John Potocnik, November 7, 2014

Title

John Potocnik, November 7, 2014

Subject

puppetry
fiddle
folk art

Description

John Potocnik was born on Long Island, New York in 1952, and grew up on Long Island and in Brooklyn. His life has been strongly influenced by his time in the Experimental College at SUNY Stony Brook, which he attended while pursuing his undergraduate degree. It was at Stony Brook that he met Carol Mandigo, his wife, with whom he would go on to found the Catskill Puppet Theatre. He has worked as a puppeteer for many years, and has had the opportunity to travel around the country and display his craft in a variety of institutions. John is also an accomplished traditional fiddler who is particularly interested in revivalism, which he studied during his time at the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s folklore program. He and Carol have played music together for decades, including composing soundtracks for their puppet shows.

The Experimental College at SUNY Stony Brook was a short-lived program that ran in the 1970s. The Cooperstown Graduate Program’s folklore track was also discontinued a couple of years after John graduated. His interest in folk music revivalism came on the heels of the folk revival of the 1960s, and he was influenced by Greenwich Village musician and leatherworker Allan Block, whose sandal shop had become a hub of that movement.

John talks about how his education has influenced him, but also how his interests drove his education. He examines the difficulties and joys of making a living in the arts, especially being a self-employed folk artist. He discusses the Catskill Puppet Theatre’s focus on multiculturalism, and the tricky navigation required to be inclusive to different cultures while avoiding offensive stereotypes. John also talks about his objections to the rigid guidelines meted out by some folk musicians who feel they can define the validity of music by how traditional it is.

I interviewed John in my home in Cooperstown, New York. He drove to Cooperstown because he and his wife had been hired to play a contra dance in town that night. He was also in the midst of preparing for a performance with his contemporary country music band.

I have chosen to edit John’s speech slightly for the sake of easier reading. I have omitted a few words and added a few for clarity, but I have not changed the feel or the meaning of his words. As it is impossible to reproduce the subtleties of speech in writing, I encourage researchers to consult the audio recording.

Creator

Miranda Pettengill

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2014-11-07

Rights

New York State Historical Association Library, Cooperstown, NY

Format

image/jpeg
2448 x 3264 pixels
audio/mpeg
28.8mB
audio/mpeg
25.9mB

Language

en-US

Type

Image
Sound

Identifier

14-033

Coverage

Upstate New York
Cooperstown, NY
Long Island, NY
1952-2014

Interviewer

Miranda Pettengill

Interviewee

John Potocnik

Location

47 Chestnut St.
Cooperstown, NY

Transcription

Cooperstown Graduate Program
Oral History Project Fall 2014

JP = John Potocnik
MP = Miranda Pettengill

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

MP:
This is the November 7th, 2014 interview of John Potocnik by Miranda Pettengill for the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s Research and Fieldwork course, recorded at 47 Chestnut Street in Cooperstown, New York. Okay. Thank you so much for being here with me and doing this.

JP:
Yup.

MP:
So can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up?

JP:
Let’s see. I was born in a place called Mastic Beach, NY on Long Island. I was supposed to be born in Brooklyn, but my mom was visiting her mom, and next thing you know, she gave birth to two kids (and didn’t know she was actually pregnant with twins). So I was the second baby born, my twin sister was the first one, so she’s twenty minutes older than me. Yeah, born in 1952 on October 5th. And like I say, supposed to be born in Brooklyn, but born on Long Island.

MP:
Did you grow up in Brooklyn?

JP:
A lot of the time, yes. My younger years were spent in Brooklyn, living in a place on N. 11th St. My grandfather owned a brownstone where a lot of his kids lived. He had five or six kids. And so they were my aunts and one uncle, and I think three or four lived in this brownstone in Brooklyn, so I was one of those kids. I grew up around my cousins and my aunts and my family. And then [for] some reason I lived in Long Island and went to kindergarten in Long Island [for] first grade and second grade. And then third grade, moved back to Brooklyn, I think. Certainly for fourth grade I was in Brooklyn, at a great school in Brooklyn. So fourth and fifth grade in Brooklyn. Sixth grade in Brooklyn, but then seventh grade I moved back out to Long Island, and was there right through college graduation. So from seventh grade on, I lived in that same general neck of the woods, Mastic Beach, Shirley.

MP:
You mentioned going to college on Long Island. What did you study?

