Say, just hypothetically, you want to turn the streets of Charleston into an enchanted forest for a day, complete with walking flowers and a giant — much, much bigger than life — alien goddess to lead the show.
The first thing on your long list of things to do should be to call Robert “R.J.” Haddy. That’s exactly what the organizers of FestivALL did, as they were making plans for this year’s Art Parade, set for Saturday, June 22.
Haddy is a Charleston-area production and effects designer whose list of movie credits includes the 1997 “Batman & Robin,” starring George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman. And he’s using those skills to create a very different vision in his hometown.
Bringing fantasy to life
“That was the late ‘90s. We did many frozen people, a lot of Mr. Freeze’s frozen victims, and then we built Poison Ivy’s orchid bed,” said Haddy, walking through his escape room, production studio and now puppet factory, sitting quietly on Charleston’s Washington Street East.
Working with Alterian, Inc., a Los Angeles-based animatronic and special effects firm, the Capital High graduate and West Virginia native also helped create some of the sight gags in the Cameron Diaz flick “There’s Something About Mary.”
“Like, for instance, you can’t take a dog and shock him, and you can’t put a body cast on a whole dog. So we made a lot of the prop dogs,” Haddy said. “In the movie, Ben Stiller zaps the little dog back to life with an electrical cord, and he pops up in the air. We made things like that.
“It’s everything from puppets, to props, to monsters, to makeup, to costumes — all of that stuff,” he added.
When life and family called him back to Charleston, he landed for a while in the theater department at his alma mater — where his students convinced him to audition to be a contestant on Season 2 of Syfy’s reality show, “Face Off,” which he said was “kind of like ‘Project Runway,’ except instead of dresses we’re making characters and monsters and aliens.”
He was a runner-up, and then later returned for Season 5 as a veteran contestant. Along the way, he’s moved into an East End family-owned building he said had become a cobweb farm. There, he’s built a career of designing incredibly realistic movie and theater sets, creating special effects, making masks and puppets, and generally helping creative souls bring their imaginations to life, whether it’s on screen, on stage or at a sci-fi convention.
So, naturally, when the organizers of FestivALL began considering ways to make this year’s Art Parade extra special, Haddy was at the top of the list of people to call.
A parade to remember
“We already have some wonderful artists who participate, and musicians, so we just wanted to add a big, big piece, like a centerpiece for the parade,” said Jeff Pierson, director of Charleston’s Office of Public Art.
A former Capital High classmate of Haddy’s, he said, “I’ve always wanted to collaborate with Robert personally with my work, and so this was a perfect opportunity to utilize his talents and create these large-scale, impactful pieces of art.”
A brainstorming session helped define the vision, and they settled on what Haddy calls “large-scale, carnival-style body puppetry.”
“It’s important to me that the puppets are used to tell a story,” he said. “We wanted to get a feel for this idea of an enchanted forest. All these stories throughout our lives — just nursery rhymes, fairy tales — everything has an enchanted forest in it, right? But those enchanted forests, we don’t think could be here in West Virginia. Well, why not? We have lots of forests.”
The sketches of characters in Haddy’s enchanted forest show a single centerpiece with smaller, flower-like puppets named Rose, Mary Gold and Danny Lion that emerge from backpacks — carried by a handful of area teens — and stretch skyward.
Pointing to his artist rendering of the creations he’s making, Haddy added, “The large one here is going to be our Mother Earth. I call it an elemental forest goddess. And then she’ll, you know, have her vines out. She’s a very green creature, a forest creature, but maybe she’s a little bit alien, too.
She’ll be big, but not too big.
“Her vines will probably stretch out about 16 feet on either side at their fullest, and then we’ll have about a 16-foot tall spread at the top of the head,” Haddy said.
Looming. Impressive. And not tall enough to reach the power lines or traffic lights.
It will take five people to man the goddess — one person to wear the backpack and four others to handle the green vines that drape off the goddess in all directions.
“Robert’s designing these rough sketches of the puppets, and then I’m going back in and designing their faces, and then he’ll go back with his talent to actually create that three-dimensional character,” Pierson said.
The giant puppets — even the small ones are larger than life — have to be light enough to carry, but not so light they could float away in a decent breeze.
“It’s largely paper mache, papier-mache and Styrofoam mostly, just because when you build something that big thing that’s resting on someone’s back — you know, 10 to 15 feet in the air — you kind of have to account for the sail factor,” Haddy said.
“If a big wind comes up somebody’s gonna get blown over. You don’t want that,” he said.
Haddy has a team of helpers to create the puppets in time for this year’s parade. But he’s also offering a puppet-making workshop on the Monday and Tuesday immediately following the parade.
The hope is that this year’s characters will be used over and over in the years to come — and that others will be added to them, a few at a time.
Haddy can already see it coming to life.
“Three or four years from now, we’ll have a whole street full of gigantic puppets walking down the street,” he said.
“It’s going to be awesome.”