...or How a guy with a metal plate in his head tried to make me a human rod puppet.
The story you are about to read is true. It represents the only time in my life when I was really terrified by an all too real horror. This isn't fantasy folks, so read on...
This strange sequence of events started out innocently enough at a coffee shop where I was having a wonderful lunch of grilled cheese sandwich and a nice cold beer. As I often do, I was reading a popular newspaper for people in the television and movie industries. I was scanning the classifieds for ads that featured situations that had to do with animation or other special effects. I was a student at the time at the School of Visual Arts and my major was cinema - and I knew I needed a job in my chosen field, and I needed it fast! After about 20 minutes of reading one particular ad caught my eye... "Young man needed to work as a puppeteer in newly formed puppet theater. Experience not needed... desire to work rod puppets essential. Brooklyn location."
Now I didn't think at that time or moment anything strange about this ad. It seemed to me to be a great chance to "break into" the performing arts. What I didn't know was that the performing arts were about to break into me! There was a phone number in the ad so when I got home I gave this "company" a call. Funny I thought, as I was dialing the number, I had never heard of a puppet show theater in Brooklyn, but that was kind of a good thing too, since I didn't have to travel to Manhattan. I listened to the phone ringing once, then twice, then a few more times - I was about to hang up when I suddenly heard a very friendly voice on the other end say "Hello, Mr. Rosenstein speaking..." An ordinary guy, an ordinary voice... I felt very comfortable. Sometimes though, the worst horrors can seem very ordinary.
We spoke for about an hour. I told him I was applying for the job listed in the paper and he let out a loud "Wonderful!" Mr. Rosenstein spoke about being in the theater for over 40 years, and how he was one of the inventors of the "rod puppet" system. I was impressed. We had one hell of a phone conversation about everything that had to do with puppets, marionettes, film making, animation (he said he worked with Disney) and he even seemed to know much about my special effects heros, like Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen. Mr. Rosenstein had stories to tell of all these guys. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to even be talking on the phone with this veteran of old Hollywood!
He explained to me how he was forming this big theater company, that consisted of all puppets of all sizes, and that he needed men to operate the various controls that gave "his creations" life. In my mind this guy was the tops!! He seemed cordial, sincere and most of all, willing to give a first timer a chance to "enter" the business. How wonderful for me! After our phone conversation we had arranged an initial job interview, but it didn't seem strange to me that the meeting was to take place at his apartment in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. A perfect place for this strange Punch and Judy crap that I was now going to be involved in. Mr. Rosenstein added one more thing before he finally stopped telling stories of his glorious Hollywood past... he told me to come alone.
In fact, when I had asked him if he needed anyone else to build sets or design and operate the puppets, he flatly told me NO! He composed himself over the phone and then added that he wanted me to see his secret puppet process first, before too many people got a chance to. I was honored. Stupid idiot!! Well, Laura Vento didn't raise no morons, so when I felt that first chill up my spine, I realized something was not right here. Something was very wrong. At any rate, I arranged to meet with the master puppeteer late one night on a Friday... but I would not be alone.
My old friend from High School, Robert Martinez, was in town on a holiday from the U.S. Marine Corps, and he would be going with me to my job interview - armed and dangerous. I felt better. Together, the two of us headed over to the house of puppets... for your standard job placement... or something worse! The heavy night air around us, my car tearing up the gravel of my driveway, we headed into the unknown. It wasn't a long drive at all to Coney Island from my house in Flatbush, but it seemed like an eternity. What would Robert and I find there? I mean, this guy had to be legit... right? We got to the gloomy courtyard of Mr. Rosenstein's apartment building, got out of the car, and headed for the elevator to apartment 4W. On the way up I told my friend to let me go to the door alone, since this was the assumed nature of my visit. I told Robert to just hang in the shadows and if there was any real problem to come out and help. I nervously walked down the barely lit corridor to the right apartment door - although before I got there the door had suddenly opened and a head peeked out.
I greeted the head which was Mr. Rosenstein, and introduced myself. As I got directly in front of the door I could see him completely. This guy had a ghoulish smile from ear to ear, and said how wonderful it was to finally see me. In the half light, I noticed that his head was sort of caved in - like a partially deflated volley ball. It looked to me that he had a square metal plate in his skull. He appeared nervous and kept licking his lips for some reason. I tried glance past him into the apartment behind him, but all I saw was a black-red glow coming from somewhere. Mr. Rosenstein was licking his lips more aggressively now. His face was pale and full of pock marks. I noticed he also had these weird Elvis sideburns that made me think of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. He then put out his hand - I thought, to shake mine... but it was more like he wanted to hold hands as he led me inside. I was terrified!!
I immediately told him I wasn't interested anymore, and he got all nervous and said "but I wanted you to work my rod puppets!" At that point Robert came out of the darkness and made his presence known. A look of madness came over the puppet guy's face as he bellowed at the top of his lungs
"I TOLD YOU TO COME ALONE!!!!"
And with that he slammed the door shut, which was so loud it sounded more like a meat locker closing! We just ran out of there - down the stairs and out! We bolted for the car and hit the gas - leaving Apt 4W and gasping at what might have been in there!
Robert Martinez is living somewhere in the Bronx today and I don't really see him anymore - but I'll never forget him being there for me that strange night. Me, well I got a job as a health professional years after this and left the performing arts. I did see Mr. Rosenstein's ad again years later asking for yet another young man to work his puppets. I couldn't believe it! I will never forget that night for as long as I live. Nowadays, when I'm in a toy store with my beautiful 7 year old daughter, and I happen to glance up at some elaborate, expensive looking rod puppet hanging from the ceiling - I just laugh.
If I don't laugh... I'll cry!