August 13, 2012 by JoBe Cerny
The first week I was in college, I met Rusty Steiger. I remember one of the first things we did was staged a mock gunfight in the cafeteria in Dow Hall during the evening study hall time. We pretended our fingers were guns and created all the gun sounds with our voices. We dove over tables and died several times to the applause of fellow students who needed a study break. Rusty was a physics major and I was pre-sem. Somehow we both ended up as Speech & Drama majors, and we worked on twenty-six theatrical productions together in college. Rusty was best man at my wedding. After graduation we didn’t see each other for several years. Rusty moved to New York, and took an interest in puppet theatre. He got to know Jim Henson and got very proficient at making hand and rod puppets. Rusty was a very talented singer and played leads in many musicals, but his instrument of choice was the accordion. While he was in New York, he wrote and produced a puppet musical for children called Swinging Thru The Trees. It was a Tarzan puppet musical. The musical track was written for an accordion, drums, bass and clarinet. The puppets were large enough to play large outdoor venues. Rusty’s puppet company was The Hutsah Puppet Theatre. “Hutsah” was a silly word Rusty made up as a fictitious jungle greeting. He was very good at getting a crowd of kids screaming “Hutsah” at the top of their lungs.
When Rusty moved to Chicago, he contacted me and played the sound track of the show for me, and I thought it was great. At the time, Rusty and I were in the production of The Magic Man with David Copperfield at The First Chicago Center. When the show closed, I approached the manager of The First Chicago Center about staging Swinging Thru the Trees as a Holiday show for kids in the 500 seat theatre. She sold the idea to the Bank, and they sponsored the show and brought bus loads of children downtown. It was an astonishing success! During the month of December we did fifty-eight performances to packed houses. It was an interactive show that kept the kids excited, laughing, and happy as they met Tarzan, Jane, Chucka the Chimp, and Hoogi-Toogi the Elephant whose big musical number was “I Love to Eat!” (thirty-six years later, I still sing that song when I open our refrigerator door) Big Bad Bwana Bob was the bad guy who turned out not to be so bad once he gave up his gun (I guess that was our way of setting a good example for kids not to play with guns after our cafeteria mock shoot-out which was probably not appropriate.). The actor who did the voice of Big Bob went on to become the voice of Disney’s villain, Jaffar, in the animated film, Alladin.
Staging Swinging Thru the Trees was a great experience that delighted hundreds of kids and made a big impression on the people at The First National Bank. The bank funded the program and the kids got free admission. It was a great good-will gesture that gained a lot of publicity for the bank, and we gained a powerful ally with The First National Bank of Chicago. But, Rusty had a dream project on the back burner he wanted to produce. Sometimes, the time is ripe for a good idea. With the success of our first puppet show, the bank was willing to listen. At first blush, the project sounded absolutely insane. And maybe that is why it was so perfect. Our next production was going to be a two hour long puppet show for adults! Hutsah!!
-To Be Continued-