A resumé that pulls strings

Making aliya after career that includes ‘Muppets,’ ‘Star Trek’ series, Len Levitt will be making his local debut in Holon.

Len Levitt, Muppets (photo credit: Courtesy)
Len Levitt, Muppets
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Len Levitt has no problem standing out in a crowd – literally. At 1.94 meters (six feet, five inches) tall, the veteran puppeteer carries a presence that is impossible to ignore. His baritone voice and careful delivery belie an artistic side that has driven him to some of Hollywood’s most notable corners – from the Star Trek series to Batman Returns to the Steven Spielberg-directed fantasy flick Hook to the Muppets series.
But Levitt found that growing up Jewish in Los Angeles left him constantly torn between his heritage and entertainment, which seemed to be encoded into his DNA.
“I started doing puppetry when I was about 12,” Levitt recalls. “Around the same time, I joined the Zionist youth movement Young Judaea. My two big interests growing up were the youth movement and puppetry. Those were the two things that took up a lot of my time. When there was a conflict between them, it was always very painful to have to choose which one to do. [Eventually], I ended up deciding to try to make a career of it.”
At age 55, Levitt has realized a life-long dream. After amassing an impressive resumé with behind-the-scenes costume design and puppetry gigs with some of the more recognizable brands of American entertainment, he moved to Israel, where he plans to offer his unique brand of children’s shows. Later this month, he will be appearing at an international puppetry festival at the Israel Puppet Center in Holon.
Levitt will be performing his Hebrew-language comic variety puppet show Mashehu Matzhik Koreh Bibeit Habubot (Something Funny Is Happening in the Dollhouse). The show features Toast, the burgundy-colored puppet who hosts his friends for an action-packed play date.
“This show has developed over the years,” he says.
“For many years I did lots of shows at synagogues. My show is made of acts, and each act is five to 10 minutes.
It’s a variety show, so I could use pieces of shows from my Hanukka and Purim shows. But this isn’t going to be about Jewish holidays. It’s going to be fun and funny.”
Levitt will be accompanied by a musical ensemble known as “The Mitzvah Mice,” who will perform a song. The show will also have Toast doing a magic trick.
“The stars of the show are Wilbur and Toast, the two best friends,” he says. “It’s really about them playing together and the different things that happen to them and them trying to get along with each other when their agendas are not always the same.”
“My whole life, I was always ‘almost coming,’” says Levitt, who has made a home for himself in Ra’anana since moving here six months ago.
It was Judaism that allowed Levitt to fuse his background with his love for entertainment. At a Los Angeles-area Hebrew school, he volunteered to be in a Purim marionette show. Little did he know that this was the start of a decades-long career.
“I made King Ahasuerus, and I still have that marionette in Los Angeles,” he says. “It was a good puppet.
We put on a Purim show for the Purim carnival.
The next year in school I met a kid who made puppets like the Muppets. He had seen a show on PBS, and he did a book report using a puppet that he had made. I think it was a walrus puppet. And I was quite impressed with what a good puppet it was.
“After class I went up to him and I said, ‘Hey, I like puppets too.’ I introduced myself. I guess it was the beginning of the year and I didn’t know this boy. Then in our English class, a while later, we had to do a creative project. So this boy, John, and I decided to do a puppet show together. And then some kids in that class asked us to do a puppet show in their little brothers’ or little sisters’ birthday parties. So then we had a business going, and we started doing puppet shows.”
Levitt and two others formed The Puppet Conspiracy, putting on shows at libraries, school carnivals, birthday parties, synagogues and churches for anyone who wanted a puppet show. After high school, he branched out on his own, continuing to do shows but with a special emphasis on Jewish holidays.
“For American Jewish kids, November and December [is a time when] they’re bombarded with Christmas shows on television and Christmas music when they go to the mall or the supermarket,” he says. “Christmas is everywhere, so I just thought it was something to me that was important and valuable to offer something else to them that was just for them. It was a fun, funny Hanukka show, and they would get the jokes because they knew what Hanukka was. Eventually I was able to produce a television show which was one of the first Jewish children’s TV shows in the States.”
Levitt has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. He designed costumes for the Lost Boys in Hook, built the costumes used for The Simpsons characters in the Ice Capades shows, worked behind the scenes of the hit sequel Batman Returns, participated in the Sesame Street Live series and got his big break when he joined the crew of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Yet he speaks with a special fondness for his Jewishrelated ventures.
