The pioneering rock musician Frank Zappa, who died in 1993, and Children’s Fairyland may not seem to have anything in common. But they do, and his name was John Gilkerson. Not surprisingly, puppets were involved.


Musician Frank Zappa with puppets designed by former Fairyland Artistic Director John Gilkerson for a 1984 production of “A Zappa Affair” in Berkeley.

Our worlds collided in a 1984 production of “A Zappa Affair,” performed with the Berkeley Symphony at Zellerbach Hall. Zappa — the singer and guitarist for the Mothers of Invention as well as a prolific songwriter, composer, recording engineer and record producer — had created puppets when he was growing up in Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula. When he couldn’t get the kind of dramatic imagery he wanted in this production from people, he turned instead to puppets.

Enter John Gilkerson. Years before, when he was 10, John had been a Fairyland “Personality” (member of our Children’s Theatre program). He played the role of Prince Charming, and he was particularly drawn to our puppet theater and to Lewis Mahlmann, our master puppeteer for many decades.

It was at Fairyland that Gilkerson learned puppetry design as well as costuming, acting and narration. He later attended Skyline High School in Oakland, where he starred in a production of “My Fair Lady” with his best friend, Tom Hanks. As an adult, John served as the park’s artistic director during the 1978-79 season.

John wore many other hats. He was a singer with the Lamplighters for 10 years, as well as an actor, puppeteer, dancer and costume designer. He designed 10 ballets for the Oakland Ballet and many others for Dance Theater of Harlem and the Joffrey Ballet. He was also well known as a puppeteer on the Emmy Award-winning television show “Buster and Me.”

“He was just an amazing, amazing man,” says Fairyland’s current master puppeteer, Randal Metz.

Zappa tapped Gilkerson to design and execute the production of “A Zappa Affair,” which involved creating a number of different types of life-size puppets. One style was strapped onto the front of the puppeteer’s body; another was manipulated from behind by five people operating rods to the neck, arms and legs; a third was an assembly line joined together at the arms and hips.

A review in the Puppetry Journal noted that “the whole evening was a trifle bizarre. Not only is Zappa a rugged individual and quite proud of it, but a woman sculptress was measuring his head with giant calipers throughout much of the evening!”

The show, which combined theater, dance and puppetry with Zappa’s music, was a big critical success. It was, as the Oakland Tribune said, “one of those rare times when a wild new concept is fully realized.” The San Francisco Examiner called it “an example of exciting and worthwhile theater.”

You can still hear John’s voice at Fairyland on a number of puppet-show audiotapes. One of particular interest is a tape of “Treasure Island,” in which his 10-year-old voice is heard in the role of Jim Hawkins. Ten years later, Lewis Mahlmann re-edited the tape to feature John as the piece’s narrator — an older Hawkins who’s reminiscing about his life. We hear John at ages 10 and 20 on the same tape.

This recording was discussed recently at a meeting — held at Fenton’s on Piedmont Ave. — of the Skyline 1974 class reunion committee: the class that included Tom Hanks and John Gilkerson.

John C. Gilkerson died in 1990 at the age of 34.

When Tom Hanks won the Academy Award in 1994 for his performance in “Philadelphia” — one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to acknowledge HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and homophobia — he acknowledged his good friend.

“I would not be standing here if it weren’t for two very important men in my life,” Hanks said. “Mr. Rawley Farnsworth, who was my high school drama teacher, who taught me to act well the part, there all the glory lies. And one of my classmates under Mr. Farnsworth, Mr. John Gilkerson.

“I mention their names because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age. I wish my babies could have the same sort of teacher, the same sort of friends.”

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