JP:
Well, when I went to school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I just went for a general program where I started taking academic courses outlining all of the interesting disciplines, so everything – biology, math. I wanted to make sure I had my options open, [because] I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. But as the year progressed, I became more interested in other things like the social sciences. So anthropology was one I was interested in, mostly, both physical and social. I took a wide variety of courses, but after about a year and a half I got a little disillusioned with school, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in school. I really wanted to go to learn and I wanted to meet people, and I wasn’t doing enough of each. So I was thinking of dropping out, and my dad said, “You shouldn’t really do that, you’re probably not going to go back.” So I looked for an alternative, and the alternative was actually very interesting. It was a little thing called the Experimental College, the residential study program at [SUNY] Stony Brook at the time. It was a short-lived program; I went for a couple years before it closed. But I was offered a spot there – you had to interview for it – and it was a perfect solution for me. You get a block of fifteen credits, you have to live in one section of a dormitory, a kind of suite set-up with central halls, so it was better than living in just a bunch of different rooms. So you were living with suitemates, and the only thing you really had to do was share whatever knowledge you had at that young and tender age of eighteen or nineteen, and participate in the community and participate in the governmental meetings and share your experiences. You got a block of fifteen credits to do that. You didn’t really have to do anything else other than that. Most people did; they followed their passion and their interests and it was a time for me to do the same thing, it was a time for me to explore what I wanted to do. So I did and I started building instruments and I started playing music and I started performing and taking trips. And I met my life’s partner and my business partner, my wife, there. And so all the things I learned at the Experimental College, oddly enough, I still use today. And they were very informal skills; they weren’t things that were taught by classes. I did that for a couple of years until I was done and I couldn’t do that anymore, so I stuck around waiting for Carol, my girlfriend at that time, now my wife. I was forced to go and decide what I wanted to major in, so I majored in anthropology because I had a fair number of credits in anthropology, and I always said it was the first one in the book. So I got a degree in anthropology. I think I went to school formally for about a year and a half after the Experimental College, and completed with a four-year degree in anthropology. So that was my undergraduate work. And as soon as I left, I never really saw my diploma again, or used it much. [I] became self-employed eventually, so I was rarely asked for any credentials. I tromped around for a couple of years, and then got into the [Cooperstown] Graduate Program, which was really an accident. Actually, my wife’s family lived in Oneonta, so we were coming up here, just checking the place out. She was looking for a counseling degree or a teaching degree of some sort, and we were looking at SUCO. I saw a little pamphlet on the Graduate Program, and it turned out I was the one that brought us back to this area to go to graduate school. Must have been ’76, ’77. She had an undergraduate degree in art, but she wound up helping me out here, because she worked as a lifeguard in the original Clark Gym that was right over here on Main Street. I went to grad school during that year, and graduated Class of ’77, right here in Cooperstown. I got my Master’s, which, like I say, was a very interesting year.

MP:
What were you hoping to do with the folklore degree?

JP:
Well, at that time I was already collecting music, and I was mainly into fiddle music – still am. So I was collecting music informally by myself. While I was in the Experimental College, I started learning fiddle. Whatever piece-of-junk tape recorder I had, I would go around and record whoever I could. It tended to be mostly revivalists, young people who were playing the old tunes. And I was interested in that, because I was a revivalist. I was from Long Island. My ethnic background is third-generation Italian and German immigrant, so my grandfathers both came from the Old Country. But I wasn’t playing Italian or German music; I was playing American fiddle music – old-time music – which is more from a Celtic tradition. So I was adopting a culture, musically, and I was interested in that – what made people do things like that. So I met a lot of people that were doing it, younger people, maybe some people that were more connected to the tradition than I was. And I was recording them. But the truth was, it was mainly to learn tunes, it wasn’t so much to document or to archive anything. It was mainly to record just for my own consumption, to use to learn tunes and different versions. So I did a lot of that before I got to the grad program, and I hoped to do more of that. And to be fair, I was very much interested in the visual arts and audio arts as a way to get folklore across. It’s always a very powerful medium to me. It has the ability to bring out emotion, both the combination of music and visual stuff. So documentary making was what I wanted to learn. And I wanted to learn how to do film work and how to make documentaries. And I guess what I mean is I don’t know what I wanted to do. I’m not just a revivalist; I just wanted to be able to make films about folklore. I was interested in music, so it was centered around that. But it was hard – the work was all crammed in one year, and there was a lot of stuff to study. And the equipment was not good. There were Portapaks and there were small, cheap tape recorders. Anything that was expensive or good was probably locked away, all for special occasions. So the equipment was less than good, but I did make a few things as projects with some of the local musicians around here, actually – two older women. I got to make a film and a little documentary on them. And I did collect and play with some of the other musicians. But I never really made a feature-length film or never really did anything like that and learn the art of documentary filmmaking, and that was what I was hoping to do. But in the short year I that was here, I was very busily trying to pique my interests and search out my interests and keep my research fun. So I did an art project for the folk art course, I did a collection of obscene graffiti. It was an interesting project because I went to New York and I went to some of the biggest colleges in New York City and collected basically what I considered to be temporary folk art. It was stuff that people scrawled on bathroom walls and it was here today and gone tomorrow, and I was interested in that whole fleeting life of this art. So I collected as much as I could, and I didn’t have very good equipment; I was sometimes lighting with candlelight and matches to get what I needed. I got locked in the Columbia Law Library, that kind of stuff. But I did things like collect in subways, gay bars, all over New York. That was an interesting project, but again, it was part of the deal, I was just trying to keep my interest up. So my thesis project was collecting street music in New York, basically doing a survey of it and seeing what was around. So I tried to identify areas that people performed at, then looked at those areas and interviewed, photographed, and recorded people and came back and collated all that stuff together. I think there’s a project sitting somewhere in the library at CGP. That was my thesis project back in ’77, and it was interesting. I think it was about fifty groups; some of them had multiple people in them. Some of them actually were famous people – it’s interesting. A famous blues artist named Sugar Blue was one of the subjects. So it was very interesting, and [had] a wide variety of performances. Fiddle players, horn players, jazz bands, bluegrass bands, novelty acts, that kind of stuff. I did a lot of interesting things, but again, it was partly to keep my interest up in the subject. But as soon as I got out of the Graduate Program, I became more interested in puppetry and performing and I did some stuff for the first six months, went down to Key West and Miami, lived down there. I started performing on the street and doing some things like that. I came back and became a puppeteer full-time right after that, so never really worked in the field of folklore, interestingly enough.

