An Evening With Captain Hugo Brabant (Or Why I Don’t Have Any Photographs For This Story)
by Joseph Helmreich
Editor’s note: With the modern Disneyfication of New York City, downtown’s legendary alternative puppetry scene, which dominated so much of our coverage during that decade, can sometimes feel like a distant memory. In this issue, we revisit a story by the late Jules Van Orman, whose 1976 story about the elusive ventriloquist Captain Hugo Brabant, remains a classic document of the era.
From the Archives of East Houston Street Press:
AN EVENING WITH CAPTAIN HUGO BRABANT (OR WHY I DON’T HAVE ANY PHOTOGRAPHS FOR THIS STORY)
By Jules Van Orman
May 16, 1976
The place is a fucking mess. Overturned tables, shattered crystal, crushed beer cans, what’s probably drying blood. The long-haired man with the horseshoe mustache is assuring me, though, everything’s just fine. “We had these bunraku performers from Osaka for the matinee. These cats don’t mess around—we’re talkin’ shit goin’ back to the 1700’s. They’ve got the puppeteers workin’ together with these chanters—tayu, they’re called—and musicians at the same time. Well, the crowd was eating it up, but one of the flutists must have been hammered and started flirting with this fat Texan’s wife and the next thing you know there’s a full-on brawl happening in my club. That’s how it goes, but this will all be cleaned up by eight—you won’t even recognize the room.”
The man is named Walter Truscott and he better be right. A transplant from New Mexico, Truscott’s loose, jovial manner belies his position as one of the alt-puppetry scene’s most important taste-makers. Of the 20 or so puppetry theaters or “puppet clubs” that have sprung up around the East and West Village in the past five years, Truscott’s Little Red Playhouse is easily the most exclusive and he is regarded as a notoriously exacting gatekeeper. “If you haven’t been workshopping your act three years at least,” one young puppeteer tells me, “He’ll see right through you.” Yet even for Truscott, tonight’s performer, the near-mythic Captain Hugo Brabant, who has never before performed in the United States, is a major coup and everything must go exactly as planned.
“How did you land Brabant?” I ask Truscott, and he just smiles coyly. “Okay,” I continue, “Well, you think you can get me an interview with him?”
“Ask me again, and you can’t print your interview with me.”
With three hours to go till the performance, I leave the Little Red Playhouse and head over to the Kettle Pot on East Ninth, a local cafe where I’m due to meet my assigned photographer, whom I’ve kept waiting. When I arrive, a red-headed kid in a corner booth waves me over and introduces himself as Freddy Kugel, my designated lensman. He’s got a face full of freckles and looks about 17, and all that combined with a generally gee-whiz vibe makes me think immediately of Jimmy Olsen.
“Pleasure to be working with you, Mr. Van Orman,” he exclaims and proceeds to tell me his life story, something about having come from the Midwest with big dreams of making it in the “Big City,” but I’m not paying attention, though my brain is punctuating his sentences with words he’s not actually saying like “golly” and “swell.” To my chagrin, he mentions he’s into Shari Lewis, which necessarily means he’s into hash.
“Listen,” I tell him, laying it down. “My last photographer smoked grass on the job and then when I needed her, she’d wandered off to quell a sudden craving for Banana Flips. No dope while we work, you copy? Or I’ll be sending you back to Nebraska on the next flight.”
I can’t afford a taxi uptown, let alone some else’s ticket to Nebraska, but the kid humors me. “I copy,” he says, with exaggerated sobriety.
At a nearby booth, a small group of twenty-somethings dressed alike in black turtle-necks, engage in lively debate.
“Fuck Henson,” the apparent ring-leader says, to shocked looks from his companions. “We’re not on Sesame Street anymore.”
They turn out to be puppeteers from Detroit and they’re hoping to score tickets to tonight’s show at the Playhouse. If not, the trip won’t be a total bust, as they’ve booked some gigs of their own at a few smaller clubs like the O’Day on MacDougal Street and the Avenue Puppet on Avenue C. In Detroit, they have a collective called the Finger Faces (“We’re like Punch and Judy if Punch and Judy were cannibalistic Trotskyites,” one of them tells me later). The group was founded by Schroeder Seale, the one who’d been dissing the Muppet man, along with his girlfriend, Gloria, who carves all of their puppets from discarded furniture.
Does Schroeder really hate Henson? “Look,” he tells me later, out of earshot from the others, “Henson’s got more talent in a single beard follicle than I got anywhere. But Brabant is the most important cat on the scene since Geppetto built Pinocchio. Say, do you think he’s really gonna’ show?”