“I do feel very fortunate that I’ve managed to make a living doing something I really like,” he says. “To some extent, you pay a price for it, because most of the puppetry I’ve done in my life hasn’t been for me.
You always hear recording artists wonder, ‘Well, was I recording for myself? Or was I trying to record a sound that would sell?’ That was never a question for me, because I was always trying to create something that would sell. I’ve always worked in this Muppetsstyle, commercial, mainstream sort of style. It would be interesting to have the freedom to explore some other things.”
Instead of working for others, Levitt found complete artistic and creative freedom while producing eight episodes of the Alef Bet Blast Off series, an educational program that aired on a local Jewish network in LA and has since been made available on video. He also wrote and directed the Bubbe’s Boarding House shows on Passover and Hanukka, which aired on PBS, the nationwide public television network in the US.
It was one of the few Jewish children’s TV shows that aired nationally.
“My shows are always sort of silly and light-hearted,” he says. “My goal is to make the children laugh and to entertain them for as long as the show is. I want to keep them interested and keep them laughing and involved. I’m less interested with what I’m going to teach or the message they’re going to get.”
LEVITT WAS raised in a household that valued creative expression. His mother was a modern dance teacher who put her son through lessons offered by a member of noted choreographer Alwin Nikolais’s dance troupe.
“The idea of just expressing yourself physically, the freedom to wear tights and not worry about whether you look goofy, was really great for me,” he says. “I used to wear tights one afternoon a week when I was little.”
“We did a lot of papier mâché, rock painting, ceramics. So I was sort of used to making stuff. So it was natural for me... I was never too worried about, ‘Is this going to be bad?’ When I started making puppets, I always thought to myself, ‘Well, this is fun. I wonder how it’s going to turn out.’ I see a lot of times children, including my own, are afraid to start something because they’re afraid it’s not going to be good enough. They’ll say, ‘Oh, my picture is not going to be as good as his picture.’ That kind of stuff didn’t really get in my way, and I think it’s because my mom had me doing all this stuff when I was little.”
Levitt’s father was an amateur actor who would often appear on stage in productions like Arsenic and Old Lace, You Can’t Take It With You and Antigone.
“He was the lead in many shows,” Levitt recalls. “I remember him learning lines, and it was sort of being a source of pressure that he had a lot of lines to learn and he had to keep up with pressure of rehearsals. He just did it because he loved it and it was fun. He started acting in college and he found out that he was good at it. So I was helping him to learn his lines. I was always around rehearsals and theater and backstage and opening night and things like that.”
Being Jewish in the 1960s, however, meant nurturing a bond with brethren who found themselves struggling to ensure their survival in the Middle East.
“Looking at it sociologically, why would a Jewish kid growing up in the States in the late ’60s and early ’70s be excited about Israel?” he asks. “I think Israel’s triumph in the Six Day War had something to do with it. Everyone was greatly relieved. I remember before the Six Day War, how worried we were about what was going to happen. I was in the fifth grade. It was something we talked a lot about at synagogue and at home.
Everybody was really worried about how it was going to turn out if there was a war, and if Israel would be okay, and how many people would die.
“I was 11 years old, so I remember that it was the topic of conversation at dinner,” he recalls. “I remember the rabbi talking about it regularly at services – the desperate situation Israel was in and how the war clouds gathered. Even then, I remember getting the LA Times every morning and scanning the front page to see if there were any articles on Israel.
That’s something that I did my whole life.
“Over the years I often thought to myself, ‘Instead of looking for Israel on the front page, I should be there,’” he says.
Now Levitt is entertaining children in his adopted homeland. He also hopes to pursue television projects; with his background it is difficult to envision anyone doubting his credentials.
“It goes without saying that the Israeli market is much smaller, but I certainly bring a lot of experience to the table, and I know a lot about how to produce television and film,” he says. “I’ve been on sets and in shops for the past 30 years, so I expect I’ll probably end up working in film and TV here.”
The International Puppet Festival runs from July 19 to 28. Len Levitt will be performing the show at 11:45 a.m. on July 27, at the festival’s outdoor theater, which is taking place at the Israel Puppet Center in Holon. Tickets can be obtained by dialing *9066. For more information on the festival, visitor can log onto www.puppetcenter.co.il.