MP:
What piqued your interest in puppetry originally?

[TRACK 1, 12:54]

JP:
You know, originally our first puppet show actually was when I was in the Experimental College. Carol is a really good sculptor, a good story writer, and a good songwriter. So she had talents in some areas. I tend to throw stuff together. I would do sceneries and things like that. But for the very first show, we actually sat around her mom’s house and sewed a bunch of hand puppets together. We made up a little story about a farmer and pigs and things like that, fairy tales that were original. We performed them, and we got such a lot of interest in the Experimental College that we were travelling around the country, actually, in a little red truck. We started a circus, a little psychedelic circus going around the country doing that. And we got a lot of interest. And it was in our time off; it was during the summers. We lived really cheaply and travelled around and got to see the country, and it was my first foray out into the real world as a young man, and driving a truck. We were with a crew of people and [there were] six, eight, ten, twelve people in a caravan of vehicles. We went all around the country. So that was my first interest in puppetry, but it was partly my wife’s interest and I was just following. At that time she was my girlfriend, but we did puppet shows. I became a little disinterested in it and went back to school. And after grad school, we wound up married with a kid. She picked up a piece of firewood and carved a puppet head out of it, and next thing you know we had a puppet show. We teamed up with a third guy who was a musician, and he played the antique Salvation Army pump organ along with a thing called the Devil’s Fiddle, which is basically a big stomp stick that you bang up and down and you rake a serrated piece of wood across a single string which then beats a tambourine and does it all to rhythm. It’s kind of a bizarre instrument; I think it may have German roots. Anyway, we were a three-person group at first, and our name was – it’s a mouthful – Catskill Puppet Productions and Antique Musical Revue. And that’s basically what we were. We performed at historical societies, county fairs, occasional schools, small theatres, community events. We were in that form for a few years, and then eventually became a two-person group; [we] didn’t need the musician. We decided to create shows that we could then do our own music with and for, and use a recording of that music. From then on, we worked with a combination of live mics and recorded music. Eventually we went to full recorded soundtracks after we started working with other puppeteers and things got very busy later on. Puppetry was always an interest because it was evident that I was a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, and it was a good fit for me, and on top of [that], we were actually complementary in the things that we were good at doing. There was a pretty strict division of labor, and it was a good team. It was easy to do with somebody else. Being a puppeteer is not easy on any level, being alone or with a group, but it was probably the best fit for us as a couple and a way to make a creative living. It never really was intended as a full-time job, but it became one. The first few years we supplemented income with whatever we could do, construction work, whatever. But then later it became so full-time that that’s all we did.

MP:
How do you feel that your puppetry fits into the broader puppetry tradition?

JP:
In the words of a guy who worked for me, who was a trained puppeteer from Russia – he was the artistic director of the Moscow Regional Puppet Theatre – he said, “You have a very naturalistic approach to puppetry.” And I feel like that’s sort of how we developed. It was just like, “Let’s make a puppet.” There was never any one particular group or inspiration or person that affected us. I think that’s probably the way with a lot of puppeteers. Although some people have a tradition; in Europe, there’s a strong tradition. It’s a high art in many places like Russia – very revered and respected. In Central Europe, as well, there are lots of theatres that devote themselves to puppetry. But in this country, it’s always been sort of a light entertainment at best. Punch and Judy is a big part, originally from the Italian, then to the British tradition, then coming over here. So a lot of it was that, early on. It became part of the novelty act scene. It always was a little more renegade and less structured in terms of very specific ways of doing things and [using] particular puppets. Although there’s always a lot of ethnic influence, so if someone comes over from France, they’d have their own particular way of doing things. The Italians come over with Sicilian marionettes and a very specific way of working. There’s still a big family that works like that out of Westchester County, New York. But I think we’ve always had sort of a naturalistic approach. We developed in a vacuum somewhat, a cultural vacuum, which is not a bad thing, because it allows you to develop your individuality and your own style without being overly influenced by other people around you. If we’re overly influenced by anything, it’s probably early cartoons that we were exposed to, like Disney, Popeye, fairy tales, and things of that nature. I think those influences had a lot to do with the stories we created, the format, and our dramatic sensibilities. For me as a scenic designer, [with] what little expertise I have in that field, I think back to the Museum of Natural History, going there as a kid and looking at the dioramas saying, “Wow, I love how the foreground blends with the background and how everything is beautiful.” So when I create a scene, I think in those terms. I think of a rounded backdrop, and I think of foreground stuff blending in with the background stuff. The additional fact that I have to think of is that I want the puppets to stand out and pop out, so I want the sceneries to be secondary to that. I don’t want them to be too colorful or too busy, so I have to meter that. I think we have developed pretty individually. As far as tradition goes, we’re all part of a tradition. But puppetry is one of those things where it can be anything. There are very specific styles: hand puppets, string puppets, rod puppets. But in general, people develop their own style, and that’s what we did, I think.

