OAKLAND -- Life has been one big surprise party for Montclair's Brian Patterson.
Born into a real life carnival existence, the 46-year-old, soon-to retire landscape designer who plans to become a full-time-puppeteer, describes an eye-popping childhood as the son of Renaissance Faire and Great Dickens Christmas Fair founders, Phyllis and Ron Patterson.
Birthday parties would never be on the actual date," Patterson recalled in an interview on a rare December day off during the 34th annual holiday fair. "They'd pick a theme, like pirates or clowns."
One year, it was puppet pie fighting, complete with costumes and little tins filled with whipped cream.
"They threw plastic bags on all the kids -- with holes cut out for our heads, of course -- and it was a blast," he said. "The sour smell when the kids were sent home hours later wasn't so popular with the parents."
Christmas and Easter were equally intense.
"They'd have my older brother, Kevin, up on the roof, being Santa, shaking bells, thumping around. I think they had me believing in Santa until I was 10, when my brother left the ladder out and I was crushed. I cried my eyes out."
Not all glamorous
Growing up in a stimulating sensory circus that included a back yard filled with a Renaissance-era village and a generous attitude toward creativity wasn't all a bed of roses. Because his parents ran fairs in Southern California and in the Bay Area, Patterson spent half the year falling behind in what he calls a "hippie school" in Presidio Heights and the other six months catching up in Los Angeles.
"I was always reacclimating; maybe that's why I took nine years to get through college," he said about his eventual bachelor's degree in liberal studies from Sonoma State University and study of landscape design at Santa Rosa Junior College.
MacLaren Landscape Garden Service was the outgrowth of his education. But all along, he has been a Punch and Judy man.
"I can't explain it: it's like someone grabbed my shirt and pulled me in," he said. "It gets under your skin."
Formula for success
There's a basic formula for the 350-year-old show, which rose from its roots in the Punchinello character in Commedia dell'Arte to tickle the public's funny bones on British streets before retiring to parlor rooms and finally re-emerging at fairs, children's parties and in theaters.
Despite the show's triumphal heritage and rising popularity in the United States, Patterson hesitates to announce his profession to strangers.
"It seemed silly," he said. "In America, you're in the category of a party clown. In other countries, it's highly respected, like other art forms."
A master puppeteer has perfect hand-eye coordination, a strong sense of rhythm, artistic skill for puppet creation and one surprising quality Patterson said is essential.
"Schizophrenic: You have to be able to jump through multiple characters," he laughed.
Patterson also plays a sound effect rack loaded with harmonica, kazoo and other mouth toys while running a foot pedal controlling percussion accompaniment.
"It's this entire, square universe you get to play with and embellish," he said, making a rare, incomprehensible combination of responsibilities sound like a lark.
Sensitive to the show's traditions and today's social climate, Patterson is nevertheless adamant about the integrity of the slapstick-wielding Punch.
"It's a fairy tale," he said. "You're not supposed to apply real terms to it. Kids get that; they never get traumatized."
Patterson said timing is vital.
"You keep it from being gruesome by keeping it chortling lightly along," he suggested. And Punch's "buzzy" voice turns the character into "a critter" instead of "a realistic husband abusing his wife and child."
Adapts the show
Still, he adapts the version for each audience and is quick to say he thinks hitting anyone is wrong.
"It was a raunchy, violent show in the 1800s," he said. "Now, there's a call and response, so when Punch says, 'That's the way to do it!' after violence, the audience is cued to shout, 'Oh no, it isn't!' "
Two years after his father died, Patterson is finding his legs (happily free of tights, which are not required for Punch and Judy puppeteering) and transitioning out of his landscape business.
"I've had time to step up: to make more of what he gave me," Patterson said. "I've learned to make my life more structured. The show is small, portable, so I'm doing more libraries and focusing on larger fairs. And really, I'm just more secure in my puppeteer-hood."