Published: November 7, 2012
His booth is dark and locked tight. It's early afternoon inside the Russell Industrial Center's weekend bazaar, and Darrell Banks is late for work. Behind the black metal gate are his dollar store elephants, his quaint figurines, his little bags of incense and his hand puppets, all unreachable by anyone who might wander past, because the store is still closed.
Banks, 59, is the proprietor behind Banks Enterprise Gift Emporium, one of dozens of small and side businesses renting space inside the cavernous industrial complex. He pays just under $80 a week in rent to sell his odd assortment of knickknacks from inside a fenced-in rectangular space among the market's perfume makers, baseball hat manufacturers, used CD salesmen and a taco booth by the door.
But he's not here yet, and the bazaar has been open for hours. Though he lives in the nearby New Center area, in a senior apartment complex, he has no car and depends on others for rides to work. He could take the bus, but he has difficulty walking to and from stops. Sometimes he relies on his brother, who sometimes proves unreliable. So he often arrives places late or not at all.
It's hard enough to keep a small business like his alive, and Banks already faces more challenges than most. He can't afford to advertise, so his sales come from shoppers who happen to wander past when he's present. He plans to make fliers and create a website, but he hasn't gotten to that yet. His stock consists of things most people don't have a pressing need for.
And making all that worse is the persistent problem of getting to work. "I have a transportation situation," he says.
With all those factors working against him, he needed to come up with something to draw customers during the few hours he's actually here.
One day he picked up one of his hand puppets and made it lip-sync to some old soul songs playing from a little stereo. And soon, the people who used to walk past his table of elephants and giraffes were now standing before his booth, transfixed by a puppet show unlike any other.
"I was surprised, matter of fact," he says of the reaction. "From the very first time that I started showing them."
Banks never thought much about puppets. He saw some on TV when he was growing up, but he really didn't care for them.
After retiring a decade ago from the Michigan Department of Transportation, Banks grew bored and wanted to start a side business to give him something to do. He first set up shop at the Michigan Mart inside the State Fair, then at the Russell, selling an odd assortment of items loosely connected by an African theme.
A man in a neighboring booth gave him a puppet as a gift, and Banks added several more to his stock when he saw people gravitate toward it. Then, one day, he took one down from a shelf and practiced animating it.
"I just started playing with it and then realized, damn, it kind of looked real," he says. He did online research on the history of puppets, took a quick course in puppetry, asked others for tips. But most of his thoroughly unique act came from his own imagination.
"I came to realize doing puppetry is your own personal craft of how you make it, and I decided to develop it. It's just evolution."
His puppets don't delight the audience with a skit, or engage children with questions and stories. Apart from a few spare words to open the show, the puppets simply lip-sync to old soul songs.
He'd read that in traditional Japanese puppetry the puppeteers are hidden or shrouded, to avoid the audience being distracted by the performer, so he started doing shows with a black shroud draped over his head.
But the cloth is fairly transparent, and he gets so enthused by the puppets' liveliness that he can't help but mouth a song's words along with them. So the show consists of a singing puppet and a puppeteer whose lip-syncing is clearly visible through his shroud. It's the opposite of ventriloquism.
His sincere delight and beaming smile, though, are just as much a part of the show. Because no matter who's in the audience, chances are Banks is the one in the room most delighted by the singing puppet. "I just like them," he says, smiling. "Just seeing something that's not real, an inanimate object, just all of a sudden coming alive. Sometimes they amaze me."
After a while he built a small, black-curtained stage at the back of his booth where he puts on performances whenever someone requests one, for the absurdly low rate of $2 for 15 minutes. A small, old TV at the front of his booth loops grainy videos of his puppet shows, shot on an old VHS camcorder, in hopes of drawing the curious into asking for a live performance.
Since he began a year ago, almost all his shows have been confined to his little space, seen only by the few who chanced upon it. But then someone passing his booth saw his act and invited him to be part of a Halloween show at Bert's Warehouse in Eastern Market. This little hobby he'd developed in quiet moments had grown remarkable enough to draw an invitation to perform in public. And Banks couldn't wait.
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