Every December for almost four decades, puppeteer John Hardman would step behind the black screen in the small tower at NorthPark Center and bring crotchety ol’ Scrooge to life. He would grumble about the holidays and consumerism, bark orders at adults and tell children they’re not getting any Christmas presents. Heck, Scrooge would probably kick your dog if you let him.
And we loved him for it.
When 80-year-old Hardman died in November after a battle with cancer, we weren’t sure what would become of the little gray-haired man in the window. But now it seems Scrooge has found a second life through 29-year-old Woodrow Wilson High School graduate Will Schutze, who was first introduced to puppetry by none other than Hardman.
Schutze first met Hardman’s wife, Patti, who taught his high school theater courses. In 2008 Schutze was struggling to make it as an actor when he ran into Patti at a wedding and she suggested he learn puppetry and join Hardman in puppeteering the World on a String show at the State Fair of Texas. At first Schutze was apprehensive, but Hardman showed him the ropes — er, the strings? — and soon Schutze fell in love with puppetry.
“I find myself in everyday conversation being a little tongue-tied or hesitant,” Schutze explains. “It’s difficult for me to completely express myself how I would like, but with this I can just have fun with it because I’m speaking through this other person.”
He created his own show called Mr. Bonetangles, and he traveled the country doing street performances. While doing that Schutze and Bonetangles were spotted by director and producer Jon Favreau, and they appeared in Favreau’s film, “Chef” in 2014.
Schutze is the son of Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze and Mariana Greene, the retired home and garden editor of The Dallas Morning News. Although he lives in South Carolina, every year Schutze would travel back to Dallas to work with Hardman on World on a String.
Then last year Hardman went to the hospital with pneumonia for about a week, and he asked Schutze to fill in for him as Scrooge.
“He had a sign up saying, ‘No shows today. I’m feeling under the weather,'” Schutze remembers. “John had never missed a show before. I really didn’t want to go in there and do it. It was terrifying. Nobody can do what John did. He created the show and perfected it over the years, but he talked me into it.”
Hardman gave him a crash course on the technical side of the show — how to put the puppet on, where to place the mic, where to stand — and Schutze gave it his best shot.
NorthPark took note of Schutze’s performance last year, so when Hardman died in early November, NorthPark agreed to allow Schutze to continue the holiday tradition this year, doing 10 shows a day.
Although many of Hardman’s friends have assured Schutze this is what Hardman would want and that he’d be proud of Schutze’s performance, Schutze still has some anxiety about the show.
“I’ve been doing it as close as I can to the show John did for 38 years,” Schutze says. “I’m not John, but I’m feeling good about it. I’ve been getting a lot of very nice support and feedback. People are engaging in the show and taking part in it like they always have. The kids definitely take to it the same way, and so my mind is starting to ease just a little bit.”
It’s difficult, but it’s also therapeutic, Schutze says.
“I miss him a lot,” he says. “I get through the shows and they’re a lot of fun — a whole lot of fun, actually — and I finish and I turn off the microphone, and I just kind of sit down and wish that John was there.”
Whether or not the show will continue next year without Hardman is ultimately up to Hardman’s family and NorthPark Center, but Schutze is open to whatever they decide.
“It’s not up to me,” Schutze says. “I’m not worried. I know John’s legacy will come through and everyone will make the best decision.”