How a Koreatown Street-Corner Puppet Show Became a Religious Experience
A recent almighty Opp show ... er, service
On a nondescript street corner a hair north of Koreatown, an infectious five-note ditty emanates into the night repetitiously. The melody is sickeningly sweet and like a maddening loop of ice cream truck music, recontextualizing what would otherwise be an unexciting patch of urban real estate nestled amid closed businesses, strip malls and fast-food joints.
It's the Saturday before Halloween, and a group of relative strangers, some costumed, has huddled around the source of the music, a black shrouded stage erected by masked characters who have arrived on bicycles with a dollhouse full of equipment in tow.
Unsuspecting attendees soon discover that they've stumbled upon almighty Opp, a monthly streetside puppet show. But returning patrons are quick to explain that "puppet show" is shorthand for something the initiated invariably describe as a religious service. This makeshift outdoor performance space at the intersection of Western and Elmwood is their "rebirth place."
I sit next to Solomon Rivera, chief of staff to City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson (whose district doesn't encompass this particular spot). He tells me he's an atheist but has been coming to the Opp since 2011, when he was in search of a "different kind of church."
A narrow metal box is passed to me with a note on it that reads, "Please snip a lock of your hair and place it into this can. Thank you."
Rivera prods, as I skeptically consider the box: "You gotta be a part of the community." I reach inside the box and feel a matted tuft and scissors. I snip. He does, too. Then it begins.
The ice cream truck riff gives way to a tinny voice on a microphone: "almighty Opp is completely safe. You can terminate this session at anytime. You cannot be made to do something against your own will. Almighty Opp can be a safe, relaxing and enjoyable experience." The chorus multiplies, instilling the message over and over before breaking into a discordant fuzz of microphone feedback and radio frequencies that lasts five minutes, long enough to weed out anyone unsure they'd like to continue. It's uncomfortable.
Suddenly, an acoustic guitar breaks through the fuzz and a voice croons, "It'll all be over soon." The crowd erupts with applause and cheers over the pleasant melody. "You think this is a puppet show — ha ha!" a high-pitched voice says. It continues, "While your brain is occupied, we slide something in the other side, la da da da ..."
The show that follows isn't a linear narrative but rather a series of vignettes set to loops of music, created live, featuring acoustic guitar, synthetic drum beats, synths, whistling and whimsical sound effects.
The cast of characters
Courtesy almighty Opp
Handmade puppets are deftly maneuvered with intention or manipulated so that they flail and jitter to the music. There's a puppet snail that wanders aimlessly on the stage; a punk-rock, curb-stomping clown; a bikini-clad dancer. One puppet has a balloon for a head that alternately inflates and deflates, floating upward and downward before launching into the sky and exploding into a cloud of blue and white confetti. There's also Kate, the perfectly normal-looking fat lady, and Smeej, a baby with a distorted face that crawls on all fours. There's a puppet in a wheelchair, and Little Jimmy, the dancing man on a tin can. There's a clown puppet whose marionette hands manipulate strings attached to a smaller, identical version of himself. As windup toys stutter to a halt on the pavement, audience members crawl forward to crank them to life again.
Jeffrey is the puppet with the white face, black hat and elongated nose whose visage is emblazoned on almighty Opp memorabilia, T-shirts and stickers. Jeffrey's Human Persona, on the other hand, is the master of ceremonies; he wears a white mask with a red dot for a nose and candy-red lips. His tattered, fingerless gloves are graying with wear, and a blue mechanic's jumpsuit hugs his lanky frame. He's accompanied by puppeteer Kranko Human Person, whose bald head and face are painted white, save for exaggerated black lips and a red foam nose. Since the show's inception in 2003, their guises have become familiar sights for attendees of almighty Opp, which they describe as "a rapidly growing friendship network."
"It has very little to do with puppets and music," Jeffrey calls from behind the scenes. "What it has a lot to do with is community. So please turn to someone you've never met before, the last person you thought you'd never meet! And meet somebody new in your community. Shake a hand, hug somebody!" The crowd giggles and mutters greetings to one another.
To date, the human Jeffrey has written more than 170 almighty Opp songs for 17 albums, which he gives away at the monthly services or sends to lucky people who've signed the mailing list. Some songs are poignant and metaphorical. Some are caustic and grating. All address rather directly the trials and tribulations of being human, or you know, a puppet on the societal stage. For instance, there's a song about being tethered to heredity, about the follies of ego and how nothing's really in our control except for our attitude or "emotional destiny."
