When teenage ventriloquist Darci Lynne Farmer had the packed house laughing in the Berglund Center, the audience probably didn’t realize her sidekicks Oscar the Motown mouse and Katie, a sassy cowgirl who yodels, were created right here in Salem.
In fact, people all over the world are entertained by the soft puppets made by mother-and-daughter team Mary Ann and Taylor and Melissa Taylor of MAT Puppets.
The Taylors created Oscar and Katie to Darci’s order, just as they have made puppets for famous ventriloquists Jeff Dunham and Terry Fator, who regularly plays Las Vegas.
They also create over 100 soft puppets a year to order, from ventriloquists and other performers who meet the two at ventriloquist conventions and see the MAT Puppets website.
MAT Puppets’ “grumpy old men” puppets and old lady puppets are immensely popular in Japan, where the Taylors are showing how they create their puppets to ventriloquists and other puppet makers on a trip last week.
Mary Ann explains what she believes is behind the popularity of their men: “Little old men can get away with most anything.”
Before Darci’s show on March 9, the Taylors met with Darci to talk and get photos with the “America’s Got Talent” winner and her family. Mary Ann’s longtime friend ventriloquist Gary Owen was there, too. He’s the one who linked Darci with the Taylors.
Mary Ann was thrilled with Darci because she is carrying on the talent of ventriloquism. “She’s just a natural born performer, and has such a powerful singing voice,” Mary Ann said, referring to Darci’s singing while performing with Oscar, Katie and characters Petunia the rabbit and Edna Doorknocker who were made by other puppet creators.
“Darci hasn’t lost her innocence, and isn’t intimidated by the audience,” Mary Ann said, adding that the young lady and her family are just so nice. “The whole family was so appreciative of us coming,” she said.
Darci got her first Oscar about four years ago from Gary Owen. After seeing Darci perform, he asked to be her mentor, Mary Ann said, and now is her promoter. He gave the budding ventriloquist Oscar. He was “a character I just wanted to make,” Mary Ann said.
Although most of Mary Ann and Melissa’s people, mice, bats, birds, squirrels, monkeys, turtles and other creations are for specific orders, what Mary Ann likes to do for fun is create characters because she wants to. Those include a 3-foot tall bright blue critter with a tail that is a focal point in the Taylors’ living room. It keeps company with a small model of Audrey the cannibalistic plant, and a smiling tree.
Audrey was a prototype for an almost 8-foot-tall Audrey used by Mill Mountain Theatre in its production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
The tree was one Mary Ann just wanted to make, too, and Melissa – who was then in college – fell in love with it. The weekend before the Taylors left for Japan, Melissa wasn’t in on the interview because she was busy finishing an astronaut for someone in Spain.
She has worked full time with her mother for more than 10 years now and is truly talented with the sewing, painting, dressing and other aspects, her proud mother said. Another of Melissa’s fantastic creations was Kiss’ Gene Simmons for which Melissa cut and applied each of the dozens of individual silver scale shapes on his boots.
For the annual ventriloquist convention where Melissa and Mary Ann have two dealer tables, Mary Ann gets an opportunity to give shape to ideas that have been running around in her imagination. Those puppets go with them, and are for sale there.
She got started making puppets because her husband of 52 years, Wayne, “came home one day after 20 years of marriage and said he wanted to be a ventriloquist.” Mary Ann has an art and home economics background, so she made him a puppet.
“A woman named Verna Finley took me under her wing and shared her tips. When she got ready to retire, she gave everybody my number and that’s how I got my name out,” Mary Ann said.
Meanwhile, Wayne, who sold books to schools, used ventriloquism some in his presentations, and enjoyed throwing his voice for a couple of years, she said. Now he enjoys watching other people.
Mary Ann and Melissa’s order time is between six months to a year because of the volume of orders MAT Puppets gets from appearing at the national Vent Haven International Ventriloquist ConVENTion in July near Cincinnati, and from people who find them on the internet.
When they come home from Japan, she will be working on orders for a farmer and a bat. Mary Ann particularly enjoys making clown puppets. “I enjoy painting the faces,” she said, “and the fancy ladies because they have sparkly dresses and feathers.”
“I like to make one puppet a week,” Mary Ann said. “I can do more than one if I have to.”