When Ralph Cooley was a little boy, his mother couldn’t match his socks because he was too busy turning them into puppets.
Now, the actor and designer, a volunteer at Weathervane Playhouse since 1970, is the puppet maker behind the iconic Audrey II puppets in the rockin’ musical Little Shop of Horrors.
Mousey main character Seymour names a pretty little pink and green plant Audrey II after the girl he loves, Audrey. But in Weathervane’s spacious scene shop, Cooley refers to the four puppets he’s created to portray how the voracious plant grows to wild proportions as Audrey 1, 2, 3 and 4.
“As she progresses, she looks more ominous,” Cooley said of the talking plant that feeds on blood.
Cooley has a modest $2,200 to build the four iconic Audrey puppets. He estimated last week that he’s already spent a good 500 hours on the project.
“The mechanical aspect of these puppets is what’s time-consuming,” said Cooley, 71, who grew up in Akron and started volunteering at Weathervane in the 1960s.
He used to make puppets for Weathervane kids’ shows in the late 1970s but creating the Audrey II puppets is the largest-scale puppet project he’s ever done.
A little over a week ago, Cooley was meticulously gluing the monstrous Audrey 4’s lower jaw of white foam rubber together, waiting for the glue to do the trick. Off to the side sat her massive, 7-foot upper jaw, which Cooley compared to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
The harmless-seeming Audrey plant starts out as a sweet-looking hand puppet in a pot. It’s made of rigid foam insulation, with stretchable knit fabric covering the head and a pink cotton mouth with pretty red tongue. The fabric is painted to give it texture and a watermelon green look.
The littlest Audrey plant sports prettily top-stitched pink and green leaves that are wired inside to add dimension, with the leaves inspired by the croton tropical plant.
The plant’s hideous beauty really starts to manifest itself with Audrey 3, whose jaws Cooley painted in camouflage-looking greens and browns.
“It kind of has a Jurassic Park Tyrannosaurus rex appearance in the jaw,” he said.
This Audrey has a 19-inch tongue, created with a red sleeve on the arm of puppeteer Frank Lucas, who sits inside her. This Audrey rendition also has elaborate root extensions, which Lucas wears on his feet.
“When he is in a seated position he crosses his legs and then these extra roots are tucked under the body of the plant. So when the actor [Voice of Audrey II Benjami Black] says something, he [Lucas] kicks out his legs and these other roots come out and then it’s just a wild pandemonium,” Cooley explained.
The larger two Audreys sport grotesque warts on their pod-shaped heads, made of insulation that’s been belt-sanded and glued on under Audrey’s fabric.
“She’s a tormented piece of fabric,” Cooley joked of the famously carnivorous plant.
As the plant continues to grow, Cooley’s largest two contraptions hide Lucas inside. Inside Audrey’s mouth, panels of fabric go over mesh, with openings built in that allow the puppeteer to look out. The designs also allow other human characters to become engulfed by the plant.
“I’m just a mean, green mother from outerspace and I’m BAD,” Cooley said, quoting the R&B-singing plant.
Last week, Cooley had ironed out some flaws in Audrey 3 that were working against Lucas’ need to be ambulatory inside the puppet. The puppeteer got his first chance to manipulate from inside the fully finished Audrey 4, which weighs a good 25 pounds.
One of Cooley’s goals was to make the mature Audrey II puppets lighter and less cumbersome than the puppets created for a previous Weathervane production of Little Shop, whose largest Audrey II took three people to lift it.
As Cooley researched Audrey II designs, he saw hundreds of people’s concepts. He borrowed some ideas and also had fun coming up with some of his own. Desert plants that he purchased at Hartville Hardware helped inspire his Audrey II’s foliage.
“They just kinda remind me of what plants would look like on an alien planet,” he said.
The changing looks of Audrey II are an extremely important storytelling element in this comedy/horror rock musical as the plant becomes ever larger, wilder and hungrier for world domination. Because Audrey II is so voracious, Cooley also had to design pods that look like a helmet for the plant’s human prey to wear.
Cooley, whose mother taught him to sew when he was 6, studied fashion design at the Art Institute of Chicago. This actor and scenic designer is a man of many talents, having played Judas in the first national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Cooley once took a class from Jim Henson in San Diego in the ’60s. He learned to do the “invisible Jim Henson stitch,” or ladder stitch, for seamless-looking puppet construction. He also took away this valuable advice from the puppet-making master:
“People don’t believe a puppet is alive unless you give it a soul. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of fabric.”
Cooley doesn’t want to give all of his secrets away on how he has worked to achieve that for this musical. But he was excited to see his design efforts paying off at one of the cast’s first rehearsals with his small Audrey II puppet: “Everyone in the cast was watching it and they were all smiling and all laughing. They were working in sync and the puppet was coming alive.”
“It was almost like a revelation,” he said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj or follow her on Twitter @KerryClawsonABJ.