TURN IT DOWN: A survey of Lansing’s musical landscape

By Rich Tupica

Punk rock master of puppets

Ever wonder what would happen if you combined the puppetry skills of Jim Henson with the spirit of Johnny Rotten and violence of Jeffrey Dahmer?

You’d get The Gepetto Files, which isn’t merely a rock band, but a production featuring top-notch puppetry, live music a light show and dark comedy.

“It’s like Kiss meets Disney,” explained Ted Talvitie, the 41-year-old creator, puppet master and lead vocalist of The Gepetto Files. “This is real puppetry, it’s just Detroit Rock City style; It’s irreverent and loud.”

The puppet show plots and musical styles vary throughout the band’s performances.

“We jump around from genre to genre,” Talvitie said. “We go from Goth to rockabilly, from heavy metal to punk rock. We even throw in R&B and trip hop.”

The band, along with Lansing’s Dr. Device, will perform Thursday, May 21, at Mac’s Bar in Lansing. Talvitie said he plans to perform “A Day in the Life of Jeffrey Dahmer,” a fan favorite that ignores facts about the serial killer in favor of fictional oddity. “The Dahmer in the sketch is like Mr. Rogers gone bad,” Talvitie said. “People tell me, ‘I’ve never witnessed anything like that.’ The chief of police in the sketch is Vincent Van Gogh. I don’t know why.”

Other skits feature Mexican midgets, African lions and a “jug band” of Marines and Taliban prisoners, or as they call themselves, The Taliband.

Talvitie builds all the puppets by hand, and he writes the bulk of the lyrics and dialog. But the show depends on more than him; the production consists of four band members, three puppeteers and a lighting technician.

Talvitie started the production 12 years ago in Ann Arbor. “It was basically a marionette show, and I performed at basement parties throughout Ann Arbor,” he said.

Since then, Talvitie said he has steadily improved and expanded the stage show. “The first two thirds of The Gepetto Files’ existence, it was primarily a sketch-comedy type act,” he said. “In the last couple of years it has turned into a musical. There is a rock’n’roll band that accompanies the puppets. Meanwhile, the band wears Viking helmets and ninja suits.”

Part of the show’s progress is the result of its founder seeking out a higher education in puppetry. In 2001, he Talvitie received formal training from Igor Gozman at the Detroit Puppet Art Theater. “It helped me to appreciate the art and teach me what I needed to do in order to take the production to a level I wanted it to be at,” he said.

While the production may seem professional now, The Gepetto Files is rooted in the punk rock lifestyle. “I was being a punk, being a drunk and being a maniac,” Talvitie said. “I lived at a big art house with a bunch of other freaks. Once I made my first puppet, it hit me. I took up doing rock concerts and performing puppet theater. I do it pretty much 24-7 now.”

Talvitie’s hard work has paid off in recent years, with his gang of rocking puppets acquiring a following in Michigan and beyond. “We have a pretty loyal fan base in Southern Michigan and the Midwest,” he said. “We recently found out Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son, gave a shout out to The Gepetto Files at a Los Angeles puppet show in the past year or so. Also, one of the lead puppeteers and builders from the ‘Team America’ movie is also a fan. I guess the word is getting out there. It’s pretty flattering.”

Gepetto Files

with Dr. Device 9 p.m. Thursday, May 21 Mac’s Bar, 2700 E. Michigan Ave, Lansing $5 www.gepettofiles.com