Photo by Jack GouldRicki Vincent pierced some genitals on his birthday two weeks ago—someone else's genitals, not his own. (It hadn't occurred to me until now to ask him if his are intact, and I still ain't gonna.) I do know this: there are parts of Ricki's face that should have remained unmolested but that instead sport very large and shiny hardware.
Ricki looks mean. He's 6-foot-2, and his head is shaved, and he's tatted all over, and there are what might as well be spears sticking through his face. But Ricki isn't the slightest bit mean—he's almost achingly sweet. He's the kind of guy who will turn around to a sad old man late at night in a Denny's and say, "You don't have a smile. Let me give you one of mine." And he's not being sardonic or mocking the man: he means it, and he gives out a big, bright, toothy grin. He's 43, but his friends say he's more like nine—a very mature nine, but nine nonetheless. Mostly, he likes to play with puppets.
Ricki found Santa Ana's Artists Village after five years in the frozen tundra of Colorado; he has been here since two days before New Year's, and he's already bordering on being an Institution. (It's that damn enthusiasm people have when they first move to the Artists Village; they are so lucky to be surrounded by art and artists! It usually takes a year or so before their joy is beat out of them, and until it is, they just go around loving everyone and everything and cannot be stopped.) His Empire Building artist's studio looks out onto Broadway and the small promenade between First and Second streets; he has a giant old puppet lady peering down from his second-story window at the drunks on Broadway. "She scares the shit out of 'em!" he says, beaming. In a nice way.
He makes his living piercing sexy matrons in Newport Beach; he's mystified by the lack of smiles in the moneyed cove. But he's already getting commissions for his true love: his foam, fur and feather puppets. One woman had him make a puppet replica of her beloved miniature pit bull; he looks like Spuds McKenzie. The Rude Guerrilla Theater, downstairs from Ricki's studio, has commissioned puppet flowers. His work space is spare: one room has a bed (made) and a couple of computers from which he uploads his website, www.the puppetscafe.com. The second room has a sprawling work table littered with glue guns and tiles and bits of puppet guts. Both rooms are overloaded with shelves of puppets.
There's Slappy McMosh, the punk rock leprechaun. (And yes, he does look evil.) There's Chester, an old curmudgeon in a wifebeater. "He's like, 'Get out of my yard!'" Ricki explains helpfully. There's Wayne Chung, a red-and-yellow dragon. There's Gork, who is very Lenny from Of Mice and Men. "He's an 'I'm gonna tend the rabbits' kind of guy," says Ricki. There are sock puppets, the lowliest of the low. There are many puppets that look like Guy Smiley.
Ricki's most beloved creature is the ID. He originally made the brown ogre with the tattered rags and long Willie Nelson braids on commission—but he refused to part with him once made. He has fangs and claws and is, I gather from Ricki's conversation, supposed to be scary. But like everything else about this man, he looks nice instead. He's kind of ALF-like, truth be told. But when he's on Ricki's arm, Ricki says, "I let ID say whatever he's supposed to say." I wait for something shocking and rude, but perhaps because my small son is in the room, ID stays kindly. If this is Ricki's dark side, then raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens are dark, too.
One time, he tells me, he was performing with ID at an Artists Village opening. A pretentious yuppie couple came in. "Lemme guess. Newport," ID said. "Irvine!" they retorted. "The guy had a Jag key ring," Ricki says scathingly. "So ID says, 'You know the starving children two blocks down? Ever think about selling the Jag?' And the guy goes, 'Oh, now you're just picking on me because I'm rich.' I told him [shrugging], 'Don't talk to me! Talk to ID.'"
And the guy did. "He was arguing with ID. He totally forgot I was there."
But as convincing as ID may have been to the pissed-off yuppie, this is no Jim Henson's Creature Shop. There are no robot Babe the Pigs. Ricki is lo-fi, "found" and funky, his creatures fashioned from foam and plastic bottles, from fur coats found in thrift shops, from glue and googly eyes. There are no fiberoptics or Imagineering here. He cobbles together crap to make people smile. Like the man himself, his puppets are made from scary stuff for a noble purpose.
Ricki Vincent performs at the Artists Village opening, Second Street Promenade, Santa Ana; www.thepuppetscafe.com. Sat., 7-10 p.m. Free.