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Meet the Puppet MD for Disney’s “The Lion King”

Meet the Puppet MD for Disney’s “The Lion King”

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If you’re a college student who’s having a hard time finding a summer job right now, take heart. As Jena Kerr’s experience proves, persistence pays off.

“I was an art major at UCLA,” she remembers. “And because I was looking for something to do over the summer of 2000, I sent my resume out everywhere. And Disney was one of the only companies that got back to me. And they said that ‘The Lion King’ was coming to Los Angeles later that year and that show might need a puppet intern. So would I be interested in that position?”

A scene from Desney's animated feature "The Lion King"
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Now here’s the funny part of this story. Jena had never seen “The Lion King.” Not the play or the movie. So to familiarize herself with this production, Kerr borrows a friend’s copy of the animated feature. So as she sits there, watching this VHS, all Jena can think about is “Where are the puppets? I see lions, hyenas, warthogs. But no puppets.”

Well, Kerr certainly knows where the puppets are now. As Head of Puppets for the Las Vegas Company of Disney’s “The Lion King” (which is just about to celebrate its one-year anniversary at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino), Jena spends a lot of time backstage – both before the show as well as when the curtain is up -- making sure that all of the puppets that are featured in this acclaimed Julie Taymor production are in good working order.

Giraffe and Lioness puppets stroll across the stage in Disney's stage musical "The Lion King"
Photo by Joan Marcus. Image courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“A typical day starts with me coming backstage and checking the board. Finding out what needs my immediate attention, which character needs to be repaired right now,” Kerr explains. “Meanwhile, another member of my team checks the costumes for the Principals. Making sure that they’re all actually ready for that night’s performance.“

Now notice the language that Jena used right there (i.e. “Costumes”). In a show like Disney’s “The Lion King,” where the performers who play Zazu, Timon and Pumbaa actually work a puppet as part of their costume, the line between actor and puppeteer has blurred. And it’s up to Kerr and her team to make sure that these performers can actually count on their puppets night after night to work properly.

The Circle of Life number plays out on stage in Disney Theatrical's "The Lion King"
Photo by Joan Marcus
.Image courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“I always breathe easier after we get through ‘The Circle of Life,’ “ Jena admitted.  “There’s a lot of puppets up onstage during that number. And any one of them can break at any time.”

This is why Kerr & her crew carry tool kits with them. So that – if need be – they can then jump in and make a temporary fix.

Zazu and his puppeteer in Disney's stage musical "The Lion King"
Photo by Joan Marcus. Image courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Take – for example – the night that the control that makes Zazu’s mouth suddenly snapped in two. The actor who plays Mufusa’s bird-brained major domo kept his cool. He made his way through that scene by working Zazu’s mouth & head with his bare hands (which got big laughs from that night’s audience).

But as soon as that actor came offstage, Jena was there waiting for him. Ready to evaluate the problem.

Zazu the puppet hanging out on his stand
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

“In that particular case, we weren’t able to make a quick fix. Which is why we then turned to our back-up bird,” Kerr explained. “We actually have doubles of a lot of the puppets in this show for situations just like this. When a on-the-spot repair just can’t be made.”

Mind you, in the case of “The Lion King” ‘s Pumbaa costume … That outfit is so big – more importantly, so expensive to build – that there’s only one of them. And when it breaks in mid-performance (which is extremely rare), Jena and her team have to jury-rig something.

Timon and Pumbaa and their puppeteers in Disney's stage musical "The Lion King"
Photo by Joan Marcus. Image courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“That’s the part of this job that I really enjoy. When you have to do something on the fly,” Kerr continued. “Of course, when you’re the Head of Puppets on a show like ‘The Lion King,’ it helps to be a jack-of-all-trades. To know a little bit about sewing, electrical wiring, mechanical devices.”

The only downside to this job is its name: Head of Puppets. Which often confuses people when Jena first meets them.

Timon and his pupeteer take the stage in Disney's musical "The Lion King"
Image courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“When I tell people that I’m the Head of Puppets on ‘The Lion King,’ they immediately ask me which character I perform in the show,” she said. “That’s when I have to explain that I don’t actually operate the puppets. I just fix them.”

And given that Disney’s “The Lion King” seems to have settled in for a good long run at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino, it looks like Jena Kerr will be repairing puppets for quite some time to come in Las Vegas.

The cast of Disney's "The Lion King" takes a bow at the curtain call
Image courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And speaking of Vegas: If you’d like to get on the celebration of Disney’s “The Lion King” ‘s one-year anniversary in Las Vegas, Best of Vegas is currently offering discounted tickets for this show. You can learn more about this amazing deal by clicking on this link.

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