From The Ventura County Reporter

Personalities in Profile by James Spencer & Shirley Lorraine

The Man of a Thousand Expressions

What do you call someone who can create multiple expressions of his personality almost at will? Most call him by his name - Steve Axtell.

The multiple personalities take the form of the puppets, figures and toys he designs, manufactures, licenses and markets worldwide through his Ventura based company, Axtell Expressions.

His creations can currently be seen on television, in theme park productions, on Las Vegas stages and in front rooms across the nation as many creative performers use them to bring laughter and joy into the lives of others.

For example, Steve's creatures are currently being used by Michael Crawford in his spectacular special effects show at Las Vegas' MGM Grand, the popular PBS children's show Imagineland, and in conjunction with the new Indiana Jones attraction at Disneyland.

Other notables who have used inventions by Axtell Expressions include performers such as David Copperfield and Harry Anderson.

Soon his special characters will be appearing in multi-media CD ROM computer applications.

What is the special ingredient that enabled Axtell to make the transition from being a psychiatric technician at a State hospital to the person many consider to be the artistic successor to Muppet creator Jim Henson?

Perhaps a clue to the secret of his success can be found in the name of his business, Axtell Expressions.

In addition to being artistically crafted with quality materials, each of his characters has a unique, inviting and alert expression that is a reflection of the personal warmth and unassuming charm of its creator.

Axtell became interested in ventriloquism and creating puppets as a youth. After discovering Jim Henson's Muppets on TV, he began requisitioning every scrap of material and piece of foam in his Ohio home to make copies of Henson's famous finger folks.

Steve's father was a pastor who used entertainers, including magicians and ventriloquists, to share the Word. So, young Steve had the opportunity to learn performance skills from some pros.

In turn, they discovered Steve's ability as a craftsman and he was able to sell several dummies to professional ventriloquists by the time he was only fourteen years old.

Young Axtell brought his proficiency in recreating the Muppets to the attention of their creator, Jim Henson. Henson was complimentary and encouraging. He introduced Steve to the industry's professional organization, The Puppeteers of America. But he strongly suggested Steve strive for his own look and style, rather than merely copying Henson's efforts.

In the years that followed Steve grew, moved to California, attended college, married and began a career serving others as a psychiatric technician in the State hospital system.

All the while he continued to create new puppets and perform professionally on a part time basis as a ventriloquist.

It was during this period, while looking at a mask in a Disneyland toy shop, that Steve first became intrigued with the possibility of using latex in creating puppets. Up to then faces of most puppets and ventriloquist figures were constructed of rubber or a rigid substance and then painted or covered with material.

In playing with a latex Halloween mask Steve noted the material could be molded into almost any form. It was flexible. It felt like skin. When stretched, the latex would return to its original shape - just like a human face.

Axtell set out to learn about latex, and how to mold and work with it. He found that little was written on the subject and most artisans familiar with the substance were reluctant to share their knowledge.

Trial and error became a prime teacher. Ultimately Steve made contact with Tony Bulone, the sculptor who created the first Barbie Doll. Now retired and living in Solvang, Bulone became Axtell's mentor.

In 1983 Steve founded Axtell Expressions and went into business full time with a line of puppets, dummies and figures for ventriloquists, clowns and professional entertainers. Over the past 14 years his stable of characters has increased and it is a mainstay of the ever broadening scope of Axtell's creative operations.

Each character has a soft, pliable face. This gives performers the ability to add an inexhaustible variety of lifelike expressions and subtleties to the performance repertoire of their on-stage companions.

After deciding on a design for an individual character, the concept must be translated into a clay sculpture containing every detail of the final product. The sculpture is then used to make a mold. The latex is poured in the mold and, when removed, the final features are painted on.

The same process is used whether the character is a one-of-a- kind character for a television show, or a puppet that will be marketed widely marketed through the company's catalog or licensed to a toy manufacturer.

Although staff artists paint and air brush on the final coloring, Steve personally creates the master molds and sculptures for each character. The true depths of Axtell's artist talents and abilities are revealed when one learns that he has never had any formal training in art or sculpture. Although he is not primarily a magician, Axtell's innovative mind has spawned several sophisticated magical effects which are sold only to entertainers through the company's entertainment products catalog.

Through the prodding of Suzi, his wife, Steve began marketing an effect he had developed only for himself as a performer. It is the Bird Arm Illusion. It uses a third arm to create the illusion a bird puppet is sitting on the outstretched arm of the performer. It was so successful the puppet was licensed to a toy manufacturer.

The puppets are marketed as "The Burds". They are currently available in most major toy stores, including many locations in Ventura County.

This sortie into the toy industry has produced other special products, including a whole line of colorful and fanciful bird puppets.

Fall of 1995 will mark the appearance in toy stores of "Banana Buddy" - a soft, cuddly, lifelike, baby chimpanzee puppet. Currently, the puppet can be seen as an adjunct to the entertainment at the entrance of the Indiana Jones attraction at Disneyland.

Since the earliest days of television puppets have been a part of children's and educational programming. With the advent of video, the opportunities have expended.

Axtell's skills and creations have often been tapped to enrich this special part of every child's memories.

His contributions include instructional characters such as "Professor Hoot" (an owl), the "Book/Bible Puppet" (a talking book), the "Storyteller", characters for "The Donut Man" Christian video series, and the children's video "Chipper's Christmas Adventure."

Currently Steve is serving has the Director of Puppetry and an associate producer for "Imagineland", a new PBS children's show. The show is aired nationally in most major cities, except Los Angeles. However, it is carried on the PBS station in San Bernardino.

Hosted by County-Western singer Jack Houston, the show is set on Whitewing Farm. It features a variety of animal puppet characters including General Sam (a horse), Wenzel (a pig), Old Blue (the hound dog), a flock of birds and others.

Steve created the puppets. He also operates and provides the voices for four of the characters, including General Sam.

As an aside, the model for General Sam was one of the draught horses owned by Faulkner Farms (of Pumpkin Patch and Christmas Tree Farm fame) in Santa Paula, California.

Since the show is shot in Texas, Axtell now finds himself commuting to the Lone Star State for stays of several weeks at a stretch during the production season.

At the same time he is in the development stage of a project that will employ new Axtell characters in educational and entertainment CD-ROM applications. Axtell Expressions currently consists of four distinct operations - specialty products for professional entertainers, toy design and development, children's television, and computer and CD-ROM applications.

Each involves different disciplines, technology, skills and management techniques. When asked about his multiple roles, and whether he views himself as primarily a puppeteer, an artist or a manager, Steve replies he is primarily an "entertainment entrepreneur".

No matter what this entertainment entrepreneur does in the future, it's a sure bet it will be done with a unique and creative Axtell expression.


(c) 1996 James Spencer & Shirley Lorraine
Contact 805-642-2358
Reprinted by permission

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