Master of the puppets
Steve Axtell’s plush imagination and the art of whimsy
By Tim Pompey 01/03/2013
Ventriloquism and puppetry have become big business. Think Sesame Street. Think Terry Fator, who regularly appears at the Mirage in Las Vegas. Think Broadway producer and Tony award-winner Jay Johnson.
But who do professionals like Fator and Johnson call when they want to design a new puppet? They call the man that many consider the best in the business: Steve Axtell, founder, president and creative director of Axtell Expressions.
Axtell, whose warehouse is tucked away in an industrial section just north of the San Buenaventura Golf Course, has operated his puppet manufacturing site in Ventura for 30 years. Over that time, his business has grown from a small, part-time enterprise to become the Mecca for puppetry and magic. Entertainers, ventriloquists, magicians, even basketball players — if they’re in the business, they know where to find him.
Axtell, who grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, has a long history with puppetry and magic. He started doing his own magic shows when he was 6, and credits his mother with teaching him to sew his first puppet. But his chief influence in becoming a professional puppet designer was Sesame Street.
“I went to my aunt’s one day and saw Sesame Street,” said Axtell. “It inspired me to go home and make the Muppets.”
One day, his proud father sent a letter and some pictures to Jim Henson describing his son’s talents. Henson was courteous enough to reply.
“So I got a letter from Jim Henson saying I was talented but that I had to stop making the Muppets and make my own look,” Axtell explained. “That’s when I began to develop my own characters.”
His breakaway moment came when he saw Don Post’s latex masks at the Disney World Magic Shop in the early 1970s. He went home and began to experiment with the combination of fur and latex, receiving encouragement and guidance along the way from adults such as his high school art instructor, Charles Casto.
“I was gifted at creativity and my stuff was really crude,” said Axtell, “but I knew I wanted to make three-dimensional objects. I was smart enough to align myself with some really talented people. I had a mentor, Tony Bulone, who designed the original Barbie doll. He taught me mold making and guided my sculpture work, and eventually came to work for me.”
Axtell moved to California in the late 1970s and met his wife, Suzie, while she was a home economics student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. They married in 1980 and opened Axtell Expressions in 1982.
Axtell credits his wife with helping him to get started in professional puppet making. As he tells it:
“She knew clothing construction and could make the bodies, and I could make the faces, so she encouraged me to go into our own business.”
His first big break came when he invented the Magic Drawing Board, a blank white board that allows a magician to draw a face with a magic marker. When the face is drawn, a set of eyes and mouth magically appear. When the face is erased, the eyes and mouth vanish.
“When I came out with this, it put me on the radar for magicians like David Copperfield and Harry Anderson,” he said.
Today, Axtell Expressions does business in more than 80 countries. His product lines include animatronics, TV shows, instructional books and videos on ventriloquism and magic, and some complicated puppet wizardry that can be seen in films like Planet of the Apes.
For Axtell, good puppetry has to do with a clear vision of the puppet’s character.
“It’s about design,” he said, “knowing what a character is and should be, its backstory. By its look, it has to have a personality, and that’s what people like about our puppets. We give it an attitude that lends itself to that character.”
The designs can be very technical and include pattern making, sculpture, drawing, painting, foam, fabric, animatronics and knowledge about how to turn latex into skin.
In 2004, Axtell branched out and launched his own TV production company. The show won many awards and featured a hit song called “The Platypus Song.” It’s simple, funny, and addicting.
“We designed a platypus puppet and put the song on YouTube,” Axtell explained. “It’s caught on and people are doing parodies of the song. It’s been on Dr. Demento. A lot of kids know about us because of “The Platypus Song.’ ”
His star status among young entertainers has become legendary.
“Some of our readers and students have come here to visit,” he said. “They tell their parents they would rather come here than Disneyland.”
Needless to say, these days Axtell is a man in demand. But he’s conscious that his business is family-owned and-operated and he takes pains to hire locals.
“We’re real small and we keep it close and make sure that we hire people that live here,” he said. “We like to hire people in this area who have strong talent and can be trained.”
With all these irons in the fire, Axtell is having to think seriously about the future of his company.
“We have high standards,” Axtell noted. “Our customers know our service and quality. I’m in the process of letting go more, now that I’ve established what Axtell is, but I’m not sure if I’m going to explode big or stay small.”
For now, he is enjoying his success and loves the fact that around the world, Axtell Expressions is spreading his own brand of humor and good cheer.
“Through our products that I send,” said Axtell, “my thousands of customers are using my puppets and magic tricks to make people laugh all over the world in 80 countries. I think that effort makes me want to keep inventing other products. I’ve got 200 inventions in my notebook right now that I haven’t even touched yet.”