MP:
I know that you adapt stories from other cultures – folk tales, and things like that. Could you tell me about how you approach adapting stories from cultures that aren’t necessarily your own?

JP:
Our casts are always multi-racial, and the motivation for that was to have individual characters that were different. And we could do accents and make them look different and interesting. So it wasn’t so much a cultural thing or borrowing a culture. In fact, almost all of our shows are original – more than three quarters of our shows have been original, maybe even more than that. For one of our first shows, The Villain’s Mustache, the theme was borrowed from an old time novelty [act] song. It’s loosely based on the song, so in that way it’s not an original idea, but it’s an original treatment of that song to create a show out of it and to create a whole storyline behind it. For instance, we do one called Hiawatha. Yes, it’s based on a Native American hero, but it’s not taking from a certain tradition, so it’s not from a Native American puppetry tradition. We’re just trying to tell a story that tells the true story of who Hiawatha was and his importance and place in American history. But really, our primary concern in every one of our puppet shows is the puppetry [in all its aspects]. We try to do a quality example of puppetry as an art form and all that entails, which is sculpture, music, movement, acting, lighting, set design. We try to do the best job we can and keep most of it in-house, and that’s been a hallmark of our troupe in that most of the stuff has been done by us. Occasionally we have help, especially in our later shows with some music and some voicings and stuff like that, but mostly it’s created all by us. A more recent show – although again, our recent stuff was ten years ago or more, when we did our last full production – was called The Lion’s Whiskers. We borrowed that from Ethiopia, and it’s a great story. It wasn’t long enough and wasn’t big enough to create a whole puppet show out of it, so we had to add things. But you try to become real sensitive to the culture, and one way to do that is to listen to the music or watch movies that have, say, Ethiopian themes or people in them. When we were in Washington performing at the Smithsonian and researching that show, we would go to the Ethiopian community in Washington and eat and make friends with people and talk and find out what some words might be and how we could then infuse those things into the show and they could see more of that. We try to be as accurate as we can, but you’re always making a little flub or pronunciation mistake; you’re not always quite as accurate as you can be. But there was a lot of research that went into most of our shows, even if they were fantasy and fictional – you’d want to make them more or less ring true. It’s been tough; you have to be your own censor in this business of children’s entertainment especially. I guess the record’s out [on] whether we’ve been good censors or not. Sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot by dialogue or overly stereotyping certain characters. I think what people don’t really understand [is that] it’s politically incorrect to stereotype people and to make them certain things based on their ethnicity or how they look. But in theatre, especially puppet theatre, where you don’t have facial expressions to work with, stereotyping is a way of getting lots of information across very quickly, and hopefully it’s not negative stereotyping, it’s something that you can use to help identify a character and get the point across as to who that person is and where they’re from and what they do. Sometimes if an accent is a little too thick, it might be offensive. If it’s just right, then it’s understandable and it also tells you the story that this person is actually Chinese person who lives on the California frontier during the Gold Rush. But again, it’s a fine line between being negative and positive when you’re stereotyping. But it’s a tool that you use dramatically, so we’ve had to walk that line a lot. Culturally, we always try to do a lot of research, and ultimately we’re trying to serve the story, wherever it’s from. The overriding concern is always the quality of puppetry as an art form and trying to present that to people as something in its own right, valuable in its own right. And I say that because working in the schools for thirty plus years, it’s been important not to jump on the bandwagons all the time: sex education, drug education, multiculturalism – they come up every five years – and arts in ed., where “hands-on” is more important, or participation is more important. So there are different things that become buzzwords and that people look for and become fashionable. Or just curriculum orientation: how is this related to math? How is it related to history? How is it related to English? And there’s a trend to that now, even, with the structures for learning. I’ve spent a lot of time, like a lot of disciplines, trying to justify [my puppetry] just as an art form in its own right. I know folklore has been that way. I spent some time back in ’76 where that was a concern, trying to talk about whether that was an actual science, was it a valid pursuit. It seems silly, but then a lot of disciplines have to justify themselves. And you’re that way in schools a lot. You’re not just a novelty, you have to justify yourself as an art form, so you try to create your stuff as well as you can, and pass it off as that and not necessarily “this is good for math.” That approach has worked for us; people have accepted that, so it’s been good.

