Puppet pedaler

This mobile playhouse peddles perk-ups around the city.
HAND JOB Artist Jason Trusty and his Puppet Bike friends consider it their civic duty to make you smile.
By Laura House |

You’re moping down the street because your day sucked, but wait—what is that thing parked there on the corner? Suddenly, you’re all smiles because a dog puppet is blowing you kisses. The Puppet Bike rides again.

Like a lucky penny, this theater on wheels seems to turn up when you need it most. One unseasonably warm November day, people gathered at the otherwise business-as-usual corner of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue to watch Chock (the gambler, pirate, blues musician and kitten) and Clover (the aspiring starlet, heartbreaker and hat-model bunny) bebop to zydeco music. Onlooker Eleanor Coe searched around the box for clues to the action behind the curtain and commented, “It’s adorable. I wish I had my grandchildren with me.” Kids grooved along, adults stood transfixed and grinning, and a businessman slapped kitty high-five in passing.

“One of the greatest things about the Puppet Bike is how it disarms so many people from so many different places in life,” says inventor and artist Jason Trusty, who will celebrate four years of peddling (and pedaling) glee on Saturday 25. “First it makes them laugh, then makes them dance and sing, and then later on it makes them think.” Think—or at least forget what they were worrying about moments before.

The six-foot mobile playhouse, built by Trusty and his brother Eric, sits on the back of a cargo tricycle and pops up outside the MCA, at street festivals, or on corners up and down Michigan Avenue. The wooden contraption has a bright cityscape painted on one side and an image of a rotund puppeteer pig in a Shriners’ hat on the other. The stage is trimmed with sagging crystal fringe, flashing mini theater lights, red velvet curtains and a collection box. The lovable Steiff puppet cast (rescued from eBay), which look like heirlooms from your parents’ toy chest, has grown from two to 16 and also includes: Namy the one-eyed kitten who went AWOL and once hijacked the Puppet Bike to the lake; Monkee, a Buddhist yogi chimp whose personal hero is Uma Thurman; Lefty the tiger, a trust-fund baby who’s a classically trained Shakespearean actor and snappy dresser; and Trusty’s favorite, Amtrak, the cowboy and “crackpot philosopher” dog.

Although it seems like magic, there are performers inside the box (it’s rigged with heat in the winter and cooling fans in the summer). The puppeteers behind the curtain—all artists, musicians and teachers—are Trusty’s friends and neighbors. Puppeteer and musician Leslie Wacker says it’s a great gig. “I’ve gotten more artistic satisfaction out of it than anything I’ve done in the arts…I hope I never have to stop.” In addition to tips from the audience, other on-the-job perks have included truffles and hot chocolate handed to Wacker via the puppets—and even a date.

Not everyone loves the Puppet Bike, though—it’s been shut down by police and Park District security for violating city ordinances. However, it’s still welcome on many a street corner. “The bike has an important role as a public service to me; as a child I liked to come down to the city and hear the street musicians play,” Trusty says. “I know I would have been awestruck if I ran across it as a kid, and I’m happy to provide that type of experience for our fans and visitors from around the globe.”

As for the future, Trusty, a true dreamer, says, “There is nothing I would rather do than set up shop and produce more of them to sell to all the people who ask to buy them and take them all over the world.”

Until then, keep an eye out for the lone Puppet Bike this holiday season along Michigan Avenue from Randolph to Adams Streets, and check www.puppetbike.com for updates.