I open the door to Paris in Plantsville, a small, cozy art gallery and studio, when I hear the bell ring to announce my arrival. I glance around for my elusive cousin Jonathan, who can frequently be found at the gallery, and peer my head around the corner. I see him standing in the corner with a co-worker, admiring a piece of art on display for the Halloween themed open gallery, and looking casual in a t-shirt and wearing converse, as usual. His head shining partially bald at the age of 36, a shocking sight when compared to the head of hair he had as a teen, and I see his trademark beard that wraps around his face, which I acquaint him with. He has a smile on as usual, and he looks ready to laugh at any moment. He greets me joyously and brings me to the humble back porch, decorated by the creative artists at the gallery.
We catch up on our lives; He tells me everything’s been going great. I tell him about school and the usual, making that small talk that’s always required when you haven’t seen a family member in some time. We eventually migrate inside to escape the roaring winds, and settle down into some office chairs in the back studio. We make ourselves comfortable and he looks at me with a face that says let’s get this show on the road. His desk is to my left, with a few papers scattered across it, a pencil, and some pictures of his puppets. He looks eager to answer my questions and smiles at me. We begin to talk about puppetry: his hobby, talent, and passion in life. Jonathan is the man who started a company called Elmwood Productions, a small film production/puppet making company that he runs with his friends and family, named after Jon’s hometown of Elmwood, Connecticut. “It’s like something that was always there. I grew up obsessed playing with my toy puppets all of the time, and it just kind of stuck. I think the first time I took it seriously was in my early twenties”, he says about how he became interested in puppeteering. “My earliest memories are, like, watching the Muppet Show on Sundays, and then like after kindergarten just like, putting the records on, you remember records? And like trying to lip sing with the puppets to them and hoping people would watch me do little shows, and no one did”. His love for the Muppets is a well-known fact. In fact Jon can frequently be seen wearing a Kermit The Frog t-shirt, and if that isn’t enough for him, he’s got Kermit tattooed on his arm for his permanent viewing pleasure. "If you asked me when I was six years old what I wanted to be when I grow up, I would have said Kermit the frog", he says with a chuckle. He tells me he didn’t become interested in working with puppets until he realized that they were more then just toys; “People actually do this”, he says. The rest is Elmwood Puppets history.
When telling me about the beginnings of his company he says it wasn’t until after he had tried some other things in life when the curiosity of what comic book art would look like in a 3D form sparked in his mind. “That was after I had tried a couple other things in life as far as creative outlets. I did comic art for a few years, I really enjoyed that too, and then I was looking at some of my drawings, and I was curious about what they would look like in three dimensions…and it just clicked, like, the love of puppets and the Muppets, it just clicked.”, he says, as if it wasn’t a decision he had any control over. After his move back to Connecticut from Florida, where he spent most of his free time indoors working on puppets due to the extreme heat, he met up with his friend Russ Bird, who was interested in film making as well. "We started throwing ideas at each other, next thing you know we were literally writing scripts and just making our friends come over to my apartment and do puppetry. They didn't know how to do it… and that was the start of Elmwood Productions." He gives me a brief synopsis of how the company was named. He says, “It’s catchy, you know? Elmwood Productions. It’s better than like, Dingle Berry Productions”. I laugh; his humor never fails to be ridiculous, and to put a smile on my face. I ask how he taught himself to make puppets, he replies that he read a lot of books, "I hit like every library in town…if I could check the book out then I would, and if I couldn’t, I brought my camera and took pictures of it". He was dedicated to learning this art, and had plenty of time to master this skill at that point in his life, as he spent eight hours a day "sitting in the living room, waiting for the inevitable", as he describes it, while he was caring for his mother who was extremely ill with emphysema. Making puppets was relaxing for Jonathan, "The most calm I am is when I’m building puppets", he says. He’s grateful for his love of puppets, it keeps his mind off of the stressful things in life; family, friends, work, etc. “Elmwood kept me going”., he says about his company.
Of course it isn’t always sunshine and rainbows when starting a company up from the ground. He tells me about the struggles to make time for puppeteering while still trying to pay the bills, how hard it can be to find people as committed as he is. “When you’re doing something as odd as puppetry, its not like you have a painting and you hang it in on a wall in a gallery or you have a song and you put it on iTunes. This is just weird, it’s just hard to get the doors open, especially in the puppetry community too because they’re so tight knit and secretive, which is sad in a way because if people were more open about it, then there would be more of it out there”. Jon says about the obstacles of puppetry. There have been times where he didn’t think starting the company would be possible. I ask him if there were ever times where he felt like quitting. He responds, “Hell yeah, after I got divorced I was just like screw this, you know. I don’t want to do this anymore. I just want to be like everyone else and be the drone and have the job and pay my bills and watch movies on the weekend and this and that.” While going through his divorce, he says he felt like “hanging it up, it was a hassle”. But these types of struggles won’t hold him back, Jon is the type of guy to get back on his feet and keep moving. Having been through his fair share of hardships in life such as the deaths of his older brother, mother, and close friends, he won’t let anything stop him from doing what he loves. “Usually when something bad happens that makes me think about doing that, it just makes me decide to push even harder.” he tells me. When asked about the growth of the company he says, "We started out as a bunch of guys in my living room with a video camera…just making skits and tying them together and trying to get onto public access…we just worked our asses off”. Of course that hard work paid off, and with the help of the Internet and social networking, Elmwood Productions has grown significantly over the years. I say to Jon, “How do you judge the success of your company?”.” He simply says, “Laughter, honest to god”, and eventually recalls a time when an Elmwood Productions film truly impacted someone’s life for the better. “We made a movie that we premiered this year, and a buddy of mine brought his son who was going through a life crisis. Freshman in college and just nothing was going right for him, and that movie just kind of opened his eyes and made him realized that he needed to get out of his fucking shell. I never thought I’d make a movie like that, that actually made a difference to somebody", he says regarding his first film, Josh & Todd: The Story of a Man and his Puppet. The film focuses on Josh, who has a puppet (Todd) move in with him in his apartment, and he must learn to accept Todd and become a more adventurous and outgoing person. Jon and his company have also made short films such as Steve The Vampire, Betty and Me, and Naked Girlfriend. Some people may be more concerned with paying the bills than being happy, but Jon isn’t one of them. "Life’s too short to not do what you care about", he says.
