Look of Wonderment

Wonderful outings take center stage at a puppet theater in Martinsburg.


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Photographed by Piccadilly Posh Photography

With youngsters flocking to his one-of-a-kind theater for weekend shows, birthday parties, and other fun events, puppeteer Joe Santoro always has his hands full.

It’s Joe who creates the frenzy of action in Wonderment Puppet Theater’s rotating lineup of unique shows, which he writes himself. Joe handles sound effects, scenery, and mood music, and he also handcrafts dozens of puppets using socks, laundry detergent lids, and other household fare. The native New Yorker says there’s quite a payoff to the hard work. “There’s nothing that compares to hearing the audience laughing and having a good time,” he says. In fact, Joe arrived at the name “Wonderment” for his theater from the look on children’s faces as they watched the puppets bring stories to life.

Children and the adults who accompany them to shows giggle at Joe’s comic twists on classic children’s tales featuring well-loved characters like Peter Rabbit, the Three Little Pigs, the Little Red Hen, and Cinderella.

The region’s sole year-round destination for puppet shows since its start in 2008, Wonderment is tucked along a busy thoroughfare in Martinsburg. It’s a standout on the 400 block of King Street, which also boasts an art gallery, residences, and other businesses. Festooned with rainbow-hued spinning pinwheels, flags, and balloons, on weekend afternoons there’s also a sign reading, “Show today!” to hail passersby.

For many years, the Victorian structure built in 1885 served as a floral shop, with a business entrance on the street and an entryway into the family’s home upstairs off to the building’s side. The home is on the National Register of Historic Places, which put the kibosh on Joe’s original plan to dress his storefront in wildly colored stripes and polka dots. Instead, he made do with the brightest paint colors deemed OK by authorities and gave the building a playful gingerbread look.

Inside Wonderment, Joe and his wife, Jane, transformed the space, moving walls to create an open area where kids can plop down and fix their attention to the stage in the back corner for fast-paced, 30-minute shows. There, Joe squeezes his tall, lanky frame behind a curtain, where he sits on a bench to work his magic.

   

The ground-floor business also features a separate room for parties, a Wall of Fame highlighting boys and girls who have celebrated birthdays at Wonderment, some handmade puppets children can try out, and a small retail nook where entranced theater-goers can purchase finger puppets to stage shows of their own at home.

Joe, who spends weekdays inspiring creativity as an art teacher at Hedgesville Elementary, first began to use puppets in the 1990s. Working then as a special education teacher, he saw how students took in information eagerly when puppets gave lessons in areas like counting and letter recognition. Before opening Wonderment, he traveled to schools, parks, and other locations in the Eastern Panhandle and around West Virginia to stage puppet shows. He also held popular weeklong summer workshops at The Arts Centre in Martinsburg for youngsters excited to learn to make puppets and create their own shows.

Joe’s enthusiasm for Wonderment goes undimmed. “No matter how the economy is doing, people want to be entertained,” he says. “You don’t see movie houses shutting their doors. People are still going out to restaurants. It’s the same with us. We’re here so that kids and parents can have a good time. When they walk out of here smiling, that’s the best feeling there is.”

Wonderment Puppet Theater has shows Saturday and Sunday at noon and 2 p.m. for $4.50, or free admission for children under 2 years old.

Wonderment Puppet Theater, 412 West King Street, Martinsburg, WV 25401; 304.258.4074

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