MP:
Going back a little bit, you mentioned performing at the Smithsonian. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

JP:
There was a great little theatre called the Discovery Theatre right in the Arts and Industries Building. A woman named Roberta Gaspari gave me a call. We were pretty busy at the time – this was probably sometime in the mid- to late nineties, maybe even a little later – but she liked our stuff, and I’m not even sure how she found out about us. She called me up and asked if we’d be willing to come down for a couple weeks, maybe a month. She’d put us up and give us a modicum amount of money. It was way below my normal fee, but fortunately at that time it was so busy that we had two crews running pretty much full-time. I had enough staff on hand, people trained to be able to go out and do shows and do the normal schedule, and then I could take off with someone and go do the Smithsonian. Sometimes I was with my wife, Carol, sometimes it was with another puppeteer. We did pretty much every one of our shows there for extended runs. It was for kids to be bussed in and have the theatrical experience. Mostly for young kids, so it was really young grade school kids. They would come in and sit in the small little theatre and experience going out to the theatre, the behavior that’s required at a show, hopefully learn something, and hopefully be entertained. It was a lot of fun for us. It didn’t pay a lot of money, but the experience was great because we got to be in Washington, D.C. for a month. They put us up in really nice places in Georgetown or in various other places where we could stay. They helped to feed us and we got to go out and eat in these great restaurants. So it was really nice, and in our spare time we hit all the museums, the Potomac River is right there. So we could get up to the river and look at Great Falls and do a little boating on that. It was a good time. It was an honor to have almost all of our shows [there]. The only show we haven’t done there is our latest one, called The Town That Fought Hate. That one would have been nice if it could have gotten into the Holocaust Museum in Washington, but I didn’t really have a contact there. We were at the Discovery Theatre for all of our shows: The Willow Girl for Asian-American month, Hiawatha for Native-American month, Lion’s Whiskers for African-American month. [START OF TRACK 2, 0:00] And it’s always been a bit of a thrill and a kick that we could represent these cultures for the Smithsonian, being basically white people performing puppet shows with puppets that are obviously culturally different than us. The shows being of museum quality and accurate enough to stand up to the rigors of [the Smithsonian]. And we’ve gotten some really nice letters from people. We did Ivan’s Three Wishes for Russian-American month, and we got a really nice letter from a Russian woman. We met some really nice Ethiopian people who loved the Ethiopian show. So it’s been actually a very gratifying experience. As we ended our runs there, they unfortunately closed the Arts and Industries Building, and the theatre moved in some form to the Natural History Museum. I’m not sure what form they take now or whether they do mostly their own productions or bringing in outside groups, but I think they’re trying to save money. They have a staff of a few folks who create their own shows and entertain and educate that way. So I don’t know what state they’re in right now. I think the Arts and Industries Building is still closed, and they’re either going to renovate or it’s on hold or something. It’s in transition. But we had a great run at the Smithsonian, and it was an honor to be there. It was fun.

MP:
Could you tell me a little more about your Holocaust-related show?