"The central message of almighty Opp is, 'It's OK that it's not OK,'?" Jeffrey tells me by email. "Outside agencies are constantly attempting to convince us that we're flawed and the world around us is horrible. The fact is that everything is in perfect balance ... for every terrible travesty there is an amazingly beautiful counterpoint."
The reprise "It's OK that it's not OK" always makes an appearance at the monthly service, where attendees shout it into the night in unison. For the Opp community, it's become mantra, a source of comfort in the face of stress or hardship.
"'It's OK that it's not OK' is so easy it's difficult to get to on your own," Opp superfan Bradley-Ray Watkins says pensively between cigarettes. "Sometimes it takes hearing that in some other way to really hear it yourself." We meet in a tree house behind a weathered Victorian in Koreatown that's home to self-described freaks. He goes on to describe how almighty Opp has reminded him to curb people-pleasing by "using the power of 'No.'?"
B-Rad, as he's affectionately known, has been attending the Opp with regularity for the past six years. He's developed a personal relationship with Jeffrey through internet correspondence, from deconstructing song lyrics to asking for life advice. One year, almighty Opp serenaded him for his birthday and he crawled through a "birthday tube" that took him backstage, where he performed a song he'd written for the audience. He shows me a loose collection of beloved almighty Opp posters dating back to 2013.
"It's the closest I've come to feeling good about religion ... letting in this spirituality that doesn't feel fake," he says. Despite being so enmeshed, he still doesn't know the true identities of the puppeteers.
Bradley-Ray Watkins has been attending shows for six years.
For someone so shrouded in mystery, Jeffrey's correspondence with me is disarmingly earnest, but there are clever instances of evasion. When I ask why he and Kranko perform as personas, he writes, "I think the transformation aids in surfacing aspects of our personalities that we normally keep hidden," adding, "This is probably a more suitable question for a Catholic priest."
"Who are you when not Opping?" I ask.
"We're another average set of nobodies standing in line behind you at the courthouse waiting to pay for traffic violations," he replies.
Ultimately, it's not about him or Kranko. Jeffrey reiterates that the goal of the service is bringing the community together. "As far as I'm concerned, almost every aspect of almighty Opp is disposable/interchangeable, except for the community that it has created." Remember the hair collection? Before each show, he ingests the smallest clippings in gelatin capsules. "I feel that this somehow connects me more closely to our family of friends and supporters," he writes. Responses like these make me question whether I'm communicating with a real person or a puppet alter ego. Which is more contrived, I wonder. And does it matter?
Though the Opp has spawned a loyal following with its off-kilter approach to spirituality, it turns out that DIY noise-music puppet shows aren't everybody's cup of tea. Occasionally the cops show up to address noise complaints or to needlessly corral people to one side of the sidewalk or to shut down the show altogether. It's hard to imagine that after a 13-year tenure, during which time almighty Opp has twice been recognized by the city of Los Angeles for its altruistic community achievements, it's still subjected to this law enforcement charade. I guess we all have a role to play.
"My favorite puppets are the police, random drunks and homeless who show up and alter the course of a service," Jeffrey writes. "They help remind everyone that life is out of our control and as unfair as it is fair."
There's at least one regular homeless attendee at the Opp. Despite her lot, Francine Dancer is something of a cult public figure, having boogied on local television screens in the 2000s via Hollywood Public Access. When we meet during the service, she has parked her wheelchair under the lighted magnolia tree. She's gentle and says almighty Opp cured her finger, which had been injured. About midway through the evening, Jeffrey announces that Francine is going to get up and dance. The audience scurries to help her stand and supports her mild movements, as everyone gathers and sways in a circle for a few minutes before returning her to her seat.
At the end of the service, we are encouraged to collectively send healing to a little girl named Holly, who has cerebral palsy. Jeffrey tells me that she is his niece. "I believe very strongly in the power of focused intention, and I know that the closing ceremonies have affected her and all participants in a positive way." Everyone participates because, three hours into an evening of absurdity, only the die-hards remain. The group spends last moments together, emitting an even-keeled hum that closes the portal of Opp space until the next time.
Though he sees no end in sight, Jeffrey says, "It's a fact that every service could be the last," in which case he hopes the people will gather and sing regardless, "forever in Koreatown."
almighty Opp takes place the last Saturday of the month at 9 p.m. at the corner of Western and Elmwood.
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