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Whimsical Wizardy

The magical world of Steve Axtell.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by Mike Baker

PUPPET MASTER: Steve Axtell, founder, president and creative director of Axtell Expressions, with a few of his many puppets. “The World’s Oldest Man” (far left) is one of the first to feature the innovative Axtell Intelligence system.

 

ucked away on Bunsen Avenue in an industrial section of Ventura is one of the area’s most delightful hidden gems: Axtell Expressions, internationally acclaimed but little known outside of the entertainment industry.

This is a magical place, quite literally: Axtell Expressions specializes in making puppets, animatronics and magic tricks for performers, ventriloquists and the like. Inside a series of connected rooms the casual observer will see big plastic eyeballs, feathers and fabric in every color of the rainbow, people walking by with latex heads in hand, ceramic molds (some shaped like eggs), even furniture in whimsical shapes and patterns. Axtell is one of the biggest names in an admittedly niche market, and the man who pulls the strings is Steve Axtell, popularly known in the industry as “the next Jim Henson.”

Warm and friendly with a face as animated as one of his own creations, Axtell evinces the kind of madcap energy and childlike enthusiasm one would expect from someone who spends his life designing puppets. He gets excited showing off his products, laughing as they operate as intended, reveling in the opportunity to put a puppet on his arm and eagerly sharing its secrets.

Axtell’s fertile mind has yielded more than 100 completely original characters, designed as puppets or ventriloquist dummies or equipped with motors and such for animatronic action. He’s also designed comedy props, magic tricks, music, routines and more. And while it’s true that Axtell relies on a team of assemblers, engineers, programmers and more to make the magic happen, all the ideas and designs come strictly from him.

“I can’t stop it,” Axtell says of his creative drive. “I’ve got notebooks from 1982 — just old Mead notebooks. I write down ideas and thoughts and I’ve done it since 1982.”

Child’s Play

But Axtell’s love of puppets goes back further than that. As a child living in Ohio, he was obsessed with Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Sesame Street.

“It opened my mind to what a puppet could do,” Axtell recalls. “It made it so much more alive to me.”

He made his first puppet at age 6, and kept at the art into his teens. He also practiced magic and puppetry. When he was 14, he made replicas of some of Jim Henson’s Muppets (Oscar the Grouch, Kermit the Frog and Ernie were among his copies). His proud father sent pictures and a letter to Henson — who, miraculously, wrote back. Axtell says he was given two important pieces of advice. The first: join a guild (yes, puppeteers have their own guilds), which can be a great source of support, knowledge and networking for those interested in a niche market.

Axtell was also told to “start making your own designs — find your own look. A lot of companies now make copies of Muppets. I was redirected early on to find my own look.”

California Dreamin’

Puppetry and magic were always a part of Axtell’s life (he sold his first custom puppet at age 15), but his first career was in physical therapy. One of his clients had a son, Kurt, who became a friend. One day, Kurt said, “I’m going to California. Do you want to go with me for three months?”

“I dropped everything,” Axtell recalls. His father had recently died, and a road trip to the other side of the country sounded like the perfect plan. He distinctly remembers sleeping on the beach (in Malibu, across from Neptune’s Net) the first night they were in California. It was a dream come true . . . at first.

“We did not know about the tide,” he says with a laugh, relating how waves and seaweed came crashing in. “It was a real pirate adventure for two kids from Ohio.”

Axtell’s background in physical therapy helped him land a job at Camarillo State Hospital in the psychiatric technology program. After getting married in 1980, he moved to San Luis Obispo County, working at Atascadero State Hospital while his wife, Suzi, pursued an interior design degree at Cal Poly. The couple moved back to Ventura after graduation and Axtell resumed work at Camarillo State Hospital.

His time there was fruitful, if not fulfilling. A man of many talents, he was asked to do life-size murals on some of the walls (these “Axtell murals” still decorate the now-California State University Channel Islands). He also had the opportunity to work with people on the autism spectrum.

“We were working with a team trying to revitalize behavioral modification techniques,” he explains. “We worked on cutting-edge stuff.”

Axtell often used puppets in his work, with impressive results. He’d hear from parents, for example, that the first time their child spoke was with or to a puppet.

“Many people with autism are riveted by Axtell products,” he says. “For some reason, they’re drawn to this world I created. . . . They can connect with a puppet — it bypasses some mental pathways.”

Looking back, he says, “I thought I was entertaining. But I was doing art therapy.”

Show Business

When he wasn’t working at the hospital, Axtell was selling handcrafted puppets on the side, and performing on weekends. It was Suzi who encouraged him to think bigger.

“Why don’t you start your own business?” she would say to him.

After their son was born, Axtell realized, “This is do or die. I’ve got a great job, but our business is growing. I need to take the leap.”

Axtell became a stay-at-home father . . . and developed his business plan. By 1982, Axtell Expressions was in business. The connections he had built through the years as a guild member, performer, and salesman paid off.

“We were blessed. It took off,” Axtell recalls. “From the beginning, I had so many major performers [as clients].”

And a formidable ally in Suzi Axtell. Her knowledge of sewing and design has proved invaluable in sourcing fabrics and other materials. She also runs the staff meetings and the front office.

“She’s more the business side,” Axtell explains, adding that her involvement has allowed him to stay involved in the creative side of the company. Steve Axtell may be the face company, but there’s no doubt that Axtell Expressions exists thanks to the efforts of Suzi Axtell as well.

