David Simpich recently packed up 24 of his old friends, and unpacked seven he hadn't seen since 1992.
The elaborately sculpted and dressed marionettes he built for "Pilgrim's Progress," the most recent Simpich Showcase Marionette Theatre production, are making way for those in the classic French fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast." It runs through Sept. 7.
"With the amount of time we spend together," says Simpich, a longtime puppeteer, "we definitely have a working relationship."
Sitting in a workshop surrounded by clay, wires, tools and sacks of fabric, the seven marionettes from his new show dangled from wires on a rack behind him - the raven-haired Beauty, the pig-nosed Beast and the handsome prince he turns into. Just down the hallway at Simpich Showcase is the petite theater where Simpich brings his marionettes to life, each with a distinct voice and personality.
The current show is close to his heart. "Beauty and the Beast" was his first. It was 1984, and he lived in a small suburb of Seattle. He took theater and writing classes at Seattle Pacific University, and ran a tiny outlet store selling Simpich dolls for his parents, Bob and Jan Simpich. They founded Simpich Character Dolls in the basement of their Colorado Springs home in 1952, then moved into a building in Old Colorado City in 1978 until retiring and closing in 2007. The business reopened as a museum, gallery and theater in 2009 with David and his wife, Debby, at the helm. They also sell Simpich Dolls on consignment.
Simpich thought the time was right for an encore of "Beauty and the Beast." He put the original show away in 1992 after the 1991 animated Disney film took popular culture by storm.
"I thought, I can't compete, it's better to move on to other projects," he says. "But it's been long enough. It's strong enough to stand on its own."
He's rewritten this new version by inserting himself. His storyline surrounds the ancient fairy tale, he says. As Beauty confronts her Beast, Simpich faces his own, namely all the insecurities he felt as he put together and staged his first production nearly 30 years ago.
"Beauty and I take the journey together as friends," he says.
However insecure Simpich was in the beginning, that first show cemented his commitment to marionette theater and also fulfilled the craving he'd had since childhood. "I was always putting on a play, and rounding up the neighborhood to do another play," he says.
It took walking past a storefront in Seattle and seeing a hanging marionette to inspire him. Something clicked, he says.
"I could see that what my parents did with dolls could be taken to another dimension," he says. "I discovered I didn't like just acting, but I loved writing and set design and lighting. Puppetry allowed me to put my hands on all that."
Their first "Beauty and the Beast" was successful, and Simpich and his wife toured the show through Washington and Colorado, eventually winding up back in the Springs. As part of an expansion to the Simpich Character Doll store here, his parents opened a theater from 1986 to 1992. He's been creating shows and puppets ever since. Altogether, he now has 16 productions ready to go, including "The Little Mermaid," "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Secret Garden." Each of the 240 marionettes took about 30 hours to make.
They put on five to six shows at Simpich every year, and at about four performances per week, it comes out to about 180 performances per year, he says. His audiences are made up of 80 percent adults, he says, though he also recommends shows for school-age children.
"I like the live thing," he says. "I'm listening to the audience, and they're listening to me, and the show is moving and growing. It allows me to play characters I'd never play on stage.
"An actor has to hide behind a character or mask," he says. "I appreciate their (the puppets) simplicity and honesty."