettes from our Flexitoon Troupe. The lead singer is Dorian Graymouse, the Pussy Cat is Kitten Baboodle, and the rats were Ruff & Tuff.
In the special " One of the Family" , Mr. Conductor goes inside the jukebox; how did you get the puppets to interact with Mr. Conductor?
That required a lot of pre-planning and careful storyboarding. After lining up the individual shots, we had the stage manager read Mister C's lines from off screen. We kept strict eye focus as to where he would eventually be integrated. And the results were quite believable. Our only regret was that we never had Ringo appear in the Juke Box to drum with Didi. A tap-dance on the tom-tom would've been one for the ages!
On a lighter note, we begin to witness a budding romance/courtship developing between Didi and Mr. Conductor in the Family Specials (Second Chances, One of the Family). Whose idea was it to work it into the specials’ storylines?*
I was always just a little bit bummed that we never had Ringo drum alongside Didi, and I mentioned this to Rick. So as soon it was determined that Mr Conductor was to appear in the Juke Box, I think he mentioned to the writers to work in a bit of a school yard crush. It was Olga (Didi) who brought it to life with her performance.
In the 1990s, JustToys released a Bend-Ems line of the Band characters, that must’ve been exciting for you and the team. Did your company have any input in their creation?*
They came and took official photos of the puppets to use as reference. They also adapted my storyboard from “This Old Man” and “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” into colorful children’s books.
Juke Box Band merchandise!
Carl Tenbrink of SONOS product development shared some conceptual designs with us for some Jukebox Band toy for THQ that were sadly never released. Were you aware of that these were in development or had ideas for other band merchandise? (you can see them at the bottom of our STS merchandise page)*
Those are so cool!!!
When did you learn Shining Time Station was coming to a close? Did you have ideas for further band character development or expansion had the series continued?*
I don’t remember an official announcement, it just went from “is” to “was”. I still have
ideas to this day.
Was the idea that the Jukebox Puppet Band would be in Thomas and the Magic Railroad ever proposed to you?
Certainly, given the cross-over popularity of the characters. (Newsday said "the best American part of the show is a cast of crazy musical puppets known as The Flexitoons") But I guess the producers thought it'd be "hipper" to have a girl pop group instead. A real faux-pas on their part. Oh we had big plans for them. The preliminary discussion was to have the juke box knocked over and all the characters would scatter and get lost. They'd be out in the world! Alone. There would be a song that each of them sings, and by the end, they'd all hear the others song and reunite once again, singing joyful five-part harmony.
When we initially created the Shining Time Station section of the Fansite, I used my notes in an attempt to “map out” the Jukebox Band’s lair with the best information on hand. Did you ever have your own layout plan or ideas of where these different areas would be located?*
Maybe? I remember a meeting where I mentioned that in order to open up the band for the upcoming seasons, we can’t go up or out but we can go down. That gave us a dressing room, Tito’s Vault, and an elevator! I think it was around this time I suggested the band have a manager. And that turned into JJ Silvers!
It was sad to learn Peter Baird passed away so young in 2004. His absence must’ve been felt profoundly in the Flexitoon “Family”. Can you share what working with Peter was like?*
Peter Baird was a wonderful soul and gentle human. Also a very talented marionette artist. His parents were famous puppeteers (Bil & Cora Baird created the “Lonely Goatherd” scene from Sound Of Music.) Olga “DIDI THE DRUMMER” Felgemacher was Bill Baird’s lead puppeteer at his NYC theater, and that is where she met Peter. You know what? Let her write about him: “Dear Peter is missed profoundly as a close and loved friend and as a superb puppeteer. There hasn’t been a project since his loss that we haven’t said Peter would have been perfect for this, whether it was in building or performing. At these times we sigh and mourn his untimely loss again. He once said “you know you’re in my karass and I’m in yours” Well he still is. We love you Peter Britten Baird.”
Peter Baird and Olga
Do you ever showcase the Jukebox Band characters in a static display at exhibitions or conventions?*
We’ve had them on display several times: Center For Puppetry Arts in Atlanta GA, Puppet Museum in Storrs, CT, and the Greenwich Arts Council in Greenwhich CT, where they were seen alongside over 100 of our puppets and marionettes and props and sets from many of our productions over the years. Including Nickelodeon’s PINWHEEL.
Aside from those venues, do find yourself on occasion meeting the now-older fans of Shining Time Station who remember the troupe?*
We do! And the internet is a blessing. The question I hear most is “When are they releasing STS on DVD. We want to show it to our kids”.
Are the band character props still in good shape 30 years later?*
The gang is in tip-top shape. In fact, I’m looking over at hand puppet Didi right now!
The Juke Box Band on Exhibit
The fans love to hear behind-the-scenes anecdotes, both humorous and special from the cast and crew. Would you have a few that you’d be able to share with us?*
Here’s one of my faves: Our marionette bridge (that’s the scaffolding above the puppet stage from which we operate string puppets) was about 15' off the stage floor, so once you climbed up there you were there for awhile. I was always moving between the marionettes and the hand puppets, the puppet and prop making area and the cameras. Once Olga was in place behind the drums she was there for a while. Peter Baird, who mostly worked the Grace marionette, stayed up on the bridge the most. One day I noticed he brought his coffee thermos up with him, then a folding chair with an apple box for a table. Then one day I climbed up to work FLEX (that was the nick-name for the marionette Boy Brother) Peter had carried up a recliner and got a cloth to cover his table! So there he is, all 6'3" of him, reclined out, feet up greeting me with a jovial “Good morning, Doctor.”
Are there any special projects that you and the Flexitoon troupe are working on these days?*
We recently completed an Off-Broadway run of a new show called “HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN: TALES REAL AND IMAGINED”, and we’re working on a live, multi-media tour with a major rock band.
In closing, did you enjoy working on Shining Time Station?
Absolutely and without a doubt. The people, the producers, the finished product touched and continues to touch millions of families. On behalf of all the puppeteers, FLEXITOON is proud to be part of such a great series. You can view several Juke Box Band numbers on our website: www.flexitoon.com (Click on the Shining Time Station page and Video Gallery).
Thanks again, Craig for offering to provide us with additional insight. It’s much appreciated.
You are very welcome. It is fun to recall those glorious days of teamwork and magic.
Behind-the-scenes view of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore"
We'd like to express our thanks to Craig, and wish him and the crew all the best with their current and upcoming projects.