Title: Puppet Love

        By Mary Swanson

In a small theater in the basement of a nondescript park-district building in Rolling Meadows, a bit of magic takes place three times a week. On an ornate crimson and gold stage, the gossamer cutain parts and the maestro takes a bow, raising his baton and conducting an unseen orchestra in the overture. The audience oohs and aahs as the stars appear, exquisitely costumed, traversing the eye-catching set, gesturing, kneeling, turning and bowing as they act out scenes from such works as Puccini's Turandot, Porgy and Bess, and South Pacific.

It could be a performance at the Lyric or Ravinia, except that the stage is only five feet wide by two feet deep, the stars are 16 inches tall, and their voices come from recordings of legendary singers such as Ezio Pinza, Luciano Pavarotti and Leontyne Price. They move along tracks cut into the floor of the stage, their choreographed movements controlled from below by puppeteers with wires attached to their fingers who scoot along on specially designed rolling chairs a few inches off the ground, soundlessly singing along as they keep the puppets in synch with the music.

Bill Fosser making his bow in orchestra pit. Opera in Focus is the realization of a lifelong dream for Chicagoan Bill Fosser, 73, who built a successful career as a set designer for stage and screen but always clung to his first love - puppet opera. Fosser traces his interest back almost seven decades, to age 5, when an aunt took him downtown and let him pick out three puppets as a Christmas gift. He delighted in the toys, which provided him with hours of amusement while he was confined to the house with asthma. When he was 7, his cousins took him to his first opera. He still remembers that night: "We were way up in the balcony, but one of the things that was so impressive was that the curtain would go down and come up again, and here was a whole different place, with different people in it. You can't tell why a child responds to something like that, but I flipped. I came home and started building stages and reading about opera."

Fosser wasn't a great student, so the nuns at his parochial elementary school made him come in for Saturday tutoring, where he discovered a Victrola and a collection of classical recordings. His math skills didn't improve, but his musical education did. About that time, the Metropolitan Opera began radio broadcasts, and Fosser decided to combine his passions for puppets and music. He built a miniature opera house with a velvet curtain and his father helped him create a plywood floor with slots so he could move figures mounted on a rod from beneath the stage. Still, Fosser wasn't satisfied.

"I took a marionette apart and I stared staring at it thinldng, How could I make you move more? One of the things I wanted was that the puppet could move around through foliage or go through French doors because already I was bitten by the scenic design bug. So I sat in the basement and carved and sanded. 1 remember being thrilled when I would get a pelvis done."

Puppet closeup Over time, he assembled a cast of characters, and produced his first puppet opera, Tosca.  When he was 14, he read an article about the puppet opera at the Kungsholm restaurant at Rush and Ontario, which had opened two years earlier. He took one of his puppets and a chandelier he had created for a set and talked his way into a job as a stagehand.

"My first night was La Boheme, and I was moved out of my mind just to sit and listen to that music. Then I heard Madama Butterfly and Faust and it was just one great singer after another"

Concerned that his work at the Kungsholm was interfering with his high-school studies, his parents made him quit the job. Then a fire destroyed the Kungshohn in 1947. When the owner, Frederick Chramer, rebuilt the restaurant and puppet theater in 1950, he asked Fosser, who by then was working in window design, to return. He stayed for three years until, in search of a better-paying job, he got involved in commercial film and became a set designer. He also kept working on his own puppets. He gave the first performance of Opera in Focus, by invitation only, in a rented storefront in 1958, but he lacked the money to run a theater. He tried and failed to get a puppet opera going at a Detroit restaurant in the early 1960s, and he returned to the Kungsholm as artistic director from 1963-66. (The Kungsholm closed in 1971.)  He also produced a short-lived puppet opera at the now-defunct Magic Pan restaurant in Chicago in the late 1970s.

While he struggled to get his puppet opera off the ground, Fosser's career in set design took off.  He worked on Home Alone, Backdraft, Ordinary People, Music Box and Groundhog Day, as well as many television movies and theater productions for the Candlelight, Ivanhoe, and Drury Lane theaters.  For 10 years he kept the puppets he had crafted in a seminary at Touhy and Harlem, hoping to find a home where he could once again mount public performances.

Bill Fosser working a puppet. That opportunity finally came in 1993, when the Rolling Meadows Chamber of Commerce contacted him about moving into the new park-district building..  Fosser retired from the film industry ("I hated working in movies.  It's this great sense of impermanence," he says) and devoted all his energies to Opera in Focus.

Over the years Fosser developed a philosophy about puppet opera.  First, keep it short - no more than one hour in length.  And within that hour, present two or three scenes from different operas or musicals to help hold the audience's attention.

"When I was at the Kungsholm, we did entire operas," he says, "and I discovered that a portion of the audience would always leave before it was over.  I might love opera, but that doesn't mean everyone does.  And although I am a devoted puppeteer, you have to face the reality that puppets can only do so much.  Ours are more sophisticated than those at the Kungsholm, but you can only do so much and pretty soon people are going to say, 'I already saw that.'  Put those two things together and you realize that people are not going to sit through whole performances.  My mother said, 'You want them to come back for more instead of saying, I'm glad that's over.'  That gave us the format we have here."

Fosser works today with two longtime friends.  Will Harder, who met Fosser in the late 1950's while both were working in commercial film, handles the design and execution of the rear screen projections and manipulates the conductor puppet named Tosci. Paul Guerra, who worked with Fosser at the Kungsholm in the 1960s, serves as costume designer and principal puppeteer.

Fosser worries about what will happen to the puppet opera after he is gone. After a long search, he recently hired a young musician and artist, Justin Snyder, as a puppeteer.  He harbors a faint hope that Snyder may want to preserve puppet opera for the next generation.  Otherwise, he despairs over the fate of his collection of 75 puppets, each valued at about $6000.  He dreams of a philanthropist who would provide funding to perpetuate the puppet opera, which now barely scrapes by on volunteer help, a small grant from the Illinois Arts Council that covers administrative expenses, and ticket sales that pay the rent and upkeep of the puppets.  Otherwise, he fears his beloved puppets will die with him.

"If  we could find someone [to underwrite the opera], it would be a blessing, but I don't think it 's going to happen.  The end of it probably - horrible as it sounds, and believe me it's hell coming to terms with it - is to take it out and destroy it.  Because if I die, who is going to pay rent for storage?  And if you store it, what are you storing it for?

Still, as long as he can, Fosser will keep on creating that bit of magic that transforms a drab government building into an elegant opera house.  When the performances end, Fosser invites the audience backstage to see how the puppets work.  On a recent weekday, a group of senior citizens from a Northwest Side church who filled the 65-seat theater are effusive in their praise.  Most mention memories of the Kungsholm.  Many say they'll be back.  Fosser hopes they will bring their grandchildren.

"This is a tremendously good thing for kids," he says, lamenting the fact that few children come to the performances.  "They took me to the opera when I was 7 and I went wild over it.  Some youngsters will, and some will be lukewarm.  But this is a very inexpensive way to introduce them to the opera.  We sure would love to see more children and young adults."