Love of puppets turns into business for Gibson City man

By DIANE PERKINS
Ford County Record correspondent


GIBSON CITY — Mike O’Brien of Gibson City always adored puppets. Now he is taking that love to schools in the Bloomington-Normal area and helping students bring literature to life.

Clothespin Puppets is the brainchild of O’Brien. He started working with puppets after falling in love with the Muppets on “Sesame Street” and watching entertainer Wayland Flowers and his puppet, Madame.

“I always loved puppets even when I was a kid,” O’Brien said. “When I was about 10 or 12 years old, I took a Styrofoam ball and some paper maché and started playing around with it.”

The idea for Clothespin Puppets started taking shape when O’Brien was the assistant professor of theater at Berkshire Community College in Massachusetts. 

“I was doing some consulting and small puppet-building projects,” said O’Brien. “One of the first commissioned puppets I built was a dragon with a 6-foot-long snout that had to be held together with 300 clothespins while I was building it. The Clothespin Puppets name came from that experience.”

When the economy crashed in 2009, cuts were made at the college where O’Brien was working, which included his position. His family moved back to Illinois in 2010 and settled in Gibson City where his wife, Jenna (Kyle), was from.

“I started working in the children’s department at Barnes and Noble and used some of the children’s books to create puppet shows,” said O’Brien. “I performed some of those shows in the store and also started doing workshops for local schools.”

A teacher from Towanda saw one of his shows and asked if he could turn stories from her school’s young author’s program into puppet shows, which he agreed to do. Word of his programs soon spread by word-of-mouth through parents and other teachers. In 2015, Clothespin Puppets worked with eight to 10 Bloomington-Normal schools.

“We’re now getting booked a year in advance,” said O’Brien. “We’ve also started working with schools in the Champaign-Urbana area and with several libraries as part of their summer reading programs.

"The demands of the puppet business take a lot of my time. I not only have to create the shows, but also make the puppets for each show. Occasionally, I can recycle a puppet I’ve used before, but I usually have to create and build new ones.”

O’Brien has developed more than a dozen books into puppet shows that he performs at various events. A lot of time also goes into selecting the right book for each show. 

O’Brien said some books do not work, since they are too wordy.  The story has to be something that can be built and performed, and it has to appeal to him. He also likes it when his puppets do something that a human cannot do.

Clothespin Puppets remains a family business with O’Brien’s daughter, Maggie, performing shows with him and his wife handling the marketing.

“My pipe dream is to have my own building in a cool downtown area where we could have performance space and a shop,” O’Brien said. “We could live upstairs in the building and develop original puppet shows.”

More information on Clothespin Puppets can be found at www.clothespinpuppets.com.

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