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Jewish Journal

Master of Puppets

by Michael Aushenker

October 11, 2001 | 8:00 pm

He worked aliens on "Men in Black," operated penguins in "Batman Returns"and helped bring the brontosaurus to life in the first "Flintstones" movie, but ace puppeteer Len Levitt says his most rewarding work was the children's show "Alef ... Bet ... Blast-Off!"

Levitt -- who brings his puppets to Jewish Community Library on Oct. 14 -- created the show on Jewish Television Network (JTN). For decades, he has toured the nation, entertaining Jewish children.

Perhaps the fact his career started at age 12, while attending Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, had something to do with it.

"They brought in a nice Presbyterian woman who made marionettes for children," said Levitt, 44, who operated his King Ahasuerus puppet for the shul's Purim spiel.

With buddies John Seed and Sean Cassidy (no relation to the '70s teenage heartthrob), Levitt created Puppet Conspiracy, a group that performed at churches and synagogues. They had a staunch supporter in Cassidy's father, the late actor Ted Cassidy (Lurch on "The Addams Family").

"In eighth grade, we made a film," Levitt recalled. "Ted helped edit the script, and coached us on filmmaking."

After receiving his master's degree in puppetry in the mid-1980s, Levitt went to production company Alchemy II, home of talking teddy bear Teddy Ruxpin, at the height of that toy's popularity. He built characters, wrote scripts for Ruxpin programs and even acted.

At the time, there were no shows about Jewish holidays, Levitt said, so he created "Chanukah at Bubbe's" and "Passover at Bubbe's." The videos impressed JTN's Jay Sanderson, who greenlighted "Alef ... Bet ... Blast Off!" (1994 -1998).

Outside Jewish foam-and-felt circles, Levitt made movies, was hired for various "Star Trek" series and landed the Holy Grail of puppet gigs, working for the late Jim Henson on what turned out to be Henson's last project, "Muppetvision 3-D," a Disney attraction.

"He had a very clear idea of getting what he wanted," Levitt said. "Jim was a pleasure on the set."

But, Levitt's heart will always be in Jewish children's entertainment, he said. "When I do a show in Minneapolis or Fort Lauderdale, it stills brings tears to my eyes, seeing a roomful of Jewish kids who are interested and having a great time."

Len Levitt visits the Jewish Community Library on Oct. 14. For information, call (323) 761-8648. For more info, visit www.jewishkidvid.com .

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