On a chilly Friday night, members of the Driveway Follies marionette puppet show gathered at Two Pitchers Brewing Company, and Lovely’s in downtown Oakland for a bingo fundraiser supporting their ghoulish Oakland organization.
Fans of the Follies—some dressed in Halloween costumes—gathered on the brewery’s patio to play a game of bingo hosted by Catman of West Oakland and have a chance to meet members of the crew who make whimsical Halloween magic with the help of intricate and colorful marionettes—puppets whose movements are controlled from above by strings.
While Catman was calling out bingo numbers, several puppeteers walked among the crowd, showing off their skills by manipulating the marionettes to dance across the tables. Next to Catman, Augusta, the puppet, was telling jokes. Curious kids approached Augusta in awe, asking her questions before running back to their tables.
Every Halloween weekend since 2007, Driveway Follies has entertained families with its puppet shows, performed in the driveway of Follies founder Larry Schmidt, who passed away from cancer in Jan. 2019 at the age of 66. Schmidt’s partner, Carl Linkhart, still lives at the property and continues to host the Follies every year since Schmidt’s passing.
This year’s show includes Mysterious Mose, one of the 5 acts that will be performed on Oct. 30 and 31. There will be six shows per night, running 25-30 minutes each, beginning at sundown (3854 Greenwood Ave.)
The group is currently comprised of six puppeteers: Ria Rodriguez, Adrienne Suzio, Fred C. Riley III, Randal Metz, William Lewis, and Jacqui June Whitlock. Riley III began his career as a puppeteer in the early 90s and serves as the group’s artistic director. Some might know Metz from Children’s Fairyland, where he is the director of the Storybook Puppet Theater, the oldest, continually operating puppet theater in the country. Rodriguez also works at the kids’ theme park, and Suzio was a puppeteer there until she joined the Follies.
Other members of the Follies include stage manager Sharon Arnett, apprentice stage manager Emily Shores, and the show’s usher Griffin Cloudwalker.
Driveway Follies became a nonprofit in 2018, co-founded by Betsy Baum Block and Michael Gabriel, and members raised funds for this year’s performances by hosting fundraisers around town, like the one last Friday.
“The money that we make doesn’t really cover the time that we spend working on the show,” said Rodriguez, who has been with Driveway Follies since 2015. “A lot of it is a labor of love. The community around us and those who grew up with the Follies really did step up to help us put on a show.”
Rodriguez plays the role of Augusta, the show’s “ghost host.”
“I get to spend my Halloween season telling horrifically bad jokes to children and trying to get grownups to laugh,” Rodriguez said. She is also in charge of designing the enamel pins and other merch that the group sells at its fundraisers.
Her co-puppeteer Suzio was recruited to join Driveway Follies by Schmidt after the founder took in one of her performances at the Storybook Puppet Theater in 2015. “Larry [Schmidt] came and saw me perform at Fairyland and was like, ‘Come on in!’” recalled Suzio.
When Schmidt passed away, Suzio also took on part of the administrative role of helping to run the organization’s nonprofit. “I’m a huge Halloween fan, so this was the perfect combination of things for me,” Suzio said.
In addition to their experience at Children’s Fairyland, Metz’s longtime friendship with Schmidt provided Rodriguez and Suzio with an opportunity to join Driveway Follies. Suzio is no longer with Fairyland, but Rodriguez remains there as the creative director of Children’s Fairyland.
“Adrienne [Suzio] is doing an amazing job scheduling new fundraisers, which we’ve never done before,” Rodriguez said. “It’s allowing us to put new paint and strings on puppets and keeping us all going.”
Losing Schmidt in early 2019, mere months after wrapping up their 2018 series, took a toll on the entire crew. At the time, they wondered how it would be possible to continue without him.
“Many of the puppeteers had known Larry for decades, so after his passing, it was hard for us to put on that show face and keep going,” Rodriguez said. “But we also knew that he would want us to continue this gift that he’s given to the community. He was the heart and soul of the entire event.”
For Riley III, the shock of losing Schmidt still lingers to this day. “Nobody understood how serious it was at first,” he said of Schmidt’s cancer diagnosis. “It all happened so fast.”
Puppetry wasn’t about making a living for Schmidt, added Riley III. “He was doing it purely for the love.”
Schmidt started work on many puppets that were never finished, said Riley III, and there were shows of his in the works that will never see the light of day. The current group no longer creates any new characters, choosing instead to rehash old pieces and recycle them every few years. The older pieces, said Riley III, “are, to me, more quintessentially Larry. So I’m trying to get those back in.”
Since becoming artistic director in 2019, Riley III has kept Schmidt’s legacy close to his heart.
“What I always have in my head is that it’s not my show. It is Larry’s. Every decision I make is what I think he would do,” he said. “There’s a cast member in the show that I personally went to hire. But I know that Larry would have hired them.”
Putting each year’s show together requires long rehearsal hours and time spent ensuring that every marionette is in pristine shape. At least five puppeteers are needed to handle the marionettes at each performance.
“Trick puppetry is just impressive. The puppet doesn’t just walk across the stage—it grows two feet, or it falls apart into a bunch of tiny little puppets,” Rodriguez said. “The trick marionettes in the show are just mind-boggling.” This year’s show includes a parade of trick marionettes.
For Rodriguez, Suzio, Riley III, and the other members, Driveway Follies is about embodying Schmidt’s love of puppetry and preserving the art form for generations to come.
“We get that opportunity at Fairyland, and then we get the opportunity to reinforce it with Driveway Follies and share an art form that is not as seen anymore,” Rodriguez said. “It’s sort of this dying art in a lot of ways, and we just want to make sure that it stays true to itself and true to Oakland.”
Correction: Ria Rodriguez is the creative director at Children’s Fairyland.