For a city stifled by traffic and smog, an occasional walk to local stores and restaurants along an integral artery of the city can be both a luxury and a battle. But on the Los Feliz section of Vermont Avenue, something magical can happen during these sojourns, when you’re likely to spy a man in your periphery inviting weary passersby to participate in the überpersonal act of marionette. The man is Eli Presser, and his stories of self-exploration and loss permeate the perpetually changing crowd with visions of intimate ruin acted out under the guise of a tattered handmade doll. The grayish form possesses the persona of Willie Dixon and Edith Piaf commingled in a sexless tragic loneliness.
Presser, with his Bogartesque looks and demeanor, wields this figure in time to the quirky tunes of Louis Armstrong, Bai Hong or Jean Sablo, reinventing classicism and mystical weight in the midst of striving consumerism through his magnificently subtle and stoic performances. One can almost imagine Presser presiding over a smoky Prohibition-era cabaret with his cigarette teetering from the corner of his mouth, entertaining artists, intellectuals and woeful souls. Thankfully he’s in the here and now, and our pavement is his stage. The Chicago-born artist engages nearly all passersby, leaving them with a smile and sometimes an unexpected trip to a forgotten time when tactile presence overpowered modern televised translucence.
The magic of Presser’s surrealist performances happens when you realize the intricate fine-motor skills needed to activate the marionettes’ bodies. They are haunting, one-eighth size alter egos that allow him to take on a new life and relay another emotion by picking up a different puppet. The forms are virtually blank slates, sculpted in drab color schemes from mere masking tape and whittled chunks of wood.
Presser’s love for puppetry goes back to 1997 when he discovered the ancient art under the mentorship of the Redmoon Theater group, Theater Dank and Michael Montenegro in Chicago. In 1999 he continued his studies at The Cotsen Center of Puppetry at the California Institute of the Arts and has since become an active member of the Los Angeles puppetry community, working in theater, music video and film. He’s worked on Norah Jones’ “Sinkin’ Soon” video, Jessica Yu’s Sundance-nominated documentary Protagonist, Janie Geiser’s REDCAT production of “Invisible Glass” and Genevieve Anderson’s puppet film Too Loud a Solitude. His biggest role, however, is puppeteer in residence on the streets of Los Feliz.
Presser has a genuine love for Angelenos, for their honest interaction, immediate reaction and their appreciation of his art. He doesn’t work for tips though none are turned down, in the hopes that one day his efforts will enable him to perform in front of a larger audience with more complex production values, but still on the streets of L.A.
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For now, when you’re walking in front of Skylight Books or Psychobabble, stop, listen and watch carefully. You might find him standing under a street sign with a marionette — and an impromptu audience — under his spell.