On a recent Friday a few weeks before Christmas, hundreds of youngsters from Bradenton Christian School sat on the floor in a multi-purpose room with their teachers on chairs beside them.
In front of them was a portable stage with a black curtain in front.
The children couldn’t see the roughly 20 people standing in their positions behind the screen.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a camel popped his head above the curtain.
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The children began to laugh and point.
Cameron Camel, operated by puppeteers Gloria Wilfong, JoAnn Cooper and Del Ridenour, told the children he was an announcer with Camel Music TV, which was about to present the top songs of Christmas, interspersed, of course, with commercials.
During the 30-minute show, the children giggled and roared at some of the characters presented by the Joyful Hearts Puppet Mininstry from First Baptist Church of Palmetto.
They liked Big Bob Goodman, the friendly Bible salesman, and The Three Camels, who were car salesman.
But at the close of the show, the children didn’t laugh.
Their faces were frozen in rapt attention as they listened to a little girl sing to her grandfather that she wanted to give Jesus a gift but couldn’t afford anything so grand for Him.
The last song of Joyful Hearts’ “Countdown to Christmas” features puppeteer Patsy Skinner as the little girl and Gordon Daugherty as her grandfather.
Her words were absorbed by the children as if they were little sponges:
“What I have to give to you can’t be bought or sold/ It’s not wrapped up in a box, tied with strings of gold/not perfect, not even new/But, Jesus, it’s the only treasure I can give to you/My gift is me.”
Not a sound could be heard in the room as “My Gift is Me” played over the audio tape the puppeteers use at their shows.
Then, the children applauded and waved and reached out their hands to the puppeteers as they walked by them to go back to class.
For Sylvia Daugherty, the assistant director of the puppet ministry, the end of “Countdown to Christmas” is a personal highlight.
“The show may have its funny parts, but the seriousness comes at the end and the children seem to understand,” Daugherty said. “ They are so happy and their eyes are just sparkling.”
Breaking with convention
Due to the physical demands placed upon them, puppeteers are usually young.
Holding a puppet above a curtain for an extended period is demanding on the arms, wrists, hands and shoulders. Puppeteers can also find themselves on their knees. To see them in action behind the curtain is to witness something akin to the finely tuned actions of a race car pit crew jumping around each other as they change tires and add fuel during a race, albeit at a slightly slower pace.
But the 20 members of the Joyful Hearts Puppet Ministry from First Baptist Church, Palmetto, are all senior citizens, ranging in age from the 60s through 84.
The group, which started in 2002 and whose programs are always a tribute to the Gospel, have modified the way they do puppets to accommodate their slower reflexes and stiffer joints.
“Instead of being on our knees, we sit on swivel stools,” said Daugherty. “We use platforms to stand on at the back of the stage and we hold each other’s arms when they get tired.”
The members also constantly help each other move in and out around the stage.
“We are a team,” Daugherty said. “We have a team mentality. No one is better than another. We encourage each other, care for each other, help each other. If someone is sick or unable to be there, we jump right in and take their place.”
The group has seven married couples including Sylvia and Gordon Daugherty, Bob and Katie Keim, David and Joyce Moffett, Del and Cathy Ridenhour, Lyle and Jane Trumbull, Ray and JoAnn Cooper and Jim and Liz Still.
The other members include Carole McPhee, Ed Knorps, Flo Van Dyken, Gloria Wilfong, Ken Pye, Marie Place, and Patsy Skinner.
Bill and Charlene Cobb of Ocala made most all of the group’s puppets.
Virginia Sutton of Bradenton does all the group’s costuming.
For the past five years, the Joyful Hearts have performed free shows for churches, nursing homes, schools, mobile home communities, assisted living homes and even the Manatee County prison.
The team works to a tape and members have learned to synch the mouths of the puppets with the audio.
They are led by Pye, a teacher at Bradenton Christian School.
A busy group
Although the Joyful Hearts Puppet Ministry is available to do free performances during the summer, the group’s busiest time is from November through May. This year, the group had done 13 shows through Nov. 16. They do roughly 20 shows a year. Hall of Faith is their signature program.
“That is about characters of the Bible and taken from Hebrews, Chapter 11, including Noah, Moses, and Joab and Paul,” Daugherty said.
The members of the group say they love performing.
“Puppeteering cures old age,” said Liz Still, who tops the list at 84.
The group’s origin can be traced to a trip to New Orleans in 2002 when First Baptist Pastor Joe Choate took the seniors for an adult senior conference. The seniors saw a senior puppet team from Louisiana.
“We were so impressed with it and talked, coming home, that we could do it,” Daugherty said.
Choate said he would support them in forming their own puppet ministry.
The early days were a struggle, however.
“We were pretty pitiful in the beginning,” said puppeteer Patsy Skinner.
Then Pye came into their lives. Pye had joined the church in 2003 and stopped by one practice session to see how they were doing. What the crew didn’t know was that Pye was an accomplished puppeteer who had used puppetry in his fifth grade classes at Bradenton Christian School for two decades to draw out shy students.
“I didn’t go to be director, but just to be one of the team,” Pye said recently. “I taught them how to do a few things. They deserve the credit. They have become polished.”
Besides technique, Pye has imparted in the group the power of puppets.
“A puppet has universal appeal,” Pye said. “They transcend language. Children and adults are transfixed by them. What I have also found is that the shyest kids are the best puppeteers. What they are afraid to do before others, they can do with a puppet. If they make a mistake, it’s the puppet that makes the mistake.”