Everybody in the Verona High School class of 1993 knew James Wojtal Jr. would one day work for Muppet-maker Jim Henson. It was an easy guess about someone who’d been making puppets since kindergarten.
Wojtal does make puppeteering seem easy as he glides Tank, a lovable but dim-witted orange fish through ImaginOcean, a kids puppet show that opened in April. (If you’re at the New Jersey State Fair in Sussex County on Tuesday, August 10, you can catch snippets of it.) ImaginOcean is Wojtal’s Off Broadway debut as a puppeteer, though he has spent more than a decade making puppets for the Muppets and Sesame Street, and the grown-up show that turned the world of Sesame Street on its head, Avenue Q. Wojtal’s puppets have been on Saturday Night Live and Crank Yankers, and in commercials for Ruby Tuesday and Sony Bravia. He even built a puppet of Thomas Edison for Verona-based children’s TV animator Randy Rossilli Jr.
But, as with so many things that seem easy, there’s been a lot of unnoticed hard work, chances taken and supporters that cheered it all on. Starting with his mom, Maureen Wojtal, who taught him how to sew puppets when he was just four. That may have been a bit of shrewd parenting, since James was to become the oldest of five children. As he grew, he drew puppets and made them from his drawings, experimenting with materials and techniques as he did so. He watched the Muppets and Fraggle Rock.
It all came together at VHS. Then art teacher Mary Jo Austin lobbied to let Wojtal take art even though he hadn’t had it at H.B. Whitehorne. “He was so motivated to work on his puppets,” says Austin. “I have one that he gave me then and it still amuses me.” Maurice Moran, VHS’s drama teacher at the time, put on Little Shop of Horrors and gave Wojtal the task of making Audrey, the man-eating plant. “I had never built anything that big,” says Wojtal. “I can remember driving my mom crazy because there was spray paint everywhere.”
In 1990, Jim Henson died suddenly. Wojtal convinced his mother to bring him to a Henson tribute in Manhattan, and he took along puppets he had made. That seems like a brash move to Wojtal now, but it helped break the ice with Henson’s collaborators and family, and got him an invitation to Henson’s workshop. But it wasn’t until eight years later, after a stab at toy design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and work at two marionette theaters in New York City, that he got an offer to join the Henson workshop to build a puppet for the Spanish-language version of Sesame Street. “A 3 to 4-week job turned into four years,” says Wojtal. He trained with some of the masters of American puppet building and remains in their debt to this day. “There were a lot of amazingly talented people who have gone on to to amazing things,” he says.
As with so many other performing arts, puppetry hasn’t always been enough to pay all the bills. Wojtal has worked at Lakeside Deli and Cafe Eclectic in Montclair while freelancing from time to time. But ImaginOcean now seems to be on smooth seas: The show, which is playing at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th Street, recently announced that Casey Bartholomew, the co-host of “The Jersey Guys” radio show, will join the cast later this year for performances through January 2.
And to think he almost missed the ImaginOcean audition because of an errant DeCamp bus.