Last November 2, while driving home from work on Andrews Avenue, passing motorists might have wondered, Why in hell are 225 skeletons walking down the street? Halloween was two days ago.
But it was Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, a national holiday in Mexico, when celebrants honor those who have passed away by visiting graves or building altars and decorating them with flowers, skulls, and the departed's favorite items. The holiday is a juxtaposition of gravitas and humor, as the souls of the dead are lured back for a visit not only with prayer but also with tequila, candy, storytelling, and parades. Skeleton depictions called Catrina figures (named so after a famous print circa 1910), which are more cute than scary, have come to be the dominant imagery associated with the holiday.
All of that is mightily appealing to artists and hipsters, and it has made Day of the Dead a fun holiday to import. When Jim Hammond came off the road after six years of touring with The Lion King as its puppetmaster, he settled in Fort Lauderdale, where he founded the Puppet Network and, not long afterward, got to work on making Day of the Dead a signature event.
Hammond, who sports the goateed, bespectacled look of a drummer in a '90s indie band, began his puppetry journey as a tween, creating backyard puppet shows for kids in his hometown of Hoosick Falls, New York. He knew even then that puppetry could bring communities together, a motivation that continues to drive him.
At 17, Hammond was hired by the Great Escape, an amusement park in upstate New York, as a puppeteer, where he handled up to 21 shows a day. It helped pay for his college education — he studied performance and production design at SUNY Fredonia — and because he made a decent living there, his experience made him realize that puppets could lead to a viable career. After college, he worked for a German puppet theater in New York, went to graduate school for puppet design at the University of Connecticut, and moved to South Florida, where he opened a puppet studio in Hialeah in the late '90s.
His big break came in 2003, when he became puppetmaster for the Broadway tour of The Lion King. He brought the animal menagerie to life until 2008.
"I loved the touring, but being on the road for six years was definitely a challenge, because I had a lovely wife at home, who also works in the arts down here. It was time for us to come off the road and explore something in South Florida again. I mothballed [the Hialeah studio], sold off most of the stuff, and I had an investor who contacted me in the beginning of 2009 and said, 'What do you think about starting a company?' We looked at the numbers and came to an agreement, opening up Puppet Network in the summer of 2009."
Nowadays, the company writes and designs customized productions for clients, makes sets and props for stage and screen, and hosts classes and workshops. It produces kids' shows such as Alice in Wonderland as well as more edgy projects like the Delray Beach Fringe Festival (coming September 2013) and an R-rated "Puppet Rampage."
As executive director, Hammond must execute boring tasks such as keep the books, file receipts, and pay taxes. But he does so surrounded by the creations he and his team have built — skeleton puppets to his left, motley birdlike creatures staring down at him from the ceiling, two smiling, animated recliners in bright pink and green perched behind his desk.
"You'll see giant frogs in here at the beginning of next year, and then we'll have Czechoslovakian rod puppets we're building in the spring," he says.
Inside Hammond's small office in Fort Lauderdale's FAT Village warehouse district — it's the one with the painted skull on the door — an extensive library suggests the Puppet Network's myriad influences, from books on parrots, mythology, and African masks to Al Hirschfeld collections and Harvey Pekar graphic novels. To their right hang photos of previous productions and press clippings from every South Florida publication of note, including this one.
Walk past the slightly creepy image of headless farmer puppets dangling from a clothes rack like lynching victims — they're actually characters from the Puppet Network's revisionist take on Snow White, with farmers instead of dwarves — and you'll see a small industrial workstation, where saws, pliers, lint rollers, drills, spatulas, and dozens of screwdrivers await the wood, foam, cloth, papier-mâché, and leather that Hammond and his team will transform into characters.
Hammond also rents out two huge studios in the FAT district, one of them big enough to build sets and large-scale puppets. This is where the magic is made for some of Hammond's best clients, from Florida Grand Opera and Miami's PlayGround Theatre to the Arsht and Broward performing arts centers.
Currently, his team of freelancers and volunteers is focused on one event and one event only: the South Florida Day of the Dead Celebration, a multidisciplinary cultural extravaganza that will overwhelm the FAT district November 2. Circus acts, musical groups, and dance companies will perform on an indoor stage, and in one corner of a room, a 1960s Cadillac and a live model, both painted with Day of the Dead designs, will be sketched by artists as part of Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School. At the other side of the building, 16 local crafters will preside over the Craft Crypt, offering tile, fiber, and glass works, paintings, jewelry, clothes, and other items, all with Day of the Dead themes.
At Hammond's other large studio, a 10,000-square-foot installation space will be filled with the Day of the Dead's second annual "Nocturnes" exhibition, focusing on ghost-based artwork. There also will be a play reading, an intimate "puppet slam," Latin-centric food trucks, and, perhaps most impressive, the Skeleton Processional: a volunteer army of puppet-carrying, costumed visitors led up Andrews Avenue by mariachi musicians. Most everything is free. In 2010, Hammond's first year staging a Day of the Dead festival, less than 100 participants signed up for the processional. Last year, the number jumped to 225, and this year, more than 450 have registered on Facebook.
"Any first year, you may be creating an event that may only have the life of one year," Hammond recalls of his first Day of the Dead. "But audiences responded to it, and most of our community of 160 volunteers that we have right now working on this event were there the first year, participating. Without those volunteers, we wouldn't have continued. I am a volunteer on this event, trying to make it a success.
"It's taken off... do I want to say better than expected? No, it's pretty much on a course that I was hoping for. I'm a big dreamer. My mom always said I have delusions of grandeur."
Hammond is now 42, and he has enjoyed a long and enviable career in a niche field. But he says the fundamental desire to bring inanimate objects to life hasn't changed much since those makeshift neighborhood puppet shows, which he created from garbage bags and found objects.
"You could almost say that my creative foundation is as a 10-year-old kid, breaking sticks off dead trees and turning them into puppets," he says. "I haven't stepped that far away. I believe there's such an innocence, whether you're a kid who comes in here and looks at these puppets and is like, 'Oh my gosh, this is fascinating' or you're a 21-year-old punk-rock kid who's trying to impress your girlfriend, and you're all hip and cool, but as soon as you walk in and look at one of these characters, you melt a little bit. And you go, 'I'm a kid again. I can't believe this is a real job.' "