Daisy the Cat admitted last week that she’d never liked having a car horn honked at her.
“But that was the old days,” she clarified. “Today, a puppet takes what she can get. Now I encourage cars to honk at me.”
She was talking about the drive-in performances at Great Arizona Puppet Theater, where she works as hostess of a puppet slam and appears as one of the leads in morning productions of The Three Little Kittens. Nowadays, she only hears from her audience, safely sequestered in their cars in the parking lot of the theater where she has spent her whole life, when they honk.
The pandemic took some getting used to, even for a hand puppet.
“It’s strange to see everyone wearing a mask when they’re not on stage,” she said. “And I miss seeing the audience at the meet and greet afterward. I like adoring fans to fawn over me. But safety is important, so I’m okay with making a sacrifice.”
The drive-up theater thing is kind of cool, Daisy said. “I hadn’t been outside in a long time. I don’t think people think about a puppet’s needs. I was tired of being cooped up. And the audiences love sitting in their cars while we do our thing. I guess they need to get out, too.”
She had little advice for other puppets who wanted an acting career. “I’d say don’t let those pesky puppeteers hold you back. Sometimes you gotta be like, ‘Look look look, just because you’re literally holding the controls doesn’t mean you own me.”
Daisy glanced at Gwen Bonar, who spends a good part of every day with her hand up inside Daisy.
“I don’t dislike her,” Daisy said of Bonar, whose parents own the puppet theater where she, like Daisy, has spent much of her life. “I appreciate her support, I guess. I think she’s learned a lot from me.”
Bonar appeared unfazed by Daisy’s stance. “I literally grew up with puppets,” Bonar shrugged. “My parents founded the theater in 1983, and I’ve been working as a full-time puppeteer half my life, since I was 18.”
The company has been making pandemic ends meet with family-themed daytime performances in an open, elevated, grassy area off the parking lot. Patrons pull into designated spaces based on the size of their car, Bonar said, so that no one in a small vehicle is trying to see past an SUV. Adult-themed puppet slams take place at night; the next one is scheduled for Valentine’s weekend.
Even before resident puppeteer Gavin recommended drive-in performing, Great Arizona’s puppet slams were popular. It took a while, Bonar recalled, to get the casting right. “We started out with Hector the Sock, and then I co-hosted one show with Silly Bunny. But when Daisy hosted, that’s when everything fell into place.”
These days, Daisy is cohosting socially distant slams with another cat puppet named Jingles. Bonar found him in a box in the theater basement; he’d been there, she figured, since the 1970s.
“He’s just a cat head on a stick,” she explained. “His eyes are sunken back in his head and they’re really wobbly. He’s very dingy, and you can tell by his voice he’s smoked way too many cigarettes. He’s non-threatening, a harmless weirdo.”
“I’m his straight man,” Daisy interrupted.
Setting up jokes for a cat head on a stick hadn’t been part of Daisy’s plan. “I had planned,” she said, “on being a ballerina.”
The way Daisy saw it, performing was performing. She was grateful to have a job during a national health crisis but maintained strict distancing rules with her collaborators.
“I think the best thing for a healthy relationship is space,” she explained. “I have been to Gwen’s home, I think, but I live here at the theater, and she goes home at night. It’s best this way. She needs somewhere to go do her.”
Daisy the Cat scratched behind her left ear. “But don’t quote me on that.”
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