ELWOOD — Ralph and Elmer are an over-sized, goofy-looking pair. After all, one’s orange and the other’s blue, and their hair sticks straight up. They sound kind of silly when they talk to each other, too.
But they wouldn’t have a word to say if it wasn’t for Pastor Roger Gardner standing between them. That’s because Pastor Gardner is the puppeteer that makes the two characters come alive.
Gardner, who serves as senior pastor at East Main Street Christian Church in Elwood, has been puppeteering for decades. He’s found that puppets are a great way to get his message across.
“People love singing puppets,” said Gardner.
This year, Gardner celebrates 20 years of the puppet ministry known as “Praise Puppets” at the Elwood church.
“We do shows any time people want them,” said Gardner. “We do a lot in the community…. We’ve puppeted all over.”
Gardner’s puppet team involves youth from sixth through 12th grade who actually man the puppets. Gardner teaches and directs the team, which currently has 11 puppeteers.
“I enjoy it. It’s kind of a hobby. It gives me a lot,” said Gardner. “A lot of senior pastors don’t get a chance to work with kids.”
The kids rehearse during the school year, September through May, on Sunday afternoons just prior to youth group. Kids joining the Praise Puppets for the first time go through a three-week puppeteering boot camp right up front. There, they learn the basics.
“It’s a lot of fun but it’s also a lot of work. It’s not that easy to do it well,” said Gardner. The puppeteering pastor first learned the art himself when he was in high school. He later attended some workshops to learn to do it well.
“You want puppets to be natural,” said Gardner. “There’s a technique to it.”Gardner shows how a puppet comes up in three steps, and how to position it in relation to the stage. He teaches how to tilt the puppet so that it makes eye contact with the audience. The kids practice puppet aerobics using a big mirror in The Cave — the youth group building behind the church.
“With puppets you need ear/hand coordination and you have to do it instantaneously,” said Gardner. He cautions that if the puppeteer gets out of sync, “It’s like a cheap Japanese movie.”
Out in The Cave, Gardner has a stash of about 60 puppets. Each one costs, on average, about $75.
“You’ve got to have variety,” said Gardner. That means animals, like his latest acquisition — a skunk. It's also people or variations of people like coneheads, squareheads or glow-in-the-dark wuzzles.
“I listen to the story to pick the puppet,” said Gardner. He’s got a puppet quartet with suits and bow ties. Gardner even has a set of body part puppets like the heart, brains, stomach and liver.
Gardner’s wife, Sue, associate pastor at the church, created a lot of the props the puppeteers use, but Gardner noted she’s also a good puppeteer. The couple’s now-grown daughters, Christie and Becky, were also part of the ministry. Becky, now 27, even directed the program for a year.
When performing inside, the Praise Puppets have a stage made from pipes from which curtains are hung. When they’re on the road, performing outside, they use a pop-up puppet trailer fashioned from a camper trailer for their stage.
It’s that puppet trailer that the puppeteers will use during the Elwood Glass Festival, Aug. 16-18. The kids will perform 15-minute shows featuring righteous pop music every half hour during festival hours from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon.
“If you want to get out in the community, the puppets are a great way to do it, a fun way to get the message out.” Gardner said. "We want you to have fun, but we want you to get the message. Hopefully, it plants the seeds of thought in their mind.”
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