- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) - Puppets laugh and puppets cry in the hands of Dan Fitzke. By bringing life to puppets, the Juniata man has brought a new way for children to enjoy church at the Evangelical Free Church in Hastings.About once a month, Fitzke brings puppets to children’s church to perform skits that help drive home the message being delivered that day. His collection includes a variety of characters, the Hastings Tribune reported.The kids’ favorite seems to be Tina the Ballerina, a star in the making who tends to be a diva. She often tries new stunts that go awry. There is also a boy named Conrad with his “Got Jesus” shirt, Zipper the chipmunk and Pierre the chef. Some are basic hand puppets with a mouth that opens and closes. Others are hand-and-rod puppets that allow hand gestures for the character.To Fitzke, the most meaningful hand puppet is Stripes, a homemade tiger given to Fitzke by his grandmother. His name comes from Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 that state, “by His stripes, we are healed.”The puppets can fit into any lesson. Tina and her friends have problems just like anyone else, but through the skits, the children learn they are loved and not alone. “It helps kids connect with God’s message,” he said. “We can have fun and still be in church.”The puppets are a far cry from his day job as a welder at Thermo King Corp. Fitzke has worked at the company for 17 years and as a welder for about five years. Behind each puppet, Fitzke gives the character a different voice, mannerisms and personality.Growing up, Fitzke enjoyed programs like the “Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street.” He was impressed by the range of emotions the inanimate objects could demonstrate to become lifelike.”I was always fascinated with how puppeteers could give personality to a puppet,” he said.As he got older, he started giving voices to stuffed animals as a way to connect with younger children.Fitzke first used his knack for puppeteering when he and his wife, Amanda, became involved in the children’s church at Juniata Community Church for about three years. Fitzke is quick to point out that he is not a ventriloquist, the distinction being that ventriloquists throw their voice to the puppet.”My lips definitely move,” he said. His mother-in-law is a ventriloquist and provided a tote of homemade puppets toward his endeavor. At first, he just used puppets belonging to the church, but as word of his endeavor spread, friends and family donated puppets to Fitzke. The five- to 10-minute skits were mostly made up on the fly as a way to break up the church service for children. Now, Fitzke tries to tailor his puppet skits to fit with the message. The family began attending the Evangelical Free Church about five years ago. Word got around that Fitzke was a puppeteer, and the youth director asked if he would be interested in helping with the children’s church. Fitzke said he has appreciated the support from both churches to allow him to explore his artistic side with puppeteering.”It’s nice to be able to do something to connect with the kids,” he said. “It’s a way to break it up for them. It’s nice to have something to look forward to.”He said the puppets also have helped him connect with his own children, Liam, 5, Brennan, 3 and Eva, 6 months - though Eva is a bit young for the puppets. “My two boys are all over it,” he said. “I have learned they listen to the puppet and not Dad.”


Information from: Hastings Tribune, https://www.hastingstribune.com

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