A work day for Stacey Gordon used to include pulling yarn, felt, faux fur, and googly eyes out of crates stacked on a bookshelf in her Puppet Pie studio on Grand Avenue. During First Friday art walks, she'd sit sewing playful sock puppets at a long table as people lingered, watching.
That changed in March, when COVID-19 ushered in the societal shutdown that's sometimes left Gordon wondering how Puppet Pie would survive. "It's been tough," Gordon says, "but as a small business owner, you have to pivot."
That's exactly what she did, leaving behind her old routine for a new adventure, with the hopes it will help Puppet Pie thrive despite the tough times.
Gordon decided to buy a vintage ice cream truck and transform it into a mobile studio for outdoor puppet shows and workshops.
For Gordon, it’s a way to take her creations to the people while adapting to the ongoing impact of the virus on the local creative scene, where gatherings like exhibits, performances, and festivals have been canceled or postponed indefinitely.
Making it happen hasn’t been easy, especially in a year that’s also brought family tragedy and multiple setbacks.
Typically, Gordon spends a lot of the year making puppets she sells at various conventions around the country. But that hasn’t happened this year. “All those conventions were canceled,” she says. “After the pandemic, I started looking for a vehicle so I could explore more options.”
The idea was born last spring at Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019. Gordon's booth was next to a small snack bar, which made her wonder about getting a food cart so she could create a display that looked like a cafeteria.
Gordon loves making puppets inspired by foods like sandwiches and tacos. “Last year, I started displaying them in chafing dishes,” she recalls. “I love anthropomorphizing food.”
Serendipity struck one weekend morning, while Gordon was eating at Mel’s Diner with her family and noticed a row of vintage food trucks behind a nearby fence. “This is brilliant,” Gordon remembers thinking at the time. “I need a puppet food truck.”
Eventually she met Conrad Martinez, the man who owned the vehicles. Before long, she made the trek to Apache Junction to see a vintage ice cream truck he was ready to sell.
They were scheduled to meet on January 10, but Gordon got a call from her father that morning; her mother had been hospitalized with an aneurysm. She left for California immediately. Her mom didn’t survive, and Gordon stayed in California for two weeks. While she was there, the truck sold. “I took it as a sign that maybe I shouldn’t do it,” she recalls.
But Martinez had an identical truck, and Gordon figured she could use money from upcoming jobs to help pay for it. Instead, the pandemic struck. Gordon shifted to making and selling face masks made with fabrics that reflect her whimsical style. Money that would have gone toward the down payment on a vehicle got diverted to rent. “I knew that if I lost this truck, it would mean a dream going away forever,” Gordon recalls.
Meanwhile, Gordon was thinking about all the ways her mom had fostered her early love for puppets, and mindful that the ice cream truck was the last thing she’d talked about with both her parents. “My mom's the reason I'm a puppeteer," she says.
After Martinez was hospitalized with COVID-19, Gordon knew he’d need the down payment money. So, it was decision time. “I had to think about whether it was worth investing in a truck in the middle of a pandemic.” At that point, she figured she’d only get to use it for street fairs and First Friday art walks. But Gordon called her dad, who suggested the truck could be a way to carry on with workshops and puppet shows.
Gordon bought the truck in late July; she got a grant for gig workers from the City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture which gave her enough money buy the truck. Even so, she’ll need more funding to make it all happen, so she’s raising money by selling limited-edition face masks and other Puppet Pie goodies like key rings and pins.
“It’s taking on a life of its own now,” Gordon says. “Without the truck, I would probably just be making masks and wondering if I should stop doing puppetry.”
Now, she’s having the truck refurbished and thinking about all the things she’ll need to add, from a sound system to lights. She’ll replace the large lead-lined freezer with something smaller so she can serve Popsicles during events.
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Of course, she’s also working on fun, functional ways to display her food-themed puppets. “I feel like my specialty is a really sticky grilled cheese puppet,” Gordon says. “But I’m in a bit of a quandary, thinking about using food puppets to tell the story of the Three Little Pigs and wondering if it’s too morbid to make pig sausages.”
If everything goes as planned, she’ll roll it out in November, although Gordon says it could be January. Either way, the timing will give Gordon a chance to add personal touches like a menu board so people can shop for their favorite "flavor" of sock or worm puppet.
Once the truck is ready, she’ll use it for outdoor events ranging from shows at children’s birthday parties to team-building activities for corporate types. “A lot of people want puppet workshops in the front yard, where they can serve their own wine,” she says. “Most of my work is for nerdy grownups like me.”
Nearly six months into the pandemic, she’s taking the long view, and trying to keep her perspective. “I can’t in good conscience tell people they should be buying puppets when the world is on fire, but I can try to bring some normalcy to the COVID experience,” she says. “We’re still allowed to play.”