The ventriloquist Captain Hugo Brabant has attracted this sort of hyperbole and mythologizing since he first appeared five years ago at the Festival Mondial des Theatres de Marionettes in Champagne-Ardenne. While English-language accounts are rare, the story goes that his performance nearly caused a riot, as the audience felt they were being put on, that the figure they were seeing on stage was some sort of high tech animatronic. How can a dummy come so fully to life without strings or any puppeteer or vent in sight? But of course Brabant was there….somewhere. He’s always there, nearby, just out of reach, somehow giving life to his creation, the acerbic wooden manchild named Gary Talkalot. Presumably, Brabant simply hides somewhere in the audience, blending in with the crowd, though good luck trying to find him! Since his debut in Champagne-Ardenne, little Gary has shown up at performances in major cities like Vienna, Hong Kong, and Istanbul, but the ventriloquist himself has never been identified. While some have speculated that he might actually be inside Gary Talkalot, à la an old episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents about a small ventriloquist who hides inside his own dummy, this theory was dispelled at a performance in Lisbon when a falling beam shattered poor Gary into what looked like chopped firewood.
So why would someone with Brabant’s status not want to come forward and accept the glory? I asked this recently to Irving Asche, the heavy-set, white-bearded former wood-carver who runs the Bowery Puppet Shop and has established a reputation as a sort of unofficial scholar of the scene (when Fred Rogers toured the East Village last spring, it was Asche who showed him around and was then supposedly gifted with a slightly damaged, original Daniel Tiger).
“The minute Brabant accepts recognition for being Brabant,” Asche explains, “it means he’s no longer Gary Talkalot, which means it doesn’t mean anything for him to be Brabant! Can you dig? It’s like Bergen and McCarthy. Edgar Bergen didn’t mind moving his lips because no one could see him, anyway. Brabant just takes that to the next level and makes it literal. You ever read Roland Barthes? It’s mostly pretentious bullshit, but there’s one thing he’s right about: the author is dead. Brabant gets that it can’t be about him.”
“Except,” I counter, “doesn’t Brabant’s anonymity make people focus on him even more?”
“Yeah, I guess he kind of fucked up.”
With some time to kill before the show, Freddy Kugel and I check out a shadow puppet set in a basement on First Avenue.
“Hey, are you planning to interview Captain Bravant?” Freddy asks me. “I could really use a picture of him for my portfolio.”
“Just remember what I said,” I tell him.
“Yeah, yeah, no grass.”
I’m not messing around either. The memory is still fresh in my mind. It was 1968 and I was covering a finger puppet cantastoria on Bleeker Street. They had set me up with a photographer named Fiona Sharabi, a young freelancer who had shot photos of Bob Dylan, a fading star from the Village’s mostly-forgotten 1960’s folk scene. I could tell Fiona was already high when the show started, and when the time came to capture the money shot, she’d disappeared!
Freddy and I arrive at the Little Red Playhouse and settle into our eighth row seats. Truscott wasn’t lying; the place is damn near immaculate. The opening act is a marionette troupe from Quanzhou. The puppets that grace the stage are astounding, though I’m distracted; I’ve noticed that Freddy is getting too friendly with a young college-aged couple in the row behind us. It’s too dark to see much, but I can smell that distinctly skunky odor. Well, nothing I can do about it now, so I turn my attention back to the stage.
The marionette performance is finished. The audience applauds and now the lights dim. There is a long silence and the crowd starts to fidget. Finally, a lone spotlight shines down on center-stage.
There he is: Gary Talkalot, seared on a barstool, smaller than I’d pictured him. His eyes are wide and expressionless and his lips a bright ruby red. His skin is peach with perhaps the slightest greenish tint. Gary opens his mouth and addresses the crowd:
“Knock knock,” he begins.
“Who’s there?” we respond in unison.
“Sarah who?” He pauses, look cautiously in both directions, and goes for it:
“Sara doctor in the house?
The joke is pedestrian, yet something about the delivery is singularly masterful. It’s like we’re under some kind of spell, like we’ve all gotten collectively stoned from the very same toke. In this moment, I realize that questions about Brabant’s anonymity are completely beside the point; his stunning artistry utterly overwhelms any discussion about its context. If Brabant the human being is relevant at all tonight, if he’s puppeteering from afar, it is surely we who he is controlling, not Gary Talkalot.
I turn to Freddy to make sure he’s getting some good shots, but of course the asshole is long gone. At first, I assume he left to get some Banana Flips or moon pies, but by the time I exit the theater and he still hasn’t shown, it dawns on me that his conspicuous absence at just the wrong moment is less Jimmy Olson and more Clark Kent. I don’t mind that he lied to me, but I would have used a real photographer if I’d known who he was.
Meanwhile, the dazed crowd with whom I merge onto Second Avenue are trying to make sense of what they’ve just seen. “I’m going to spend a year in an ashram and then when I come out, I’ll tell you what I thought of the show,” some preppy-looing teenager tells his girlfriend.
I see Schroder Seale and his cohort standing on the corner, looking wistful; they never got in.
“How was it?” Gloria asks me.
I remove a Lucky Strike from my jacket pocket and stick it between my lips. “I’ll be telling my grandkids about it,” I answer as I light the stogie.
“No,” I answer and stick out my thumb toward the yellow cab I see coming up the block. “You had to be there.”
Joseph Helmreich is the author, most recently, of The Return (St. Martin’s Press). He teaches creative writing and journalism at Pace University.
Image source: Sivani Bandaru/Unsplash