Marion puppet master makes life's work entertaining kids

Sep 4, 2015

For Vinny Lovegrove, puppets aren’t just child’s play, they’re his bread and butter.

A Rochester native who now lives in Marion, Lovegrove is half of the duo behind The Toe Jam Puppet Band. Since 2002, he and singer-songwriter Tom Poitras have entertained kids and adults with their musical variety show, gaining a following around New England.

Lovegrove’s parents were self-employed as scrimshaw artists, so he said, “I had that kind of local arts and crafts built right into my everyday life.”

After graduating from Old Rochester, he studied sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. While there Lovegrove became involved in the nonprofit art scene and theater. He was also introduced to a large scale puppet theater group.

“I’d always been interested in kids stuff and entertainment," he said. "I can’t say I was really that interested in puppets until I got introduced to these folks who do big giant puppets and sometimes cast forty people, fifty people in a show.”

When he moved back home, Lovegrove got involved with the arts community in New Bedford and eventually created the Miracle Fish Puppet Theater, featuring life size and sometimes larger puppets that he crafted himself.

Poitras saw Lovegrove's act and suggested they form the Toe Jam Puppet Band. The collaboration was a hit, and the pair now perform 250 shows a year, mostly in New England but also as far as Kansas City.

“It was kind of a fluke,” Lovegrove said of the Kansas engagement. “Some folks hired us to bring our Halloween show to an Irish festival.”

He and Poitras have honed their shows over time, though many of the songs have remained the same.

“It almost feels like an old vaudeville thing,” Lovegrove said. “We’re discovering new stuff about it. The kids are just super excited to be there, and because of that a lot of different things can happen.”

The combination of songs, puppets and humor as well as the interactive element makes the shows fun and frenzied.

As the song “Green Light-A-Go-Go” gets going, “It gets seemingly out of control,” said Lovegrove. “Up to this date, no kids have actually exploded during one of our shows.”

In addition to good song writing, the magic of the Toe Jam Puppet Band is being goofy but not putting kids on display who don’t want the attention.

“There’s not a lot of embarrassment, also not a lot of dignity,” joked Lovegrove. “We don’t worry about looking silly. The kids are very much invited to be as much a part of the show as possible.”

The band keeps Lovegrove pretty busy, but like many artists, he also finds time to create new things and explore other interests. Lovegrove continues to create his own puppets, coming up with new characters – a troll with a Brooklyn accent, a tree person with a kind disposition – and has also ventured into bubble territory. He recently created large wands that form giant bubbles.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if I come up with a few more things in the next couple of years,” he said. “It’s both creative and economics. Doing what I do, you need to have a lot of different pans on the fire.”