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Originally published January 24, 2012 at 9:04 AM | Page modified January 24, 2012 at 7:49 PM

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Fratello Marionettes bring wood, Styrofoam, cloth to life

Puppetry in general is on the upswing.

Contra Costa Times

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PINOLE, Calif. — Walking into the Fratello Marionettes workshop is like stepping into a world of imagination. There are wolves and fantastical animals of every description, and stringed people of every size and shape.

Pillowcase-like bags, one for each of the dozens of marionettes, hang from racks. Hooks in the beams allow marionettes to be hung for painting or costume fitting.

Marionettes have existed thousands of years, dating back to the days of ancient Rome and Greece. Although we live in the land of Muppets, the ancient art of string- or wire-manipulated marionettes still thrives in areas around the country.

In the Bay Area, Fratello Marionettes keep the string play alive.

"We're just like big 3-year-olds," enjoying what they do, said Kevin Menegus.

Fratello founder Menegus and Fred. C. Riley III, his partner in mime, turn Styrofoam, string and wood into magic.

They perform at schools, libraries and theaters around the West Coast. And, working from a Danville, Calif., office and a Pinole, Calif., workshop, they make their own marionettes and restore old ones to new life.

"Right now in the Bay Area, we are the only company that solely uses marionettes," said Menegus, 35. "Some puppetry companies use marionettes in their work, but we only use marionettes for our work."

Puppetry in general is on the upswing.

"In the last 10 years, there has been a definite increase in the use of puppetry," said Steve Abrams of Philadelphia, a past president of Puppeteers of America — which has 1,500 individuals and 116 member puppet companies. "'Late Late Show' host Craig Ferguson uses hand puppets that are made in (the Bay Area), and marionette builders frequently work on stop-action animation films, like 'Coraline,' or the English Wallace and Gromit films."

But "there are fewer marionettists these days than other types of puppeteers. I would guess maybe one in four or five," said Michael Nelson, past president of the San Francisco Bay Area Puppetry Guild.

Maybe it's because of the devotion needed for a company like Fratello.

"It's all handmade," said Menegus.

"We're not just puppeteers, we're painters, sculptors, seamstresses. We write the stories and the scripts — everything. Each marionette is totally handmade," said Menegus, who said that it takes a full year to plan a show, write the script, make the marionettes and to rehearse.

"The first thing you do is think about what you want the marionette to do, then we sketch it, draw it to size and make all the parts."

And the things they do are amazing.

Fratello Marionettes includes a bearded puppet in lederhosen that can juggle beer mugs on his toes, then his nose, and then "drink" the beer. Another can duplicate all of an ice skater's moves. An opera singer grows taller and taller as she hits the high notes.

Menegus has been enthralled by puppets since he was 6, when his dad gave him a marionette to entertain him during the winter in Michigan.

The Pinole resident studied music in college but after performing jazz and classics with symphony orchestras and on cruise ships, he was ready for a change.

He said learning puppetry grows from being an apprentice, which he began in his teens. Along the way, he studied with Lewis Mahlmann and Randal Metz at Children's Fairyland. The Storybook Puppet Theater in Children's Fairyland in Oakland, Calif., is America's longest-running puppet theater.

Riley, a 41-year-old Oakland resident, who traveled across the country honing his puppet craft, and even toured Japan, met Menegus at Children's Fairyland. When Menegus' original partner, Michael Burroughs, left for the East Coast, Riley became his co-puppeteer.

Riley said he is drawn to live marionette shows, rather than the TV or movie magic of the likes of the Muppets, because he's a "performer who likes to hear his audience."

And there is plenty to hear, as children and adults cheer and screech with horror or joy as the puppets are danced, walked or raced across the stage by their puppeteers.

In addition to making the marionettes for their shows, the Fratello pair do marionette restoration.

"Most of our income is from performing and only about 5 percent to 7 percent comes from restoration. We do custom marionettes for custom work. They typically start at $4,000 for a basic marionette," Menegus said.

The price reflects the time and care they take to create.

It takes two to three months to build an average 30-inch marionette for one of their shows, said Menegus.

Fratello Marionettes currently has seven different shows available. A sixth show, "Aladdin," is in production.

For more on Fratello Marionettes, visit www.fratellomarionettes.com

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