DECATUR – Kim Whitt could have quit a long time ago.
Like many people, Whitt has an active family and a high-stress job. But she has her reasons for donning the bonnet whenever the Gary Strong Marionettes are taking the stage.
"There are times when I feel like, 'I don't want to do this today,'" said Whitt, who has played Granny Giggles in Strong's show since 1999. "But I like seeing the joy. And not just in the kids, but the parents, too. Seeing them seeing their kids have fun ... that's why I keep doing it."
Strong has been performing marionette shows for 61 years. He builds each puppet from scratch, creating them, naming them and hand-sewing them, and also writes the scripts and music.
But what he found through the years was that he needed a human face out front to distract the audience from what was going on behind the scenes.
Whitt wasn't Strong's first human out front. In fact, Whitt's first experience with Strong's show was substituting in the concession stand at the Avon Theater when the person who usually ran it was on vacation.
At that point, the role was Professor Gesundheit, and was played by a student who was going off to college. Whitt had theater experience, and expressed interest. Soon, Granny Giggles was born.
"We were trying to figure out a character that sounded inviting," said Whitt, who's become Strong's longest-tenured human out front. "I giggle a lot, so we used that, and then someone said, 'How about Granny?'
"It started out with me wearing a long white wig with a pony tail in the back and my night cap over it. But eventually, we did away with the wig."
Whitt was in her mid-20s at the time the character was established, but the character was a perfect fit. Whitt is so established as Granny Giggles that kids who know her outside the show often become confused.
"Kids will say, 'You're in your mommy costume. You're Granny Giggles,'" Whitt said.
Through the years, Whitt has performed with Strong's marionettes at the Decatur Celebration and many parades, fairs, fundraisers and schools, but mostly at the once-a-month Kids Club shows. For a long time, the show was at Lincoln Square Theater, but the last two years it's been in Mount Zion as the Fletcher Park Kids Club.
"We create something entirely new for each setting – for Fletcher Park it's the Kingdom of Fun and the stage is a castle," said Strong, who along with Whitt performs on a volunteer basis. "But wherever we go, we try to make it family friendly, old-time, old-fashioned family entertainment."
While the cast of characters around Granny Giggles is always changing – Doodles the Dragon has become a regular, Elvis has been in the building plenty and there was a Star Wars show last month featuring Darken Vader, 3C0 and Chewintabacca — Granny Giggles is the constant.
"All the other characters are on stage, so I'm out front to interact with the kids, keep them under control, play games, sing songs, dance and act goofy," Whitt said. "And it's kind of like the Wizard of Oz – 'Don't pay attention to the man behind the curtain.'"
In recent years Whitt's daughter has joined the cast as Princess Mallory. Mallory, 14, does some work out front, but also helps Strong pull the marionette strings.
"About a year ago I had to have surgery and she ran the show at one we had at the Children's Museum, and she also ran it at the Lincoln Theater once," Whitt said.
"She was only 12 then," Strong said.
Granny Giggles and Princess Mallory will take the stage at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 13, co-hosting "Valentines For Doodles," along with Doodles the Dragon.
The program features two classic cartoons, valentine games, and prizes courtesy of the Mount Zion Pizza Hut, Krave frozen yogurt, Culver's, Scotty's Pest Control and Krekel's Custard Mount Zion. Coloring contest entries are at the event with winners announced in March. Children attending are asked to bring signed valentines for Mount Zion nursing home and assisted living residents. Admission is $4 for adults and $1 for children. Concessions are also available.
All money raised at the show goes toward the splash pad that Fletcher Park is planning to build.