Joe Santoro always has his hands full.
He’s a puppeteer after all.
At the holidays and throughout the year, the one-of-a-kind theater in downtown Martinsburg created by Santoro is a draw for puppet-loving youngsters, their parents, grandparents and others. They come for the weekend shows, birthday parties, school trips and other fun outings.
This month, Wonderment Puppet Theater hosts “The Nutty Nutcracker” – the holiday favorite from Santoro’s rotating lineup of unique shows he writes himself.
Each storyline contains a frenzy of action, and Santoro alone handles all the sound effects, scenery and mood music. The New York-born art teacher also handcrafts his lineup of stars – dozens of puppets using socks, laundry detergent lids and other household fare.
Outside the holiday season, Wonderment highlights beloved characters such as Peter Rabbit, the Three Little Pigs, the Little Red Hen and Cinderella.
He arrived at his theater’s name from the look of wonderment that often can be found on children’s faces as they watch puppets bring a story to life.
Since its start in 2008, Wonderment has been a standout on the 400 block of King Street. Festooned with rainbow-hued spinning pinwheels, flags, balloons and other decorations, on weekend afternoons there’s also a sign saying “Show today!” to hail passersby.
The Victorian structure built in 1885 once served as a floral shop and is on the National Register of Historic Places. That designation put the kibosh on Santoro’s original plan to dress his storefront in wildly colored stripes and polka dots. He made do with the brightest paint colors deemed OK to authorities and gave the building a playful gingerbread look.
Inside, Santoro and his wife Jane transformed the space, moving walls to create an open area where kids can plop on the floor for each fast-moving, 30-minute show. The audience members fix their attention on the puppet stage in the back corner behind which Santoro has squeezed his tall, lanky frame. Hidden behind a curtain, the puppeteer works his magic.
The ground-floor business also features a separate room for parties, a Wall of Fame highlighting boys and girls who have had their birthday festivities at Wonderment, some Santoro-made puppets that children can try out, and a small retail nook where entranced theater-goers may purchase finger puppets so they can stage shows of their own at home.
Santoro, who spends weekdays inspiring creativity as an art teacher at Hedgesville Elementary, first began to use puppets goes back to the 1990s. Working then as a special ed teacher, Santoro saw how students in his classroom took in information eagerly as the puppets offered lessons on counting, letter recognition and other vital messages.
“The kids loved the puppets and so did I,” he said.
Before he opened the theater, Santoro traveled to schools, parks and other locations in the Eastern Panhandle and around West Virginia to stage puppet shows. He also held popular weeklong summer workshops at The Art Centre in Martinsburg for youngsters excited to learn how to make puppets and create their own shows.
Though the economic picture in the Panhandle hasn’t been as bright the last few years the way it was during the housing boom, Santoro’s enthusiasm for Wonderment is undimmed.
“No matter how the economy is doing, people want to be entertained,” Santoro said. “You don’t see movie houses shutting their doors. People are still going out to restaurants. It’s the same with us – we’re here so that kids and parents can come and have a good time. When they walk out of here smiling, that’s the best feeling there is.”