Wearing a Mister Rogers T-shirt with the words “never forget” emblazoned across it, Terrence Burke studies a newspaper while drinking an iced coffee at Northside’s Sidewinder Coffee. The clothing choice is pretty indicative of Burke. In 2010, Burke founded the zany puppet troupe Wump Mucket Puppets, creating and performing with his original cast of characters, colorful in both personality and hue.
Burke’s passion for puppetry started when he was a child, growing up in Boston. Like many kids who grew up in the ’60s, without the DVR or Netflix of today’s toddlers, Burke loved Saturday morning TV. He fondly recalls shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Captain Kangaroo, Punch and Judy, The Muppets and the early days of Sesame Street.
“I remember asking my parents, ‘What is that? How do they do that?’ ” Burke says. “My mom found out that the YMCA was offering a puppetry class and signed me up. I took it over.”
Shortly afterward, Burke met Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch — aka Caroll Spinney, the hand behind these Muppets — at a puppetry convention.
Fascinated, Burke continued to build and experiment with puppetry and stop-motion animation until junior high, when the fear of being deemed juvenile pushed him to channel his creativity through school theatre and church choir instead.
After studying radio and television, Burke and his wife moved to Cincinnati in 1993. His interest in music led him to create local zine Screed, host an experimental music show for WAIF-FM, organize community benefit concerts and work at a music store. “Eventually I got burnt out,” he says. “I started to hate music.”
In 2001, Burke’s life was flipped upside down when his father suddenly passed away. “I spiraled down into a pretty bad depression,” he says. After agreeing to see a doctor, Burke was asked what makes him happy. The answer was immediate: puppets. “[The doctor] threw it back and said, ‘Well, what are you going to do about that?’ ”
Within a week, Burke sought out the Cincinnati Area Puppetry Guild and joined the Puppeteers of America. The sketchbook came out, and Burke began drawing designs. Burke’s children Eleanor and Tiernan, born in 2004 and 2007 respectively, served as another catalyst.
“My daughter mentioned to her teacher, ‘My daddy’s a puppeteer,’ ” he says. Burke was picking her up at preschool when the teacher asked if he could bring his puppets in. He quickly knocked together a 10-minute show, fashioning a curtained stage out of an old keyboard stand.
“The kids loved it. They ate it up,” Burke says. The teacher suggested that Burke do puppet shows more often.
Eventually, more songs came with more shtick, and characters started evolving. Drawing from his love of strange beasts, Burke and his family crafted the Wump Mucket Puppets: creatures like Cyril the Sea Serpent, Coleman the Sasquatch and G’Wazzl, an alien who just can’t grasp Earth culture.
“They say, ‘Write what you know,’ ” Burke says. For him, that means the many hours of Saturday morning television his mom said would rot his brain.
Following early shows at farmers markets and Sidewinder Coffee, Burke booked his first paid gig at the Northside branch of the Cincinnati Library.
Since then, Wump Mucket Puppets have become one of the most sought-after acts in the Tristate area. “Now I’m in my busiest summer. I’m booked every week,” Burke says. “I’m looking at the logistics of an East Coast tour for next year.”
Other future plans include a winter-themed show and a much grander production inspired by cryptozoology. Burke and his wife are also creating a more “adult” performance for the Puppetry Guild’s Puppet Slam, an event Burke first brought to city in 2003.
“Good humor is ageless,” he says, vowing that he will never perform anything he wouldn’t want his children or mother to see. This summer, Burke’s daughter Eleanor has been joining him on stage.
“It comes down to the show that I want to see,” Burke says. “I’m gonna have a good time. We’re gonna explore imagination. We’re gonna make Sasquatch go into a UFO and sing about silly stuff from outer space.”
“If I can bring that laughter and joy to anybody, then to me, that’s it,” he continues. “Share the knowledge, spread the joy.”
WUMP MUCKET PUPPETS perform at the Cincinnati Area Puppetry Guild’s Puppet Slam at Southgate House Revival Saturday, Aug. 2, Smale Riverfront Park’s Family Summer Fun series Sept. 19 and Clifton Fest Sept. 27-28. For a full list of shows, visit wumpmucketpuppets.com.