The Man Who Pulls the Strings

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The Man Who Pulls the Strings

"Friends! I'll be taking requests for songs," calls the eldest daughter of the puppetmaster Cho Yong-suk. While Cho's theater troupe is getting ready for their show, his daughter is loosening up the crowd. Behind the girl is a humble stage set consisting of an upright piano and a black velvet curtain, reminiscent of an old talent night at a kindergarten class. But it's an early fall afternoon at "Ever Peaceful House," a care home for the multiply disabled of mixed ages in Sanggye-dong, western Seoul. A modest crowd is gathered in a small chapel in the building's basement, all perched on their wheelchairs or the room's wooden pews. They fiddle with their hymnbooks and wait for the show to begin.

The puppet troupe proceeds to perform "Little Red Riding Hood," the story of a cunning wolf who attempts to devour a girl traveling over the mountain to visit her sick grandma. Cho plays the hunter.

By the end of the performance Cho's forehead is covered with sweat. He moves out into the building's hallway and nervously pulls out a cigarette. At 54, he is small and robust. He wears a black shirt, khaki pants and an olive-colored fishing hat, which does not completely cover his gray hair. Other than the black bandages tightly fastened around both of his arms, which he explains covered bites from dogs he owns, Cho looks no different from an ordinary Korean man on the street. "The dogfight trainers say the dogs tend to bite their own masters if you don't let them mate," he says, sighing.

A marionette player and producer for 37 years, Cho has been described by a colleague as "The man who knows nothing but the puppets." This 50-minute show at the care home is not one of his most challenging events, but it is nevertheless important, for it reveals a lot about Cho. His resume includes the production of a famed television puppet show from the '70s, "Dr. Buri Buri," the creation of the mascot dolls from both the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics, not to mention hundreds of puppets and plays he has staged and awards he has won at national theater festivals. But for Cho, staging free puppet shows for people who "receive no cultural benefits other than being fed nutritious food," like those at the care home, have been part of his weekly agenda since he began his career. It's his way of giving things back to the community.

"I hope people can contribute in a more humane way," Cho says, referring to the government sponsors of public care homes and elderly houses who give donations for diplomatic concerns. "I hate to see people just throwing their money." At the moment he makes this comment, two sleek, black Grandeur XGs pull up next to Cho's parked aged van. In a moment, a middle-aged man who appears to be the senior staffer at the "Ever Peaceful House" runs out of the office of the care home in slippers to greet two dark-suited men as they are getting out of their fancy cars. Cho watches them and frowns. From a vending machine, he takes a cup of black coffee. "Diabetes," he says with a trace of bitterness.

He is a creature of habit. He goes to bed at 2 a.m. and wakes at 8 a.m. every day. He never takes a nap, not even in the backseat of his van when his lighting designer is at the wheel. When Cho is awake and he is not indulging in his hobby of fishing at a lake near Seoul, he typically agonizes over his next marionette project. In his new studio, he still has unopened boxes full of dolls and mending tools. His work covers everything from hand puppets to shadow plays. But marionettes, as Cho repeats several times, are his specialty.

"It's strange," he says. "I've never been near an art school. I barely sing more than one song at a karaoke bar. I know nothing about sounds. But I like marionettes." Cho likes the wooden figures so much that he has spent the last three decades making them. He has devoted much of his career to a puppet show organized by the Korean Broadcasting Co., a morning children's program called "TV Kindergarten, One, Two, Three." It is one of the longest running programs in the history of children's television, longer even than "Sesame Street."

Cho describes the genesis of the TV show. "We used fishing wires earlier in the program," he says, gulping a bowl of galbitang, beef soup, in a restaurant near the care home. "But they were so fragile that by the time the show ended, we were often left with only one or two strings narrowly attached to the tips of the dolls. And the program was live, too." That was 1968, when he charged 300 won (23 cents) per person for his shows. But he recalls that period fondly, a heyday of puppet theaters in Korea. Audiences packed shabby orange circus tents and school gymnasiums when his troupe toured through small regional cities. There was always great food, and the people were also hungry for visual entertainment amid what he recalled as "a true festival atmosphere." Cho says he is concerned that Koreans are losing that sentiment.

In his studio at Sinwol-dong hang framed photographs of Cho's puppets sitting next to many old-time Korean television celebrities. Alongside the photographs is a cabinet of trophies, some stained with rust, and many of his dolls. Cho brings forth a saxophone-playing doll out of a storage box and carefully starts moving the strings with his slim fingers. When the music ends, his assistants clap and cheer bravos.

Untangling the puppet's strings, Cho fumbles to explain his gift. "It's one of things you don't think about," he said. "You never come up with an answer."

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Jo Yong-suk and his troupe will hold a marionette workshop Oct. 4 at Jungdong Theater in Seoul and daily shows Oct. 5 through 20 at the same theater. Then he will perform in Taiwan. For more information, call 02-773-8960 (English available).


by Park Soo-mee

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