He's got the world on a string -- Newton man's home populated with marionettes of his own making

Monday, June 02, 2003

Newark Star-Ledger Staff

Inside a Newton man's living room, Hillary Rodham Clinton is tap dancing. Her hips are swinging, and her clasped hands sometimes shake over her head in victory.

Don't mistake her for THAT Hillary Clinton. This one is a political puppet. Chris Kluge fashioned her that way -- with strings attached. At age 45, Kluge turned marionette maker, and in the next eight years, he hand-crafted about 120 unique creatures.

"I busted out of my shell at 45. Better late than never," said Kluge, who by day sells clothing labels.

In his spare time, Kluge hangs out in a cluttered corner of his basement, surrounded by woodworking tools, doll eyes and an eclectic collection of odds and ends acquired from antique shops, out-of-the-way spots and hardware stores. A tiny white fetching bandeau is stashed in one drawer; colorful insects hang from a hook a short distance away.

"You can go into a hardware store and go, 'Ooh, that's a find,'" he said.

What a long strange trip it's been for a guy whose only previous long-term experience with woodworking was the pocketknife he carried. Throughout most of his life, Kluge zealously indulged in doodling and cartooning, but never thought of himself as an artist.

He serendipitously stumbled upon his mid-life puppetry path during a nostalgic revisit to his childhood. He told his wife, Monica, about the Pelham puppets that often found their way under his family's Christmas tree tagged with his name.

By chance, after their conversation, two days later on Kluge's Dec. 24 birthday, Monica discovered a Pelham pair -- Hansel and Gretel -- in an antique shop and purchased them. Kluge spent a year fooling around with them until a brainstorm hit.

"I'm a big guy. I can buy a Dremel (tool) and I can make these things," he said.

Kluge calls his first marionettes primitive, but he caught on fast and they evolved. He has created look-alike celebrity caricatures, including Groucho, Elvis and Madonna.

But star status is not required to stoke Kluge's imagination. He has shaped a version of his vivacious and rumba-inspired grandmother wearing hot pink capris; a peg-leg pirate; a stereotypical nerd with geeky glasses and a mermaid sporting an iridescent tail. A roller skater from the former Saturday morning TV show "Roller Derby" sometimes glides fluidly through Kluge's living room, with no one to elbow.

Kluge's vision of Rudy Giuliani hangs in Bula restaurant on Spring Street in Newton, which is hosting an exhibit of his work through the middle of this month. This is the Rudy with his older comb-over do, and it goads Kluge that some people mistake this marionette for former President George Bush.

"Oh, look. That's Giuliani," proclaimed Mario Morales, a resident of Mexico City, admiring Kluge's artistry after lunch at Bula.

"You see," Kluge exclaimed. "Guys from Mexico City come and know it's Giuliani."

But Morales sees more than Giuliani. He sees brilliance. "They have such personality," Morales said, swapping business cards with Kluge.

In his strange new pursuit, Kluge learned to carve wood, sculpt faces, paint them, make working joints and even sew costumes. The move was a big one for a man locked in black and white artistry.

"I was intimidated by color. I didn't think of myself as an artist. (Then) I thought, hogwash. Guess what? There are no rules. It's whatever makes you happy," he said.

Kluge has sold at least 40 marionettes, which average $650 in price and take 80 to 100 hours to build. But some are time hogs, like the Statue of Liberty, which consumed more than 200 hours.

Joseph Castine, 56, a Manhattan resident and Long Island English teacher, didn't squawk about the price after purchasing four puppets for sidewalk shows he performs at South Street Seaport.

His Elvis look-alike swivels his hips in a way Ed Sullivan still wouldn't approve. And his Tina Turner can thrust her pelvis so provocatively that it would bar a PG rating.

"I've seen many marionettes, from Germany to here and back, and Chris is just amazing," Castine said. "I've always felt that I found the best person I could possibly find" to build them.

For Kluge, the marionettes are better than any video game because they exist in 3-D. He is working on taping a musical that will bring many of the characters to life.

"I kind of found out what I was supposed to be doing when I was 45, thanks to my wife," he said. "It weaves together many interests."