Renowned puppeteer John Tartaglia is an example of someone who knew what he wanted to do since he when was a little boy. Growing up in Maple Shade, N.J., Tartaglia, like most children, fell in love with Sesame Street. However, it wasn’t the cute and loveable characters that caught his attention; it was the idea that one day he could be the person behind them. At 16, while other teenagers were learning how to drive, Tartaglia was working on Sesame Street, becoming one of the youngest puppeteers to ever perform on the show.
After finding his way to where the air is sweet, Tartaglia, now 32, never looked back. In 2003 he originated the roles of Princeton and Rod in Broadway’s Avenue Q and received a Tony nomination for Best Leading Actor in a Musical. He’s also formed a fan following with children after creating and starring in the Disney Channel’s musical series Johnny and the Sprites. Today Tartaglia is entertaining families in his off-Broadway hit musical, Imagine Ocean, a glow-in-the-dark musical adventure that uses puppets to tell the tale of self-discovery and friendship.
Tartaglia recently pledged his support to the World Society for the Protection of Animals’ (WSPA) “Animals Matter to Me” campaign. His love for animals is nothing new. He and his partner have two rescued Cocker Spaniels, Dora and Parker and two shelter cats, Mia and Shanti.
Tails spoke with Tartaglia about his animal companions, his career, and we even found out his favorite character on Sesame Street.
Recently, you pledged your support to the World Society for the Protection of Animals’ (WSPA) “Animals Matter to Me” campaign. What does that actually mean?
It means I can hopefully be a spokesperson for families and kids and raise awareness [among] that group of people who maybe otherwise wouldn’t have the attention [of the organization]. Most of the other celebrities involved are pop-culture, adult celebrities. Hopefully I can bring awareness to their fight to end animal cruelty. We’ve become such a huge population, but we’re sacrificing the lives of the other creatures on the planet. There comes a point when you say, “We’re endangering these creatures.” It’s 2010. We have the technology and the resources and the communication skills that can make a difference. Someone needs to stand up and fight for [the animals]…
What are your thoughts on the BP oil spill in the Gulf?
It’s not just the inconvenience of shutting down the beaches or the loss of money. What devastates me is all of these animals and wildlife that are suffering because of our big mistake. We can go and look for another job. We can shut down the beaches and go back next year, but these animals are literally at our mercy.
You are also involved in the Proud 2 Adopt program. Tell us about that.
It’s an amazing program. It encourages people to not purchase animals from puppy mills or from pet stores. It encourages them to adopt an animal from a shelter. When I was younger, I didn’t know any better. I bought an animal or two from a pet store. I was naïve like other people are about what actually happens and how awfully these factories are run. Not to mention the health of the animals you get from those kinds of places is often compromised. In learning about that, I became an advocate of adopting. There are so many animals that need homes that are in shelters. The kind of mistake I made when I was younger—and that a lot of people make—is thinking that sheltered animals are mangled and weak. Sometimes when you walk into a shelter you can’t believe that these animals were given up. They are such beautiful creatures.
Tell us about your animals. ..
We adopted four animals. We have two dogs, Dora and Parker—both Cocker Spaniels. Parker is disabled. He broke our hearts when we learned about him. We weren’t looking to get another dog. I did a program called Broadway Barks, which [hosts] an event that happens once a year in the Broadway community that Bernadette Peters and Mary Tyler Moore started. People from Broadway shows come together and [promote] awareness about animals that are available for adoption from shelters and different agencies. Parker was available. We fell in love with him. He was a hard case because he was born with major hip displacement. He had a very troubled childhood as a puppy because he couldn’t walk without being in pain. This family gave him up, and this wonderful vet took him in and used his own money to perform the surgery to remove his hip sockets and hip joints. He needs a lot of extra love and attention. It was a big commitment for us to make, but we felt like we were the right people to do that.