JP:
That was one of the few things we ever got commissioned to do. It was a very nice commission; they asked for a budget. They first contacted us and said they had an author who had just written this book called the Christmas Menorahs, and it was based on a real life incident, and would we be interested in creating a puppet show about it to address the Holocaust curriculum in New Jersey, which is mandated by the state. So we said, “Uh, I guess.” We met with the author. We met with Young Audiences of New Jersey, an arts umbrella organization that sells the arts to the schools. We met and decided we’d give it a shot. It was a difficult task; it’s not a pleasant story at first. The whole story has a big positive spin on it, but it’s not a nice story about hate crimes and people trying to start hate groups and that kind of thing. So it’s a difficult one to tell little kids. On top of that, there’s not a whole lot of movement in it, and puppetry thrives on movement – doing things. So you have to create things to do. You have to tell a story with movement and include interesting things that the puppets do. It was a formidable task to make this story, which is a tough story to tell because of the nature of the story but also it’s not one that’s an action story. It’s something that’s psychological. So my wife wrote the storyline. We got together with some folks who helped a little bit. [We] pulled all kinds of people from everywhere, because of the contracting situation. It takes six months to create a show if two people are working on it pretty much full time. For this one, we had less than four months, and we already had the first show booked somewhere in New Jersey before the contract was actually signed and people could settle their differences (it wasn’t us, it was the other parties involved). Once we realized we only had four months, we had put a budget of about a hundred thousand dollars to create the show. That was because we were [furnishing] a van and [buying] full sound equipment and state-of-the-art lighting. It turned out that they didn’t have that much money; they had maybe fifty thousand dollars. So that’s what the grant was for. That knocked out any kind of touring situation, and we had plenty of money to build a show, but we had to hire people to get it done on time. So we did, and we hired some interesting people. One was a guy (part of a group called Finjan, which is a klezmer group out of Winnipeg), a friend that we had met doing the children’s theatre circuit in Canada. He came down – great musician – and he also utilized his whole band to help create the soundtrack and digitize it and brought it back to Toronto. He came down and worked with us on it and then brought back the raw material and digitized it and created a finished soundtrack, which still had to be edited eventually and redone [and] reworked. But it was still a great bit of work. So money went to things like that. We paid a muralist who we’d met who it turns out has a connection to the Holocaust in Europe. Her father was part of a Kindertransport when he was young – I’m not sure where he was from, [maybe] Romania. But he got caught up in the Holocaust and wound up escaping to this country and married a court reporter that was part of the Nuremberg Trials. Their daughter, named Yetti, is a great muralist from the Boston-Salem area, and she helped make some of the shadow puppets in the show. We also worked with this Russian fellow I was telling you about, Nikolai Shishkin, who unfortunately is dead now. He got murdered in Moscow about three years ago. I worked with him; I was on the road with the guy for three years or so. His daughter had just gotten out of the Soviet Union as it collapsed. She came over and we employed her to paint a backdrop for part of the show. She’s a great artist now – she’s actually a famous modern artist out of New York, and she does all kinds of work all over the world. So she painted one of the backdrops for the show. We hired everyone we could – neighbors to sew curtains. We built this thing quick and in a hurry and created this show. It never got to the Holocaust Museum, but it’s been at many Holocaust centers [and] JCCs [Jewish Community Centers]. Every year, twice a year, it goes to a Holocaust museum in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and we get to do things like participate in a symposium between local school kids – usually high school kids – and survivors from the Holocaust. [They] go to a luncheon, they get to watch the show, then there’s a discussion about that. The kids get to not only talk about the show but talk to these survivors about their experiences. It’s a pretty rare opportunity, since survivors are becoming fewer and fewer. So we’ve gotten chances to do things like that. We went to New Orleans; we performed in the Ninth Ward. I think it was for ten days or so, to most of the schools in that area that bussed kids in to see the show. It was just before Katrina hit, so it was all still intact New Orleans. We have not taken this show to Billings, Montana, where the original story takes place, unfortunately. We’ve had it all over the country, but mostly in New Jersey and the New York area. We did a tour of the North Country library system, too. The show itself is about a hate group trying to start in Billings, Montana during the year 1993. Someone throws a rock through a Jewish kid’s window because he has a menorah in it. The town council gets together and decides to print menorahs in the paper, and six to ten thousand families put the menorahs in their windows in support of what happened. That effectively stopped the hate crimes. It became national news; a documentary film was made of it. A children’s book was written called the Christmas Menorahs; Bill Pullman, the actor, read the book on NPR a few years later. It’s gotten a lot of play. It’s the story of a community standing up to the bullies that were trying to bully the minorities. It wasn’t just Jewish people: it was Native people, people of mixed marriages (Native and white), and also black churches were being terrorized. Nobody got killed in this particular incident, but lots of people got their windows broken, ‘til finally they won. It became an inspirational story for everybody, and we’ve performed it quite a bit. It’s been a good show for us.

MP:
To go back a little bit, it sounds as though your music and your puppetry have intersected quite a bit. Would you tell me a little bit about that?

JP:
The very first form that our puppetry took had a musical overture to every show, hence the name Catskill Puppet Productions and Antique Musical Revue. We would do a musical revue, and sometimes that would include novelty acts, original songs, fiddle tunes, clog dancing, novelty instruments. It would be fast paced, usually a four- or five-tune overture to the show designed basically to get the energy up, introduce ourselves to the audience, get them responding to us either by singing along, clapping along, or dancing along, thereby going into a puppet show that had live music during the entire thing, plus accompanying music for the songs. All our shows are musical in that way in that they have songs that advance the character and the storyline. So they all had music in them always, but it was a very formal musical set in the beginning, and then a live musician playing to accompany. Once we got away from the live musician in front, we still kept that format of music in the front, but now it was a two-person group. We would still keep it about three or four tunes, once again designed to get people responding to us so that they understand that it’s not a static show, it’s not TV. This is something that you can talk to the audience and talk to the puppets with. Early on, there was a big interactive thing, a big improvisational thing, as we live-voiced everything, as long as we could work within the confines of the soundtrack, which was relentlessly running. You learn how to do that and make asides and improvise and change time a little bit as long as you can get back to where you’ve got to be in the soundtrack. You learn how to do that. So the music that we created had those little liberties left in them. We would play live music, fiddle and guitar music. Our kids early on would be clog dancers for us and they would do a little thing, so it was a family operation. We would very laboriously create the music behind the songs and the entrances and exits and the stuff that helps develop character at home. It would take about a week or more to record a soundtrack. That’s not write it – you’re writing all the stuff before that, including the music. But it would take about a week to record a thirty to forty-five minute soundtrack, and then to mix it down, and to make it usable, and tweak it. Most of our early shows, we did all the music ourselves. Occasionally we’d get somebody that was better at playing the piano or fiddle to come in, play, and help out on some of the music. Later, as we went to record voicings, we would still do the music ourselves, but would have people help out with specialty music or specialty voices, to help diversify. Our son did the voices of several of the shows. He was a young boy at the time, perfect for the young boys in the show. Sometimes when Carol writes a show, it’s with that intent. She’s trying to be on the level of the kids who the show is being performed [for] so they have a character to relate to and they can put themselves in that place. And the music has always been an important part, going back to Disney and the emotional impact that music has in film and old cartoons and animated stories. We lean on music a lot to help create the mood, be it comic or serious throughout the shows, in addition to the overtures, which now we’ve disbanded. We don’t do overtures; we’ve created longer shows that are full-length, forty-five minutes. That little ten or fifteen minutes of music that we used to put in front of the shows, we don’t do. We only have one show that we do that format in, and that’s with our old time melodrama. It seems fitting to keep it in that one. That’s about a half-hour show, with a fifteen-minute musical segment in front. But that’s really the only show we do the live music in front of. We do a lot of music, but it’s always separate: for dances, or for weddings, or for events. In combination with puppets, it’s become basically a soundtrack that we created, so we’re still doing it.

