Mike Smith Puppetry Journal Review_3
Interview with Jake Austen and Ratso
from CHIC-A-GO-GO, Chicago

published in and courtesy of:
The Puppetry Journal (ISSN.0033-443X)
The Puppeteers of America Inc.
4923-37th Ave S Minneapolis, MN 55417
Vol. 53 - No. 1 - Fall 2001XXX
pages ?-
Interview by Mike Smith, www.encroach.net (home)

I recently went to the taping of the 245th episode of the ever-popular cable tv dance show, CHIC-A-GO-GO. Chic-A-Go-Go is hosted by Ratso (a puppet) and Miss Mia (Mia Park, a local actress/musician).

During Ratsošs opening segment, a young lad sneaked behind the puppet table that is Ratsošs perch, and stepped back in shock, "You mean Ratsošs NOT REAL?!" It was an amazing testament to the power of the puppet. The human he saw crouched with a mic was Jake Austen, Ratsošs puppeteer and long-time puppet music journalist. According to Jake, Ratso has shown proven the power of the puppet many times with children's imaginations.

Jake and Ratso have interviewed (and hosted) hundreds of national and local musical and performance talents, from 50s Doo Wop legends the El Doradošs, to punk rock superstars Fugazi, to Rock gods Cheap Trick to alternative puppeteers Miss Pussycat and Environmental Encroachment.

From Chic-a-go-go's web site, www.roctober.com:
"Since its 1996 debut, CHIC-A-GO-GO has offered a unique variation on the Soul Train/American Bandstand dance show model. Producers Austen and his wife Jacqueline Stewart take advantage of the showšs non-commercial home on the Chicago Access Network to create a diverse TV world that does not have to focus on a single demographic. People of all ages, races, and backgrounds -- linked by their love of music -- dance together in harmony on the CHIC-A-GO-GO set. The dancers, who range in age from toddlers to grandparents, move to all types of music, from the latest Hip Hop to classic R&B, Rock & Roll, Punk, Funk, and all points in between. The local show has been fairly successful over the years, developing a cult following, winning several cable access awards and garnering international press attention."

And itšs all held together by a punk rock puppet!

Chic-a-go-go is a very fun and funky experience, stressing the importance of music, fantasy, play, dance and momentary performance stardom. It is appropriate that the show is co-hosted by a puppet.

Here is my interview with Jake Austin, Ratsošs right-hand man.

How did Ratso start?

One of my other hats is that of a cartoonist, and Ratso is a character in a comic I do called "Punkšn head." I went to art school, so I had a wealth of talented people to draw upon to help me, and I had an artist named Caroline Shirley design the Ratso puppet based upon my comics. Whatšs interesting is that Caroline is from Boston and has no knowledge of Chicago puppet culture, but her design, with its conical snout, mimics that of one of the legendary Chicago kiddie TV puppets, Garfield Goose.

Talk about Ratsošs "little brother."

Ratso is supposed to be about 14, but a couple of years ago we introduced Lilš Ratso, his seven year old brother. One problem we were having with Ratso is that hešs as big as a vent dummy and requires a hefty suitcase to travel. We were heading to Europe for a vacation and wanted to do some shooting while we were there, so I commissioned a local puppeteer to create a smaller, more durable sibling for Ratso. Lilš Ratso is more of a hand puppet, and can fit into a large purse or small backpack, so after Europe we took to just carrying him around and having him do interviews with musicians on location. Hešs met some great folks; Fugazi, Clinic, Daniel Johnston, Hasil Adkins.

In addition to his size a big advantage is that the puppeteeršs hand goes through his entire body, unlike Ratso, who you control through the back of his head. With Lilš Ratso I can have the camera shoot him from the back for reaction shots while hešs talking to someoneŠmy arms are long enough that I can even operate the camera and the puppet at the same time! The disadvantages of Lilš Ratso are that I didnšt develop a distinctive enough voice, sometimes I slip into Ratsošs voice by mistake, and hešs also not as funny as his older brother. Ratso is more of a trickster and Lilš Ratso is an innocent. Also, he has floppy ears, so hešs not as Rat-identifiable. The littlest member of Hanson kept calling him a dog. Ratso and Lilš Ratso also have a feminist, cool older sister, Rattina. Shešs very distinct from her brothers because I have the woman who designed her perform her segments.

What's your best joke?

Ratso actually likes to tell really corny "Knock Knock" type jokes, and it seems the worse the joke the better the young kids respond. I donšt know if itšs appropriate to say "Best," but his favorite might be, "How much did the pirate pay to get his ears pierced? A buck an ear!"

What have your most interesting puppet encounters been?

I guess some of the most interesting encounters have been with musicians who had problems with puppets. Vanilla Ice initially agreed to an interview, then when we got to the room he announced that he was afraid of puppets and would freak if we even took Ratso out. It seems he had a bad experience with a puppet in Florida the previous week. Lemmy from the Metal band Motorhead also refused to talk to the puppet, but was happy to offer an on-camera treatise on why kids shouldnšt like puppets ("they arenšt real," also his rationale for refusing to appear on "Beavis and Butthead"). His advice to the kids (which we aired with some censoring) was, "Donšt talk to #@%!* puppets!" Most musicians, however, love talking to a puppet. Some artists, Marky Ramone and Jello Biafra come to mind, really appreciate a forum to talk to young kids. Actually, the best puppet encounters arenšt with musicians, but between Ratso and the kids. You mentioned the child being shocked to see me behind the table, but that goes against most of my experiences. Sure, kids are fascinated to look underneath the table and see me, but I think that has a lot to do with the oddity of seeing an adult crouching like a fool in a box. Most kids seem to be able to think of Ratso as "real" even though they know Išm operating him. Before and after the cameras roll kids will come up and talk to Ratso, and they never look behind him to see me. They look right into his button eyes and ask him real questionsŠand not just toddlers, some of these kids are as old as 14 or 15. The magic of puppets has a lot to do with a kind of faith where you choose too believe despite logic, and the rewards for that faith are the fun and joy you get by accepting puppets as "real."

Who are the famous musicians Ratso has interviewed and met? Stories?

What is nice about Ratso is that if I donšt have a crew the artist has to operate the puppet while being interviewed. Išll do the voice but they have to operate the mouth. The late, great Doris Jackson of the Shirelles is probably the only Rock & Roll Hall of Famer to operate Ratso. Lux Interior of the Cramps was really bad at moving the mouth in synch with my speaking.

Ratso has a fabulous counting chart ("The Show-O-Meter") of the number of episodes Chic-A-Go-Go has done, and hešs proudly passed the episode totals of shows like "The Monkees," "I Love Lucy" and "Leave It To Beaver." But he was shattered when he found out the Howdy Doody had over 2000 shows! Actually, Howdy Doody had 2,345 episodes, so thatšs closer to 40 more years, since Howdy was daily and Chic-a-go-go is weekly.

I hope I am there when Chic-a-go-go breaks the record. Go Ratso!
If you are in Chicago, go to a taping session and meet Ratso yourself!

Jake, Ratso and Mia are on the web at www.roctober.com

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