And you also have cats…
We used to have three cats. Two of them were adopted. One of them passed away recently, but the other one is still with me. I adopted her in 2001 or 2002 from a shelter. Our newest cat, Shanti, was actually a rescue. We found her wandering at night. She had been mauled and was in awful shape. I’m a big proponent of taking animals in and giving them a home. It pains me when I walk by a pet store. I think, “Those poor animals probably didn’t come from the best places and probably haven’t been treated as well as they should.”
What advice—beyond going to a shelter—would you give to people who are considering getting a pet?
It’s like people saying, “I didn’t fall in love; I fell in love with the idea of love.” Sometimes I think people act on impulse, adopt an animal, and, once they get it, realize they weren’t prepared for the work it takes. Beyond wanting companionship, which is such a beautiful reason to get an animal, make sure you can also provide for it. It is like having a kid. You have that responsibility. I also think it’s important to have someone else around you. You’re going to have to be away from home at times. You’re not always going to be able to be there. You want to make sure you have a good, stable group of people around you to help you out.
You once joked that you were probably performing in the fetus. Could you explain that?
My mom says I was always performing. She says she can’t remember when I wasn’t trying to get attention in that way. My mother is an actress, so I grew up going to the theater. I learned very early on that performing was an option. My father is a musical director, so I grew up listening to Broadway cast albums all the time. One of my earliest memories is being four years old and directing my mom, sisters, father, and grandmother in a production of Fiddler on the Roof in our backyard.
And then at eight years old, you decided you wanted to become a puppeteer. How did that happen?
I’m not sure what the defining moment was. I was probably six or so when I saw Fraggle Rock for the first time. I totally remember being completely entranced by it. It was using puppetry in a grand way. It incorporated dancing and voices and singing and storytelling. My mother tells me that, at eight years old, I came to her in the kitchen and said, “Hey mom, just so you know, when I graduate high school I’m going to move to New York City and become a puppeteer for the Muppets.” And that’s exactly what happened.
Yes, you became one of the youngest puppeteers on Sesame Street. Did you watch the show growing up?
Oh, yeah. It was such a weird experience watching that show for longer than most kids do and then going from them being my childhood friends to my coworkers. I can remember the emotional feeling of walking onto that soundstage and going, “Oh, my God, I’m here!”
Who is your favorite character?
I had the distinct honor of playing Ernie in a spinoff of Sesame Street. Ernie has always been one of my favorites, but, because it was Jim Henson’s character [Henson lent his voice to the character from 1969 to 1990.], I felt this great weight of responsibility doing that [job]. Ernie is still my favorite, but Grover is second-in-command.
Besides Ernie and Grover, who are some of your inspirations?
First and foremost is my mom. She encouraged so much of who I am as a performer. My grandmother is a clown, and she grew up doing opera and clowning work. My father, too. He exposed me to so much musical theater growing up. Outside of that, Jim Henson was my biggest influence. He is still my hero.
What was the inspiration behind Imagine Ocean?
I was on a vacation in Saint John, which is probably the most beautiful of the Virgin Islands. I did a lot of snorkeling, and I was so overwhelmed by the underwater life. You see these schools of fish and the way they move. I just got taken by all the colors. That led to the idea of giving them some life and character. I was imagining these three best friends who live in this beautiful, aquatic world.
In your bio in the Playbill you thanked everyone who believed in the show. Was it hard bringing your vision to the stage?
You’re so lucky anytime nowadays to get anyone to believe in something you are doing because everyone in this world is basically so self-motivated. On top of that, when you are a puppeteer and you do puppets, this is one place in the world where puppetry isn’t considered a true art form. It’s always surprising to me how much some people don’t get what puppetry is. They think of it as birthday party entertainment. It’s good to have people around me who believe in using this art form to tell a story.
Why do you think puppetry isn’t as respected in this country as in others?
For a series of reasons. One is certainly because people view it as children’s birthday party entertainment. [When] people . . . think of puppets, they don’t imagine the grandness of it like The Lion King. They still think of it as two guys or a guy behind the sheet at doorway at a birthday party. You know, hand puppets and bad voices. To some degree, I understand that because it’s the most accessible way [to see puppetry]. A lot of us grew up with that for entertainment. However, I do think because of The Lion King, Avenue Q, and what Jim Henson did, we are starting to appreciate it more as an art form.
