Puppet Wizard Ballard Honoring Jim Henson

The Gainesville puppeteer and some friends are staging the Jim Henson Tribute Show tonight at Market Street Pub & Cabaret to raise funds for the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.

Rachel Wayne holds Roberta, left, while Dan Ballard shows off his puppet Merka Lerka in front of the mural Ballard painted at The Midnight in downtown Gainesville. Photo by Gainesville downtown)
Rachel Wayne holds the pterodactyl Roberta, left, while Dan Ballard shows off his alien puppet Merka Lerka in front of the mural Ballard painted at The Midnight in downtown Gainesville. (Photo by Gainesville Downtown)

Dan Ballard grew up watching The Muppet Show, Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth — basically any TV show or film created by the late, great puppeteer Jim Henson.

Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog
Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog

Henson’s creativity and genius had a profound effect on Ballard.

“He was my inspiration since I was 6 years old,” Ballard said. “He helped my imagination come to life.”

Ballard’s mother, Wanda, also provided encouragement. She started a puppet ministry at their church in Mobile, Alabama, when Dan was a toddler.

No wonder Ballard, 32, turned puppetry into a career and enjoys sharing his talents with the Gainesville community and beyond.

Tonight, Ballard and several other performers will display their theatrical skills during the Jim Henson Tribute Show at Market Street Pub & Cabaret, 112 SW 1st Ave. Doors open at 9 p.m. and the show starts at 10. Admission is $7.

The event, which will mimic an episode of The Muppet Show, is a benefit for the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. A portion of the proceeds will go to prevent and treat autoimmune diseases, which affect an estimated 50 million Americans, including at least two of tonight’s performers.

henson posterBallard will appear as Daniel Weird and host the show. He will also perform with some of his puppets before turning the Vaudeville-style show over to eight other artists, many of them burlesque performers who will carry on the Jim Henson theme.

For example, Phoenix Midnight will offer a naughty interpretation of the Count song. Drag queen Nicki Mirage will perform as Jareth, the Goblin King played by David Bowie in Labyrinth. Another act will have an Alice in Wonderland theme because Henson was a big fan of author Lewis Carroll.

“We want to create nostalgic feelings in people,” said Rachel Wayne, whose DreamQuilt Productions is staging the show for the second year in a row along with Dolphin Wizard Company. “They can expect a true variety show with dancers, comedians and musicians all paying tribute to Jim Henson.”

Wayne said that because Jim Henson’s work spans generations, beginning even before Sesame Street, almost everyone has had a memorable Henson experience.

Henson, who made Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy household names, died in 1990, but his legacy lives on through his children. His youngest daughter, Heather Henson, runs Ibex Puppetry in Orlando.

Ballard took a chance in 2009 and friended Heather Henson on Facebook. Then he answered her callout for artists for an adult-themed comedy act she was putting together.

Heather Henson performing
Heather Henson performing during “Flight: A Crane’s Story” at the Orlando Fringe Festival.

Heather Henson started a monthly event called Puppet Slam, a program during which puppeteers perform 5- to 8-minute Vaudeville-style skits.

Ballard ended up headlining one of the Puppet Slams. He created an act where one of his characters, a sheep/dog (but not a sheepdog), gets stranded in the middle of the ocean and summons a magic wish-fish that grants him any wish. The fish happened to have Tourette Syndrome, which made for an awkward, vulgarity-laced encounter orchestrated by Ballard.

“The audience rather enjoyed it, but was confused at the same time,” he said. “It was random and weird.”

In 2014, Ballard worked on Heather Henson’s show “Flight: A Crane’s Story” at the Orlando Fringe Festival. The play was about conservation for whooping cranes and their connection to local Native Americans.

The turtle that Dan Ballard gave the ability to walk.
The turtle that Dan Ballard gave the ability to walk.

During the show, Ballard was called upon to modify Henson’s turtle puppet to where it could walk. Henson was impressed.

“She’s become a personal friend,” Ballard said. “I hardly ever see her because she’s all over the world trying to carry on her father’s legacy.”

Ballard is chief puppeteer and puppet/toy designer for Gainesville-based DolphinWizard Puppetry and Toys. The company is named after one of Ballard’s acts involving an all-knowing dolphin.

Ballard recently performed the act during Bizarrelesque at Superfun, part of the Curia on the Drag complex on Northwest 6th Street. People could ask questions of the dolphin only after funneling a beer “donation” into his blowhole.

That show was also produced by DreamQuilt, an alternative homegrown entertainment company that Wayne, 30, and her father, Ron Wayne, started in 2013 along with graphic designer Aja Dorsey.

“Our goal is to give people an economic opportunity as artists,” Rachel Wayne said. “There are many ways to have sustainable work without living in a major city.”

On July 23, DreamQuilt will produce Zombieville at the Atlantic Nightspot.

The reindeer and pigeon Dan Ballard created for The snow Queen.
The reindeer and pigeon Dan Ballard created for the Hippodrome Theatre’s production of The Snow Queen. (Photo by Michael A. Eaddy)

Audiences at the Hippodrome Theatre are familiar with Ballard’s puppetry. For The Snow Queen last year, Ballard designed a handheld pigeon puppet and a large white reindeer puppet based on the “most beautiful caribou” he could find online. He also drew inspiration from the stage production War Horse that included a life-size equine puppet.

Dan Ballards original sketch of the reindeer -- with legs!
Dan Ballard’s original sketch of The Snow Queen’s reindeer — with legs!

In The Snow Queen, one of the characters wore the reindeer using shoulder straps. Ballard had designed and built the furry creature with legs. However, the legs had to be removed for the show for technical reasons.

Ballard has come a long way since helping his mother create props for her puppet ministry. One time she needed a praying mantis to play a miniature keyboard. Ballard fashioned the insect out of foam and a paint-stirring stick and even gave it perpetual motion so that it appeared to be tapping the keys.

“My mom definitely helped inspire me and encourage me to do puppetry,” he said. “She still encourages me to do puppetry!”

Dan Ballard with Merka Lerka, "a creature from another planet that is mostly Sulphur based."
Dan Ballard with Merka Lerka, “a creature from another planet that is mostly sulphur based.”

Ballard also does voice acting. He had a show on WGOT-LP called “Grak and Tom Present Radio” in which he performed five voices. Grak, by the way, was a methane-based alien, while Tom was a tentacle creature that drank blood.

In addition to Ballard, tonight’s Jim Henson Tribute Show performers include Angela Knox, Henrietta Henhouse, Alouette Sanguine, Ruby Rapture, Formaldehyde Flower and Labyrhina Dragon.

Last year’s Jim Henson Tribute Show raised funds for the medical bills of Hannah Miller, a sufferer of Myaesthenia Gravis. Miller is a puppeteer, producer and marketing director for Ibex Puppetry, but she can no longer perform large-scale puppetry. However, she does perform smaller-scale Toy Box Theatre.

Another friend of Wayne and Ballard can no longer use his legs because of an autoimmune disease.

The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association is the only national organization dedicated to addressing the problem of autoimmunity, the major cause of chronic disease.

— Noel Leroux

For further info on Dan Ballard’s puppetry company, visit the Dolphin Wizard website.

Follow Rachel Wayne’s DreamQuilt Productions on Facebook.

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