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Puppets more than child's play

From left are Tony Fleszar, Tim Sėlberg, and Randy Erskine of Sėlberg Studios. (click for larger version)
October 16, 2013 - Deep in the heart of Independence Township, a small team of highly skilled specialists works hard to bring mechanical beings to life.

And they have a waiting list, said Timothy Sėlberg of Sėlberg Studios Inc.

"I've always been interested in puppets and robots - I thought they were cool," said Sėlberg. "I was always drawing them in school."

He, along with mechanical engineers Randy Erskine and Tony Fleszar, design, sculp, and produce puppets, "three-dimensional carved mechanized figures," for ventriloquists and collectors all over the world.

Along with puppet figures of the type used by entertainers Edgar Bergen, Jimmy Nelson, and Jeff Dunham, they design and make more unusual items like a talking toupee, conversational clock, a barstool that speaks ancf even a piece to make a real dog appear to be speaking.

"All kinds of weird stuff," he said.

Born in Pontiac in 1959, he remembers watching Jimmy Nelson on TV. His mom bought him his first puppet from Sears when he was 6 years old. He started making his own when he was 12, and was selling some by 16. He founded Sėlberg Studios in 1986, making puppets full time. He moved to the Clarkston area six years ago with his family and set up shop in the basement.

"There's never a shortage of ideas. The trick is to find time to implement them," he said.

Sėlberg Studios has made professional ventriloquist figures for customers all over the world, including Jeff Dunham, Terry Fator, and David Copperfield. He knew Dunham since he was 15, selling him a Walter puppet, as well as a Sweet Daddy D.

Sėlberg estimates making over a thousand puppets over the years.

"In the beginning, they were all custom made from wood – I did the mechanics," he said.

But the time soon came when he needed help to bring the mechanics up the next level.

"I hired two mechanical geniuses," Sėlberg said.

Randy Erskine of Oxford joined about four years ago, applying for a job he didn't know anything about.

"My wife found the listing on Craig's List for someone mechanically inclined – nothing about puppets," Erskine said. "For me, the big selling feature was working from home."

He builds mechanisms mostly within the figure's head, everything to animate them and make the various features move.

Mechanical engineering is in his blood – his great grandfather, Albert Russel Erskine, was president of Studebaker in the 1920s and '30s.

"I have a history of building things," Randy Erskine said. "I love it. Seeing them up on stage, performing, making people laugh, that's cool."

Tony Fleszar of Union Lake, mechanical engineer, joined in 2010.

"I was looking for a job – I had quit my day job," Fleszar said. "I had had enough of corporate life."

He was in charge of an engineering group when he saw the listing on Craig's list. The ad said something like "make ventriloquism puppets, yes, you read that right."

"I completely stumbled on it," Fleszar said. "It's unique, that's for sure."

The team spends dozens of hours on each puppet in a still labor-intensive process. They offer different lines of puppets, with appearance and features created to customer specifications.

He has orders from all over the country, Italy, Brazil, Australia, the Netherlands, etc.

"We're lucky, we have a long wait list," Sėlberg said. "But the bad part is it keeps us too busy to get to new ideas."

Many of the figures are used on stage, but others are ordered as presents, made to look like the recipients.

"And a lot of collectors – doctors put them in their offices, and movies every now and then," Sėlberg said.

He plans to work on more gallery-type pieces as works of art for collectors.

"There's so much beautiful work in the head you can't see," he said.

One idea is to build a puppet with a window in the head, to show the mechanics inside, he said.

"There were periods over the last 40 years where it seemed to be dying out, but there's always someone interested," he said. "There's always something going on. Lots of young people contact me, that's the key."

There's always something new and never seen, Erskine said.

"A better way to do it, quieter, easier to use," he said.

"We're always improving," Sėlberg said

His children, Lukas, Elise, and Angela, 19, like the mechanical figures.

"They think it's cool," he said. "I'm not sure if they'll follow in my footsteps. They're more into music."

His wife, Jane, though, is afraid of them.

"Sometimes if one had been moved to a new spot, it'll startle me," he said.

And some puppets would scare anybody, he said.

"The creepy ones – some are freaky," he said. "I still see something pleasant in them, soft to them, making them accessible."

Each puppet figure is custom made, so the amount of time it takes to make them vary. New features add dozens or hundreds of hours.

"We spent a couple years talking about how to get the tongue to stick out," Fleszar said.

For more information, check www.selbergstudios.com.

Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.
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