SLO Farmers Market puppeteer Don Wallis dies of heart attack

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Don Wallis leans on his mobile stage with some of his handmade puppets.

Courtesy of Einar Berg

A San Luis Obispo puppeteer whose mobile shows have entertained children and parents of SLO County for three decades has passed away.

Don Wallis, “The Puppet Man,” has presented thousands of shows across the county for over 30 years at places such as schools, the Swap Meet in Nipomo and in particular the downtown SLO Farmers’ Market.

For many years he was a staple on Thursday nights, setting up his stage in one of the side streets and drawing passers-by to stop and watch as he manipulated the hand puppets and played the vocals. using a headset.

He died of a heart attack on Wednesday at the age of 74, according to his younger brother, John Wallis, of Medford, Oregon.

Wallis’ close friend Einar Berg, 89, said Wallis was a “good man who will be sorely missed”.

“He was a larger than life man in more ways than one,” Berg said. “He and his roommate at the time were going to buy a gallon of ice cream. It would come down in one portion.

Native SLO started in theater

Don Wallis was born in SLO in 1946, graduated from Mission Prep, and lived in the city for most of his adult life, his brother said.

He grew up in the northern San Joaquin Valley for much of his youth and studied literature, theater, and cultural history at Cuesta College, Cal Poly, and UCSB.

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Don Wallis performed with puppets at the Nipomo Swap Meet in March 2000. François Laborde To file

One of his three books, “The Puppet Man: New and Selected Poems” Notes that Wallis was a spokesperson for children, mental health and social change, as well as a poet, playwright, prose writer and artist, according to a biography on the book jacket, Berg said.

“(Wallis) played 100 roles on stage and on the radio before starting his 30-year career as a puppeteer,” the biography notes.

After performing in theatrical performances for years into adulthood in SLO County, most notably playing Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”, Wallis began to focus on present local puppet shows using a wooden theater booth that hid its face from the audience.

“He hand carved his puppets and sewed the costumes himself,” said John Wallis. “He was very fond of the theater, and it was a way for him to continue his involvement as an adult with a one-man show.”

The ensemble only revealed their hand-orchestrated characters to viewers, with their vocals playing their roles in the background as the characters danced and moved.

Among its shows was an anti-smoking campaign, “Puppets for Health,” sponsored by the county’s public health tobacco control program.

Wallis told the Telegram-Tribune in a 1979 story that he had been a die-hard smoker who had given up the habit.

The anti-smoking show featured characters who evoked cheers and boos for the hero Bernie and Witchy, who offered his “poison” to potential victims in an educational narrative that explained the harms and addictive qualities of the game. nicotine.

“Underline this three times,” Wallis said in the article on quitting smoking. “I breathe a lot better – it’s not painful – and I have a lot more energy. It’s important for a showman.

Don Wallis Puppet Show
Don Wallis, seen here in March 2000, played the role of “The Puppet Man” for 30 years at locations in San Luis Obispo County. Francois Laborde

How he became a puppeteer

A 1997 Telegram-Tribune article described Wallis’ performance in “Little Red Riding Hood” and its unique theatrical twist. The biggest difference? The Big Bad Wolf character ate no one.

“Sir. Wolf has obnoxious-looking teeth, creepy yellow claws, and his ears are constantly pulled back in a predatory pose,” journalist Mary Schiller wrote. “But when Mr. Wallis recounted his side of the tale fairy at the Nipomo Swap encounter on a recent Sunday, Mr. Wolf wasn’t really that scary. ”

Schiller continued, “He had a pretty cool hangout, he liked talking to the public and he didn’t eat anybody. A mustard hot dog was more to his liking than a grandmother or a child in a red cape.

Wallis explained that his interest in puppets was an early way to communicate and connect.

“I come from a very calm family,” Wallis said in 1997, explaining that his brother was ill and demanded the family’s attention. “So I was the kid who was pushed around the corner. Out of this loneliness, I desperately needed to verbally communicate my thoughts and feelings. And I needed to physically touch other living things. It was that easy. “

2000 03-12 puppets Don Wallis
Don Wallis performed with puppets at the Nipomo Swap Meet in March 2000. François Laborde

Wallis said in the article that he believes children love puppets because they are smaller than children and “children never see anything smaller than them.”

As for adults, they can immerse themselves in “sensory and emotional memories of childhood,” he said at the time.

“What Don does with the hand puppets is amazing,” his friend Nancy Abbott said in a 2000 Tribune story. “They’re dancing.”

Activism, poetry and friendship

Berg said Wallis enjoys playing high-quality theatrical roles with a political bent.

During the Vietnam War, he performed alternate service in a maternity hospital as a conscientious objector in Berkeley. And he protested the operation of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, citing security concerns.

“He was a confidant to many residents of Judson Terrace Homes, where he has lived for the past 10 years, listening to them at the end of their lives,” said Berg. “He was generous to the limit.”

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The late Don Wallis Courtesy of Einar Berg

Judson Terrace serves low-income seniors aged 55 and over.

Wallis was also a familiar face as SLO’s downtown parking attendant in recent years, greeting people with a funny joke or poem, or stepping into character if the kids were in the car at the payment window. .

John Wallis said his brother, 11 years older than him, would often entertain John’s three children, as well as the daughter of a now deceased second brother. Don Wallis had no children.

“He also had a funny side and a serious side,” said John Wallis. “He was talking to nieces and nephews crazily on the phone. Then he was saying now, let’s talk seriously, and he’s going into things that aren’t just entertainment value.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly on K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.


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