[TRACK 2, 14:10]

MP:
How did you get started playing traditional music?

JP:
I started because I was hitchhiking out of the Experimental College and saw a dulcimer with a guy that picked me up. I didn’t know what it was, so I made some sketches. When I got back to Stony Brook, I looked into a thing called [the] Whole Earth catalogue. And lo and behold, under D was dulcimer, and a guy named Howie Mitchell made dulcimer kits according to his own fashion. They were a little bit changed from the traditional instruments: they had a floating fingerboard on one end, had four strings, and an extra fret. So they were different than traditional instruments, but I immediately sent away for some. I got some wood, sent away for the plans, and made one. I liked it and people liked it, and next thing I know I was teaching classes and building instruments and teaching people how to build dulcimers. So I built a few. And at that time, it’s silly to say, but I just liked the way the fiddle players looked. They looked like they were having such a good time playing the fiddle. And I thought, I want to learn to play the fiddle somehow. My girlfriend at that time gave me a fiddle, and I was sort of embarrassed in learning how to play it. I took lessons with a woman – that was part of the deal in the Experimental College, to share your knowledge – [who] happened to be a very good violinist. She taught me a G scale and how to hold it, and it became obvious I was not going to be a violinist. [I] became more interested in an easier, more relaxed way of playing, which is fiddling. [I] started learning fiddle tunes, but the fiddle tunes I learned were silly little ditties that were the simplest of simple things. It’s cliché now, but things like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” At this point we were starting a clown band, so I was playing “The Saints Come Marching In,” just little ditties like that. So I wouldn’t call it traditional music, it was just playing something that I could use for what I was doing. But I became aware of a guy named Allan Block who had some recordings out and was very interesting. His music seemed very accessible to me [and] his fiddle style was simple enough so I could understand it. I started learning some of the tunes off of a record that he made. I liked them, and he also did some nice vocals. Carol is a guitar player, so we immediately started playing some guitar and fiddle together and singing. And that was really my first entrée into traditional music on the fiddle. [On] the dulcimer, I was aware of Jean Ritchie and some of the dulcimer players, but I was playing my own thing. It wasn’t straight traditional stuff. But I became interested in traditional music right about then. It was probably around the year ’72, ’73. I was already nineteen or twenty years old, so I got a late start in music that way. I didn’t play much before that, played a little harmonica, maybe a few chords on the guitar, but that was about it. I hadn’t really messed around with music much in high school, or even early parts of college. Maybe a little harmonica in the first year of college or two, but that was it. And I didn’t play much with people; it was always just for my own pleasure. But fiddling became a big thing a couple years later, and I’ve stuck with it and [become] aware of the incredible repertoire. It never seems to diminish – it’s always just more and more, more you have to learn. It’s kind of funny – I’ve always been interested in what makes people from different backgrounds want to adopt a culture. One name rings a bell, Rafe Stefanini. He’s Italian, but he’s a great bluegrass player and old-time player. [There are] other guys. There’s a great Irish fiddler who’s French, Patrick Rousseau. But he plays great Irish fiddle. So people tend to adopt things that they really have a sense for, and that always interested me as far as revivalists. One thing that really got in my craw was that studying as a folklorist, there wasn’t any interest in revivalists. There were interests only in people who grew up with a history and a tradition. They learned from their parents and they learned from their parents’ parents. And there is a certain value in that, there certainly is, because then you can trace where the tunes come from. But I think the truth is as soon as people started traveling, transport became easier, maybe since there were trains… and then later, you didn’t have to travel to hear different types of music, all you had to do was turn the radio on. And that was the early part of the twentieth century. Since then, people have been exposed to music that was not just played by their parents or uncles and aunts. They were exposed to stuff all over the world on the radio, then later TV and records. So even relatively unsophisticated people had access to incredible music from all over the world that they could then reproduce on some phonograph and learn. So people have expanded, and it’s made the whole world of cultural music available to people, and you could choose what you wanted to play. That’s an interesting thing that circumvents the folkloric way of learning: passed down through, passed down through. Now all of a sudden you’re learning what you want, and I don’t think it’s any less valid. I think you’re still carrying on whatever tradition you choose, you’re carrying it on. And you know what, changing it is fine too, because tradition changes. Tunes change over time, and when somebody plays it, that’s a good thing too. Sometimes I find it a little bit rigid, the ideas and thinking of the way things have to be studied. There’s a place and time for that. But I think there’s also a rich new tradition that people are perpetuating of adopting culture, taking it and using it as a base, and even expanding upon that. Making it something different – their own. I think that’s always interesting. And to be fair, music is one of those things where if you are a musician, I think you probably should be interested in the music and the really raw elements of the music which are the sound and the emotion it conveys and not so much what tradition it comes from or the specifics of it. Those are secondary, I think, at least in how I approach things. I’m more interested in good music than the particulars.

