In partnership with Half Cut Tea. Half Cut Tea is a two person team that travels the country looking for artists and telling their stories through short documentary films.
Matt and I had wanted to follow around a puppeteer since we began shooting documentaries for Half Cut Tea. I called agents for months trying to find a puppeteer, but it was no use. As a last ditch effort, I put out an ad on Craigslist.
A few days after I posted it, we got a response from a guy named Jeff Speetjens. He wrote that he worked at a night club owned by David Arquette called Bootsy Bellows. Being new to the area, we had never heard of this place. Despite our reservations and because of our desperate search for a puppeteer, we decided to go for it.
We met Jeff several days later at his apartment. It was a small one bedroom in Century City. His living room was strung up with various puppets some made by him and some not. While filming our interview with him, he showed us how he operates his puppets and his motivations for becoming a puppeteer. He offhandedly revealed to us that he also makes films, some of which have been shown at Cannes and the Ion Film Festivals. Craigslist can be surprising sometimes.
As the interview was wrapping up, Jeff said, "Oh. Can you guys wear some ties tonight? This is an upscale club, but be ready, it can get a little weird."
Weird was an understatement. We did our best to look presentable considering we had no idea what were walking into. We followed Jeff's directions to a high rise building in West Hollywood. After parking illegally on a street nearby, we walked through an unmarked door into the small but beautiful club hidden in plain sight on a busy street. With luggage in each hand, Jeff led us to through the kitchen into a small closet in the back.
"This is where we keep them." he said as he removed several puppets from his bags.
The room was stuffed with every kind of puppet one could imagine from N'sync to Nosferatu. There were several Keith Richards and variety of dancers. Jeff added his puppets to the collection. By the time we returned to the club, the once empty space was now packed. We squeezed our way through the gyrating crowd and began to question how we would be able to film Jeff in this dark sardine can of sweaty party-goers.
Our questions were answered when Jeff stepped through the curtain with a Mick Jagger puppet hanging from his hands. The crowds parted. Jeff could move through the crowds unnoticed because all eyes were on his puppet. The crowds not only danced with the puppet, but they were kissing, grinding and taking shots with him. All the while, Jeff stood five feet above the popular puppet with his eyes focused on it's every move. We followed in the puppets wake darting between the crowds before they closed around it. We had never seen anything like it. For Jeff, this is normal. This is his routine every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, week in and week out.
As the night drew to a close, the puppets smelled of alcohol and were covered in lipstick. Jeff asked if we'd meet him at Venice beach the next day. Luckily, the plan was to meet there at sundown, which gave us ample time to recover from our experience at Bootsy Bellows.
Venice Beach was humming with people, but unlike the night before, the passing crowds rarely noticed Jeff and his dancing puppets. But Jeff's focus was still fixed on his puppet. He was smiling and having just as much fun as the night before. It was never about the crowds, it was about honing his craft and doing what he loves.
Who knew you could be a puppeteer at a swanky burlesque nightclub in West Hollywood?
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