You have been involved in Broadway and off-Broadway musicals and plays. However, you keep returning to roles and projects that involve children. Why?
First of all, it’s hard to get an adult puppet show up and going. I [also] love kids. I’m a big supporter of anything that can forward kids’ education or anything that’s positive in kids’ entertainment. Maybe deep inside I’m frustrated at the lack of quality in entertainment for kids today. You always hear people bemoaning, “Why don’t we have shows for kids like we had when we were kids?”
Do you think that is true?
Some of that is nostalgia, but then you actually look back and say, “Yeah, people aren’t making the quality entertainment for kids that they used to.” A lot of it is dumbed down and takes kids for granted. They think because it’s kids’ entertainment it has to be dull or stupid or so overly simplified that a parent wants to pull his or her hair out. One of the things I like to do is create entertainment that is more family-based that kids and families can watch together. I was watching The Wizard of Oz the other night. I hadn’t seen it in a while. It occurred to me that it is the most beloved family movie ever, and yet it has so many elements in it that people would never put in a kids’ movie today.
At The New World Stages where Imagine Ocean plays, Avenue Q is performed right across the hall. Do you ever get the urge to go over and watch it or even star in it again?
I do. I was involved in it since the very beginning. When you’re with something for that many years and it’s your only focus in your life, there’s a point when you need a break. I made a promise to myself as a performer that I never [would] stay in a show and get to the point when it was just a paycheck. It’s easy to stay with a long-running show because it’s paying the bills, but, for me, I want to do something because I love it. There was a point when I was doing the show when I knew it was time to leave because I wasn’t as into it as I wanted to be. Now that I’ve been away from it for a few years, I actually do miss it and think it would be fun to go back. I’m a little older and a little wiser, and I may understand the character’s journey a little bit better.
You love elephants…
(Laughs) They are my favorite. I love them. Someday I’d like a conservatory somewhere [so] that I can just have them.
What would you name your elephant?
Ugh, ummm . . . I’d probably just be lazy and name him Dumbo. I never thought of it. I’ll have to think about it.
Another thing we uncovered is that you love The Golden Girls. What is your favorite episode?
I totally wasn’t expecting this! I think it’s the last one. I love it. There is just something about it. Maybe it’s because I remember watching the original broadcast of it. Although now that I say that, I think my absolute favorite is probably the one where they all put on a production of Henny Penny.
What is next for you?
We’re excited about taking Imagine Ocean all over the country. We are going to do a tour of it. There are talks of bringing it to television. We’re also launching a sequel to the show on Royal Caribbean’s cruise ships in November. I feel very much like Andrew Lloyd Webber writing [the sequel to] Phantom of the Opera.
Since you keep doing all of this work with children, any thoughts of having your own one day?
It’s funny you say that. Yes, it’s something I’d definitely love to have in my future.
After everything you’ve done and accomplished, what accomplishment makes you the proudest?
Oh, that’s hard. Probably carrying on my family’s legacy as a performer. I know that sounds very grand and something that I’d say in my Oscar speech, but I just feel like my mother and grandmother found this joy in giving and performing, and I feel very proud that I can continue that. I hope that, if I do have kids, I can pass that on to them, too. It’s an amazing career and something that I’m very grateful for.
To learn more about John and his show Imagine Ocean, visit imaginoceanthemusical.com.
By: Dustin Fitzharris
Dustin is an award-winning journalist who is known for his celebrity profiles. His articles on Patti LaBelle, Joy Behar, Reba McEntire, Diana Ross, Vanessa Williams, Melissa Etheridge, and many others have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country. He has previously written articles for Tails on Chudney Ross, Julia Barr, and Audrey Landers. He also writes for ABC’s SOAPnet.com. Fitzharris resides in New York City and is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Visit his website at DustinFitzharris.Wordpress.com.