Jonathan isn’t your average man, he’s had an almost countless number of jobs from working in landscaping to running a coffee shop, which prompted me to ask what his plans were when he graduated high school, if any. He says he always wanted to be an artist, he didn’t go to college, and like any other normal kid after high school, he went a little wild the summer after graduating. "I knew I wasn't taking a conventional route", he says about his life. Most young adults today are pressured to follow a certain route after graduating, and Jonathan wasn’t excluded from that crowd, even though times were a bit different eighteen years ago. He tells me about his high school guidance counselor and how she didn’t support his career plans at all; he bitterly describes her job as useless. He recalls on a time when a classmates mother questioned him for not continuing his education, she asked him what he was doing with his life. "I'm going to the school of life", he replies. Some people might not be happy working in a coffee shop, but Jonathan is a people person who makes the best out of any situation. He tells me, "If you're happy, then you're successful". What makes Jonathan so positive and full of life are the experiences he’s been through in his life and the people he’s known. He isn’t afraid to follow his dreams, which is quite an inspiration.
We eventually diverge from the topic of puppeteering and the company. I talk a little bit about my summer job because it involved some puppeteering at my summer camp, and he ends up making a joke about bowel movements, which doesn’t surprise me. He gets a lot of his sense of humor from his late brother Michael, whom he describes as having no filter. "If he wanted to say fuck you, he'd say fuck you. He didn't care", he says about Michael, who had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, (DMD), a disease caused by an absence of the protein dystrophin, which helps keep muscle cells intact. DMD will eventually weaken all voluntary muscles, including some involuntary muscles such as heart and breathing muscles, and survival is rare beyond age thirty. “I think I got a really good perspective on how short life can be…I knew from my youngest years that people were dying around us… so I got that perspective on how short life can be and how precious it is” He shifts his position in his chair. “We were pretty tight". He says it gave him a great perspective on how short life is, he always knew people were dying, and learned that life is precious. "You never knew what was going to happen next", he says about his life with Michael. He goes on to say, "At family functions, I was like a ghost". He may have gotten less attention from the family, but he never let it be an issue because his parents raised him maturely. I ask how Michael’s disease affected Jonathan’s childhood. He says, "I didn't get to do all the normal kid stuff, that's for sure". He talks about how going to MDA (Muscular Dystrophy Association) events were normal weekend activities. He tells me about his memories of riding on the back of Michael’s wheelchair on his skateboard, and it’s clear they weren’t only brothers, but best friends. “There was definitely days where I would just sit down with my brother and hang and we would just draw and talk, and I think that led to a lot of my creativity because we were always drawing characters and coming up with super heroes and monsters and lots of them became puppets I’ve built” He tells me they bonded over their love of comic books, and that love made him wan to draw comic books in the first place, which of course led to puppeteering. "We would sit down and just draw and talk", he says about time spent with Michael. Jon and Michael were in high school for one year together before Michael graduated. Jon says Michael was popular and had a lot of friends; no one ever treated him differently on purpose. "I was this dork, you know. I was not cool", he says about himself.
After his death, "It really sunk in how short life is". He says he realized at that point that you might never do something, and he heard Michael’s voice in his head telling him that if he wanted to work with puppets, to just do it. "If I don't do it now, when will I?” he asks me rhetorically. He says Michael taught him to keep going, as well as the importance of connecting with people and making them laugh. His voice sounds confident and collected, yet nostalgic and caring. After the death he says his parents projected what they wanted from Michael onto him, making him pay rent for example. Jon says he grew up quickly, but he’s grateful for that. He’s always known how to take care of himself. He speaks of his mother and how she reacted after Michael’s death, "She blamed herself. You can't blame yourself, but she did", he tells me. He later says she began to smoke herself to death after Michael passed, giving a perspective on how people deal with loss differently, and how strong of a person Jonathan really is. "There's nothing wrong with moving on, just never forgetting", he says. When asked about what advice Jonathan would give to someone with a family member who has muscular dystrophy, he says “Just be patient, and enjoy every second really. Life is too short, so just have fun. Don’t let it get under your skin while the person is around. When they’re gone then be angry about it if you want to, but don’t be angry in front of them, it’s not worth it.” that they should be patient and enjoy every moment they can. He says it’s a hard thing to have to go through, but life is too short, so you should have fun while you can. It’s not worth it to be angry.
I ask Jon if he has any last parting words for our interview, he blatantly says, “No, I can’t think of anything”. I say to him “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll?”.” He laughs and says, "Yeah! Just sex and rock and roll, I'm too old for drugs, I’ll leave that to the young guys”. He’s never been afraid to make fun of himself; he doesn’t take life that seriously, because he knows it’s too short to not have fun.