Imaginative Innovation

Axtell Expressions is probably best known for two things: puppets and innovation. Axtell has been at the forefront of entertainment technology since the Magic Drawing Board — a whiteboard that adds animated eyes and mouth to anything drawn on it. But as the mastermind himself says, “We’ve gone big into animatronics.”

With the help of his technology team, which includes Tech Department Manager John Schmeling and animatronic mechanic Wesley Gonzalez, Axtell has developed a range of systems (from simple to complex to custom) that bring puppets to life. Mouths that move, heads that twist, remote controls and specially designed microphones that allow the puppeteer to move a character’s mouth with his or her own voice — these kinds of developments (many of which are patented) have earned Axtell Expressions a reputation for leading the way in puppet design and movement.

The company has clients all over the world, including Six Flags, Disney, 20th Century Fox (ape puppets were used in the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes) and stage performers such as ventriloquists Terry Fator (winner of season 2 of America’s Got Talent) and Darci Lynne Farmer (winner of season 12).

Two recent developments have taken Axtell Expressions to the next level, however.

The first is Live Virtual Sets, developed in 2015 and first used by theater company DLUX Puppets for its production of Alice in Wonderland. Instead of a traditional set, actors performed in front of a screen that took them through a variety of locations that changed and moved with the actors. Falling down a rabbit hole, growing bigger and smaller, conversing with animated characters — it was all captured by Axtell’s clever use of rear-screen projection. Think of it as a blend of stage and movie magic.

“It’s only on Broadway where they’re doing this kind of stuff,” Axtell says. Even more impressive: The entire setup is portable, with a vast screen that goes on tour with the company. “I developed a simple method an actor can do themselves and travel with it.”

A new Live Virtual Set for DLUX’s upcoming production of Peter Pan will debut this month at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

Smart Entertainment

The next big development just came out at the end of 2018: Axtell Intelligence. Eighteen months in the making, this system allows animatronic puppets to sing, dance and even communicate with their audience.

The first AI product to debut was a large “flock” of chickens (more than 100) sold to Frizzle Chicken Farmhouse Cafe in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Scattered on shelves throughout the restaurant are “coops” of six birds which “sing” (in clucks, gobbles and other chicken-like noises) and sway with careful choreography to more than a dozen well-known songs, such as Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”

They’re a big crowd pleaser, but they have competition. Standalone models on the floor are triggered by voice, and programmed with a database of responses modeled after common questions. These chickens tell jokes, make silly comments and so on. Axtell’s design has an element of spontaneity built in: There are several possible responses to any single basic question, plus generic options for queries that don’t have an easy answer, and the company updates the database regularly based on the kinds of questions customers are asking. A similar “smart” puppet, “The World’s Oldest Man,” is also available.

Robert Kalina is the project manager for Frizzle, and has been impressed with Axtell’s products . . . and the man himself.

“While being in the entertainment business for 20 years, I can say I have never met anyone like Steve Axtell,” Kalina says. “He is so creative, innovative and has the rare ability to combine current technology with humor.”

Axtell confirms that Axtell Intelligence is “working flawlessley,” but the demand for new content is so great that his team won’t be able to keep up. So, he is developing an interface that will allow owners to customize the questions and responses.

“We’re now crafting a front end to let customers upload their own voice and commands, or questions,” he explains.


The Next Step

The Axtell Intelligence arm of the company has already grown by leaps and bounds. Axtell has had meetings with Universal Studios, and has had a lot of inquiries — particularly for parrots, interestingly enough. Currently, he’s working on a tiki-inspired character that he thinks will be big in bars.

One of the system’s selling points is its adaptability, and Axtell expects this to be a major area of growth for the company.

“[Axtell Intelligence] can work with other company’s characters, too,” he says. These other companies will have to pay a service fee, but the user interface will allow Axtell to get the technology in numerous other places. “That’s another reason we’re excited: A lot of companies overseas want to do this.”

“As we produce more characters, it grows out,” Axtell continues. “It involves a bigger and bigger team. It becomes an industry of its own. Puppets are still our bread and butter, but the animatronics and AI are a different customer . . . and a higher-paying customer.”

Axtell Expressions has been able to access this customer not just with bleeding-edge technology, but with a commitment to quality and an excellent reputation in the industry.

“I have a lot of connections — and they will often say, ‘Steve’s crew can do that.’ A lot of it is creative thinking and networking. And being honest and good,” Axtell says.

And he still has more tricks up his sleeve. At the upcoming KAX Conference of Variety Family Performers, taking place Jan. 23-26 in Los Angeles, the company will be wowing attendees with new products.

“We’ll be introducing two new AI characters, incredible new magic tricks, and some new puppets. All the entertainers will be using them!” Axtell says with characteristic excitement.

That may be the secret to what makes this unique company in Ventura so special. There’s always something new coming out of Axtell Expressions . . . and it’s guaranteed to be a lot of fun.

Axtell Expressions
2889 Bunsen Ave., Suite H, Ventura
805-642-7282 or www.axtell.com

Heads together: Surrounded by latex heads, Axtell speaks with Teresa Gonzalez at the buffing station in his Ventura workshop. While he does have a carving studio at home, Axtell is deeply involved with all aspects of production.

It takes assemblers, engineers, programmers and more to keep the fun factory in operation, and the team includes (from left) Sandra Gasca, Maricruz Madrigal, Teresa Gonzalez, Axtell, Theresa Camarillo and Jose Cruz.

Parody is one way to speak truth to power, and Axtell is bipartisan when it comes to puppets modeled after U.S. Presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

01-01-2019

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