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CUSTOMER SPOTLIGHT - Steve Petruzzella

Steve was born in Astoria Queens. A sickly child, his friends were stacks of 78 RPM records, a heap of drawing pads, colored pencils and his imagination. But his favorite diversion was TV. Television in the 1950s and particularly local New York broadcasts was full of puppet characters. Paul Winchell, Bill Baird, Chuck McCann, Sandy Becker and Shari Lewis were favorites. He was always doing voices and making things 'talk'. His parents bought him his first puppet: a Howdy Doody marionette.

When Steve was nine years old his family moved to Long Island. His interests shifted to music. "I loved music, wanted to play guitar, start a band and write my own music." From there, he expanded into percussion: marimba, vibes, congas and tympani. His work in the Rock and Disco clubs of the 70s, then the wedding band circuit of the 80s, became an essential aspect of his self expression.

In 1989 Steve married Jeannie, who was a rabid Muppet fan with a collection of videos, recordings, pictures, books and behind-the-scenes info. Steve's interest in puppetry, which had laid dormant for decades was reborn. Watching The Muppet Show and the puppet segments of Sesame Street, he decided, "I want to do that: PUPPETRY! Lots of things I love all happening at the same time. That's for me!". The internet was not yet a factor, so he went to the library. Every book on puppetry he could find was stacked up on the floor of his tiny Long Island cottage. One of the best was Making Puppets Come Alive. He was delighted to discover that the author, Carol Fijan, lived on Long Island. Her studio phone number was in the phonebook, so he called and she invited him over. Carol, who was in her 70s had known Jim Henson at the beginning of his career. She immediately saw in Steve the imagination, creativity and ability to be a terrific puppet performer. "You've got it", she said. She not only taught Steve about puppet manipulation but about the wider art of theatre. Carol is now 90 and they're still great friends.

Steve bought a puppet to play around with and heard that the Children's Pastor at his church was looking for puppeteers for the puppet ministry. He recruited Jeannie, and together they grew into a team that wrote scripts and music and performed multiple characters. During this time, Steve sent an audition video tape to Jim Henson Productions and was invited to their NYC rehearsal studio. There he did a week of on-camera training and was invited back for a voice training class with Muppet veteran Jerry Nelson. It would have been great to work with the company, but it was not practical. A young intern could work years before getting on camera as only a background character, plus at that time the TV puppet business was in decline.

Author Carol Fijan & Steve

Steve and Jeannie started their own company PetraPuppets. They were immediately commissioned to create their first school show. The result was Cavetown, an elaborate forty minute show in a large puppet stage with lighting, music, scenery, props and a cast of eight puppets all performed with live voices. Steve purchased his first Axtell Puppet for this show, Chat-Racket, who would play the melon-eating bird. "We were building a number of puppets for each presentation, but our construction abilities were limited. The Children's Pastor we had worked with gave me an Axtell catalog. I was impressed by the quality and variety of the puppets. They already looked like characters on the page. We had to add them to the cast of our shows".

Cavetown was followed by Zig Zag Island and Attack of the Reading Robots, but after five years of back-breaking work, they were not happy with every aspect of the shows. Jeannie was convinced they needed a more interactive format. At many performances, the most positive feedback was for the presentation Steve did outside the stage after the show, the kids loved him. Jeannie encouraged him to learn ventriloquism and do a show alone playing all the characters. "You can do the voices with the characters on stage with you or off in trunks, and interact with the audience". She would run the business from their home office.

"There is nearly always some element of Axtell's work, even in my large school shows. When I was completing our literacy program, Reading Rampage, I needed one more killer segment for the end. That week, Ax released the Remote Magic Drawing Board. I think I got one of the first ones he made. Still knocking them dead. It isn't difficult to imagine Axtell's Hands-Free technology making it possible for one performer to bring an entire stage full of characters to life”.

Ventriloquism was a big change, but how would it work? "I didn't like the idea of being shackled to a stand with a figure sitting on it. I wanted to use the stage more theatrically and maybe have the scenery talk. I saw an old photo of John Cooper's vaudeville stage with the barber shop set". Steve's first ventriloquist school assembly It's Alive!: How Our Organs Work, was born out of this concept. He made talking organs that could stand on the stage, and a talking brain puppet he could hold. The Brain now stars in all of his school programs and is treated like a rock star by the kids. Steve built everything in the show himself except for the Axtell Big Mouth, which sat atop the esophagus of the digestive system.

Since he was now in the spotlight, Steve began to use Steve Petra as his stage name. During the summer months, when schools are closed, Steve performs for the Summer Reading Program in libraries. Each year he creates a new show related to the theme for that year. The title, theme and general 'look' of the show must be ready the December of the year before. Steve's budget for each show includes at least one or two Axtell puppets which are then prominently featured in the promotional material.

Over the past few years, Steve had gotten back to music. He teamed up with an old school friend, Joe Giangrasso as Sweet Tooth Publishing to write music. Their songs are in several video releases and the PBS show Kid Fitness. Steve has also done character voices on these projects. Steve and Joe are currently developing an animated series, The Noodleheads. Noodleheads were puppets originally created by Steve and Jeannie for school workshops in conjunction with Zig Zag Island in 1997.

What's ahead? Possibly an instructional video, certainly more voiceover work and song writing. I definitely intend to continue the curriculum-driven school assembly programs. For me, this job is more than just arrive, set up, get the students in the room, do the show, then leave. An assembly program can expand a kid's vision of what they can achieve, ignite and sustain their passion for learning. A compelling show can provide teachers with a tool for encouraging kids to pursue their own interests with self-directed learning, as well as within the school curriculum. I’m excited about integrating the arts and specific elements of education, and hope to work with teachers and administrators with the same vision”.

"Many thanks to Steve Axtell for holding the Axtell Puppet Video Challenge again this year. It's a privilege to have such outstanding judges view our work...and it's exciting to win! It was pure fun. My advice to those thinking of entering next year is DO IT! View it as a puppet assignment: read the guidelines, categories judged and stated purpose of the contest. Then come up with your best, most uniquely creative way to meet the challenge!"

"The opportunity to appear with Terry Fator is as close to overwhelming as my brain can process. Terry is a once-in-a-generation talent and a generous guy. This will be an interesting assignment! Looking forward to 2009, new ideas and new collaborations".

You can visit Steve's website at

Steve's Winning VENT Entry
Steve's Winning PUPPET Entry
Quality Puppets and Magic by Axtell Expressions