Billy Surface

Theater

An Exclusive Q&A with Scrooge

Er, at least the guy manning the puppet at NorthPark Center. Will Schutze talks about his young audience and awkward acting moments.

We won’t hold it against Will Schutze that he now lives within the Austin city limits. He is, after all, a native son—the progeny of former Dallas Morning News editor Mariana Greene and the Dallas Observer’s Jim Schutze. But more importantly, Will is the master of our city’s most notable crank, having taken over the lead role at the Scrooge Puppet Theatre in NorthPark Center since the passing of his mentor, the great John Hardman, in 2015. We spoke with the puppeteer about stage fright, his dad’s bad rap, Mr. Bonetangles, and facing off with 5-year-old armed forces.

So 10 years ago you graduate from UT and your former theater teacher at Woodrow Wilson gets you a summer job assisting her husband, John Hardman, who became your mentor. Did you expect to end up in puppeteering? I knew I wanted to be a performer. I just thought it was gonna be such a strange, interesting job working in this little theater with puppets, just one odd job and that was it. The first day, John took me backstage into the puppet storage room. It was kind of magical seeing them all hanging there, not even moving, and then John picked one up and did a little dance with it. I was sold immediately.

You took over Scrooge Puppet Theatre at NorthPark Center after Hardman passed away. Is your Scrooge much different from his? John did it for 38 years. I think when you take over a show, it’s expected to try to make it your own. But I just wanted to try to keep the tradition going. I wanted it to seem like John was still there. I used to work in his other puppet show across the mall called Santa’s Toy Shoppe. My favorite thing to do on my breaks was to go watch John do Scrooge. So I definitely absorbed all I could over seven years of watching him.

What is the craziest thing you’ve seen a kid do in the audience during a Scrooge performance? At the end of Scrooge’s show—it’s been a tradition, John always did this—Scrooge, to shoo all of the children away, he says he’s gonna give everyone a little present. He takes out a little water spray bottle, mists the kids. “Get off of my property. Get out of here. Quit making too much noise.” I probably shouldn’t be giving away my finale.

I bet most of our readers are familiar with it. OK, totally. One day, Scrooge came out with his spray bottle and he hadn’t noticed that there was a battalion of 5-year-olds with little toy water guns. They had been hiding behind some planters, and one behind a corner. They were very well-organized, actually. And so Scrooge had to shut the shutters sooner than he usually does and retreat back into his office to yell at Bob Cratchit some more. So, yeah, honestly, I thought it was the cutest thing ever. Scrooge did not.

You previously pursued acting but struggled with stage fright. Any awkward moments you can remember? One dates back to high school when I was auditioning for the musical my freshman year at Woodrow. I couldn’t hit any of the notes right. The French teacher was one of the judges. I sang about three lines and he kind of just burst out in one quick laugh, and then tried to stop himself.

Oh, no. And when I was very young, I took classical guitar lessons. They asked me if I would play “Greensleeves” on Christmas Eve at church. I played the first part really well; I think it started to move people. And then I forgot everything. My music wasn’t there, and I just stopped and sat up at the altar. I finally put my head down and picked my guitar up and walked offstage. That may have been the thing that made me nervous about performing musically.

But puppeteering is different. I love writing songs and poetry. So now, what I do is, I record all of my own songs and I have my puppets perform them. That’s what my street performance is.

Yes, I saw you busking in the movie Chef. Did your star puppet, Mr. Bonetangles, like his brush with Hollywood? Did the camera add 15 pounds? It’s hard to add 15 pounds to a skeleton, but the camera definitely made him much bigger than he’d ever been. I was grateful for it. Jon Favreau is a wonderful guy. He just saw me on the street performing. Two years went by and I got a phone call from a producer.

Is Mr. Bonetangles still your signature puppet? He is. It’s not my choice. It’s kind of just some strange, mysterious thing that happened. Everyone reacts to him. He was just my first personal puppet. My father got him for me as a gift. I started practicing on my own, and I started street performing with this puppet. People immediately were drawn to the way I was making him dance. But then I started wanting to build a whole troop of marionettes and different creatures. So I’ll do my new stuff, then there will be somebody in the audience screaming for Mr. Bonetangles, so he’s still the headliner. I gotta give the people what they want.

Your 2017 wedding to Dr. Ashley Brundrett of Kennedy, Texas was announced in the New York Times. Who did you have to kill to get that in the paper? I am pretty sure it had something to do with my mother. I didn’t have to kill anybody. Now I don’t know if she just knew the best way to do it or what, but she definitely made that happen. But she didn’t know anybody there. She just submitted it. I don’t know, maybe they just saw “puppeteer and ophthalmologist.”

You’re in Dallas every October for a gig at the State Fair and every holiday for Scrooge. What do you do the rest of the year? My wife and I moved to Austin in July. I’m here for Scrooge until Christmas, and in January I plan to really start making inroads with the music community in Austin. My other dream besides being in a movie was to, against all odds, even though I started out really not feeling very comfortable singing, I want to get my music out there. I’m gonna be performing with my puppets at music venues, also on the street, and just seeing what I can do to share that with people through puppetry.

Have you taken voice lessons? I have. I have. Yes. I took voice lessons from a guy named David Haskins. He helped me a lot.

I don’t think that my boss will let me turn this in without digging up some dirt on your dad. Let me think. So, I’ll tell you something that actually would be some pretty good dirt. My father’s persona as a writer is pretty similar to my Scrooge character. He’s a curmudgeon and kind of a muckraker, I’d say. I mean he used to have a blog called Get Off My Lawn. It was a picture of him with my dog, Skeeter. He was wearing sunglasses and a bathrobe, and he’s got a shotgun pointed toward the camera. That’s actually not how he really is at all. He’s really one of the kindest, most caring, just, patient, and nicest fathers anyone could ask for.

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