MP:
Where did you learn your tunes?

JP:
All over. Sometimes I learn them in blocks of three, four, five tunes. Lately, in the last few years, I’ve been in a few different types of bands that have been stretching my abilities a little bit and making things more challenging. I’ve had to learn very specific tunes for a particular band. It’s not stuff I would learn normally, but if you play with a bluegrass band, you’d better learn how to play bluegrass. Now, with the way computers are, it’s incredibly easy to go to YouTube and learn anything you want to learn: how to fix your roof to how to play the fiddle or the dulcimer and how to make one and how to do anything you want to do. So any tune that you have, no matter how obscure, you can always check on YouTube, and more than likely it’s going to be there. If it’s not, you can find at least some of the music for it. I learn almost 100% by ear, so I read [music], but I don’t read very well, so I never use it. I learn everything by ear, and YouTube is where I learn a lot of tunes now, and you can also learn different versions. But most of my learning has been utilitarian in the last four or five years, or maybe even more. It’s been for groups that I’m playing with, and I need to learn these tunes for this next gig, a group of five or ten tunes. So that’s what we’ll do, and often times we don’t even rehearse, we just simply learn the tunes and come together and rehearse at the gig. So that’s where I learn them. Sometimes I hear something on the radio and I love it and I’ll click on the tape recorder and just record a snippet of it and try to learn that. Or I’ll try to remember the name and look it up later. But usually, the most successful tunes I keep in my repertoire, the ones that really strike me, I like the way they sound. The tunes I learn for utility – I have to do this gig, or this bride wants these five tunes – they tend to come and go. I may know them, but I’m going to forget them because I don’t play them and they’re not something I was drawn to by the sound. I just had to learn how to play them, so I did. There’s a bulk of stuff like that. I’m playing with a country band now – I’m talking about Top 40 country – it’s not my cup of tea, really. It lends itself to fiddle playing, [but] it’s a different type of fiddle playing. So I have to learn all that stuff. Some of it is tough – it’s all a learning experience. Mostly I pick tunes I like, and I’ve been writing tunes for the last couple years, and I’ve never really written much music. When I say writing, I mean making up tunes, and I still have yet to record them so I don’t forget them. I give them a name so I can remember them. I have a bulk of forty or fifty tunes that I’ve written and try to remember and play on occasion to refresh my memory. I think it’s more important for me right now to make my own music and play my own tunes. Sometimes I do that, and sometimes if I’m playing with a group and they don’t know my tunes, I’ll just play the stock repertoire, whatever it happens to be. But it’s hard. You change yourself, you stretch yourself around. You play a little jazz, a little bit of this thing, a little of that. There are so many tunes to choose from and so many different repertoires, it’s just nuts. You can’t learn them all.

MP:
That’s true. Well, we’re close to wrapping up. Is there anything you’d like to add?

JP:
I know I’ve been talking on and on and on, but you’re a good interviewer because you don’t interrupt. I know you can’t get a word in edgewise when I’m going. But just that my focus in life has become to live as creative a life as possible and make a living. But I’ve never really been obsessed with money, and that’s a good thing if you’re going to be a musician and a puppeteer. As long as you have enough, that’s all you need. I’ve been able to do it. I’ve been able to actually make a living in the arts. In some weird way, I studied the folk culture and studied the folk, but I maybe was never very comfortable on that side of the microphone, interviewing and talking. Although I’m always interested in what people’s lives are like and what they’re doing, I guess I became more interested in being one of the folk rather than studying the folk. So I live in an old farmhouse, and I’ve been playing the fiddle for so many years. Doing what I do, following a folk art like puppetry, which is not a formal art, at least not in this country. I’ve just sort of stepped on the other side of the microphone. And here I am, on this side of the microphone. [laughs]

MP:
Well, thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.

JP:
Well, thanks for letting me go on and on.

MP:
No, that was really great.

JP:
Good. Unfortunately, it’s a lot to transcribe, I know.

MP:
No problem.

JP:
Good.

Duration

30:00
27:00

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps

Files

John Potcnik.jpg

Citation

Miranda Pettengill, “John Potocnik, November 7, 2014,” CGP Community Stories, accessed May 21, 2022, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/193.