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Sock Puppet Sitcom Theater connects new audiences with old TV shows

Actress Alicyn Packard holds her sock puppet characters as she studies the script to the pilot episode of
Actress Alicyn Packard holds her sock puppet characters as she studies the script to the pilot episode of "Hogan's Heroes."
Michelle Lanz/KPCC

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It's dusk in Mark Hayward and Charley Knapp’s cozy duplex in Los Feliz.

Tonight, Mark, Charley, and the cast are preparing for the first read-through of the pilot episode of "Hogan’s Heroes." Before they begin, cast members study their lines, prepare their accents, and place googley-eyed sock puppets on each hand.

A row of sock puppets dressed in WWII-era German and Allied uniforms stand at attention on a round dining table in the corner of the room. There are sock puppet versions of the entire "Hogan's Heroes" cast: Colonel Hogan, Colonel Klink, Sergeants Schultz, Kinchloe, Baker and Carter. Each sock puppet's outfit it made of felt, pipe cleaners, buttons and yarn.

“We debated what to do with the Klink monocle because it’s such the signature of Colonel Klink, but we decided that going with the largest googly eye we could find was better than a monocle," said sock puppeteer Hayward. "This is the hardest thing we had to make, we had to make a helmet that’s sock-puppet size, a German World War Two infantry helmet. So, it's paper mache!”

Hayward and his husband, Charley Knapp, are co-founders of the Sock Puppet Sitcom Theater, a monthly live show that recreates pilot episodes of hit sitcoms using homemade sock puppets. Along with a stable of puppeteers and musicians, the couple has given the sock treatment to shows like "I Love Lucy," "Friends" and even the "CBS Evening News."

Hayward pulls out a plastic bin full of sock puppets, each individually wrapped in Ziploc freezer bags, then starts rifling through them, pulling out puppets from previous performances.

"We have the whole cast of three shows in this plastic bin. We've got Barbara Walters and Peter Jennings, Edward R. Murrow, there's Joey from 'Friends,' and Ross. If I dig down deepers there's Three's Company … Mrs. Roeper’s down in there somewhere."

Hayward and Knapp started with puppet shows five years ago, first performing at the Downtown L.A. Artwalk. They came up with the idea to turn sitcoms into a puppet show two years ago, performing one-off shows at Burning Man and around the Silver Lake area. This past April, the group earned a residency at Atwater Crossing, a gallery space and restaurant near Glendale.

For Hayward and Knapp, sitcoms and puppets were a natural combination.

"I've been doing puppetry since I was a kid I've always just loved how you can make an inanimate object seem like it's alive," said Hayward. "We were interested in the idea of taking this reduction of real life and reducing it one more time, like Xeroxing and Xerox copy. That was a challenge for us artistically. How do you take sock puppets, something that's childlike and try and raise it to a new level.”

Though the socks are as historically accurate as possible, for a great puppet show, you need more than just puppeteers and costumes. The group has a full band and foley artist on hand to take care of the various sound effects.

"I do quite a few sound effects that happen in the shows, like knocking on doors and doorbells," said Kevin Widener. "There are also rim shots and things, like the standard punctuation for a joke is the cowbell, and any kind of noise that comes up in the shows."

Widener and his band also perform the theme songs and commercial jingles from the TV ads of the period. Like a traditional TV network, the show is punctuated with commercials and newsbreaks. They even designed the stage to mimic a three-camera sitcom set. Only this one is mobile.

“The whole thing fits on one dolly, the entire show … Kevin and I both have Volkswagen Golfs, two doors and basically between musical instruments and all the sets, and all the puppets and everything we fill up two Volkswagens," said Hayward.

So why sitcoms, why socks, and why now? Charley Knapp says the communal aspect is key.

"Part of it is about reintroducing new audiences to these stories that for so much of us, it’s like people come and they don’t realize they remembered seeing this…it’s really a shared memory that so many of us have," said Knapp. "I like doing it in public because it brings us all together at the same time. It adds a nice boost to have that much energy in the room.”

But there's one more reason why the Sock Puppet Sitcom Theater works so well: "We just have a lot of creative friends and we aren’t afraid to pull them into our reindeer games," said Hayward.

The Sock Puppets perform "Hogan’s Heroes" on July 18. And they’re scheduled to perform "Roseanne" and "Golden Girls" later this summer. For more information on show times or to purchase tickets go to the Sock Puppet Sitcom website.