FREMONT -- The Rev. Steve Norman says working a puppet show is like riding a bike -- you never forget how to do it.

He better hope so, because on Saturday he'll be performing a puppet version of "The Nutcracker" for the first in 34 years at his New Hope Community Church.

The church is a long way from suburban Milwaukee, where Norman, 56, was reared in a family of puppeteers.

His father and uncle formed The National Puppet Theater and were on the road most weekdays performing at schools when Norman and his two siblings were children.

During summers, the entire clan would tour the Midwest, doing three shows a day at county fairs and amusement parks.

"My earliest memories are of napping in a puppet trunk," Norman said. "I can remember them forgetting I was inside and putting the puppets on top of me."

After graduating from high school, Norman also began touring the Midwest, putting on puppet shows, sometimes solo and sometimes with one of his cousins.

He met a lot of children, but few people his age.

"You pretty much went to a town, did your show, and found a motel room," he said.

In his 20s, Norman gave up puppetry for the ministry, and he has rarely tried combining the two.

Puppetry is slapstick humor, Norman said. "It's just for entertainment. To put it in a Christian context was hard for me to wrap my head around."


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But with his church seeking new members, Norman decided to bring out the old marionettes for a free performance.

"We're trying to let people know we're here," he said of his church.

Norman's "Nutcracker" is a 30-minute version of the play with string puppets his relatives handcrafted 50 years ago.

The puppets, with wooden bodies and hard plastic faces, had spent the past decade in storage until last year, when Norman's daughter, Melia, and son-in-law, Micah Mann, refurbished them and the puppet stage.

The couple performed throughout the Bay Area, using many of the family's 14 shows, including "Hansel and Gretel," "Cinderella," "The Pirates of Penzance" and "Peter and the Wolf."

"It meant a lot to me -- more than I imagined -- to see the puppets restored and used again," Norman said. "I think it meant a lot to my dad and my uncle."

But earlier this year, the Manns decided to give up puppetry for a Christian mission assignment in Austria.

Back into storage went the puppets, some of which Norman sanded himself as a boy.

The "Nutcracker" puppets and stage will likely end up in storage as well, but not before Norman trots them out one more time.

"It's a great creative outlet," he said. "And you get to be everything. You can be the writer. You can be the actor."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-353-7002. For more Fremont news, read his blog at www.ibabuzz.com/tricitybeat.

If You Go
WHAT: Puppet Performance of The Nutcracker
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: New Hope Community Church, 2190 Peralta Blvd., Fremont
COST: Free