Peewinkle’s Puppet Studio features second and third generation of string-pullers

Heidi Shackleford juggles a career as a successful marionette cabaret performer and stay-at-home mom. | Alex Farris/The Star

Story by Kay Kemmet | Indianapolis Star 

Writer’s note: Puppeteering isn’t a typical career path, but for this family, it’s a way of life. My challenge with this story was finding an angle to this multigenerational business. I found that in Heidi Shackleford, a relatable stay-at-home mom who balances her two loves: her children and her puppets. This story ran on the front cover of Indy Living, a Sunday features section.

With a bow-tie-wearing monkey on a trapeze in tow, 14-year-old Heidi Pearson walked onto the porch of her childhood home. She turned on some music and started to make the animal move.

Her mother, Peggy Melchior, worked in the basement repairing marionettes built by her mother, Erica Melchior. Peggy Melchior told her daughter to practice with the marionette to get ready to perform on her own.

Five minutes later, Heidi appeared in the workshop. She

had already mastered animating the monkey.

“I guess,” Peggy Melchior said, “by watching me, she learned it.”

Now, 25 years later, Heidi Shackleford is the one performing in front of her daughters — the third generation of her family to mix puppetry with motherhood.

Erica Melchior was a stay-at-home mom who loved to sew. Puppetry became an outlet for her to make outfits, and it grew into a lucrative business. She created Melchior Marionettes in the 1950s, performing in black velvet evening gowns.

Peggy Melchior took over the business when her mother died in the 1970s. She opened the Melchior Marionette Theatre in Nashville, Ind. The theater celebrates its 30th season this summer. With her puppeteering business partner, Debbi White, Melchior started a nonprofit theater, Peewinkle’s Puppet Studio, in Downtown Indianapolis 16 years ago.

Shackleford, Greenwood, performs at schools and private events and will animate a cabaret at Peewinkle’s Puppet Studio in July.

But Shackleford didn’t always think she would be a professional puppeteer.

After a stint working as an art teacher at Carmel High School and a full-time silk painter, Shackleford turned back to the family business. She was a new mom and wanted to stay home. Puppetry is her source of income, said Heidi’s husband, Terence Shackleford, but the career also allows Shackleford to be a mom 90 percent of the time.

“It really fits into my lifestyle being a mother,” said Shackleford, mother to 8-year-old Nevi and 4-year-old Stella.

Stella has another year at home before she starts kindergarten. Until then, Shackleford gets to set her own schedule and focus on her children. This month, she scheduled 12 shows. Next month, there will be fewer.

“I just give myself permission to just be mom and make that the absolute highest priority,” Shackleford said. “Everything else kind of falls into place.”

The same was true for her mother and her grandmother: Puppetry allowed them to put motherhood first. But unlike Shackleford, both women traveled during their early days. Shackleford’s grandmother did shows throughout the Midwest and on cruise ships. Once, her mother was so homesick, Melchior said, she blew an entire week’s pay on a plane ticket.

Peggy Melchior also traveled and remembers being on the road for as long as a month at a time. But that tour brought in enough income that she could take the next four months off.

“It’s been a wonderful career to mix family and children,” said Melchior, 64.

Like Nevi and Stella, Shackleford went to puppet shows before she learned addition and subtraction.

Puppets covered the walls of her childhood home and hung from hooks in the basement. Shackleford remembers hosting a sleepover where her friends left in the middle of the night because they were frightened by the puppets hanging throughout the home.

“Living in a house with a mom as a puppeteer was crazy because there were puppets everywhere,” Shackleford said. “Everywhere.”

At 16, Shackleford’s parents bought her a car with one stipulation: You have to get a job. Her parents told her, “You can do what everyone else is doing and detassel corn, or you can do shows.”

She chose to do puppet shows.

“It was always more lucrative than getting a summer job at McDonald’s or lifeguarding,” Melchior said.

Shackleford started driving to her mother’s theater in Nashville on the weekends. Sometimes she would sell tickets. It was in that theater in the Indiana tourist town that Shackleford learned about performing.

“It was a really good way to learn and get practice,” Shackleford said, “to learn how to deal with people and make change.”

Today, Shackleford engages with the audience at each show. She brings kids on stage to dance “The Hokey Pokey” with an octopus.

But she is perhaps best loved for the annual Halloween show in which she performs as Gertrude the Witch. She wrote the script and made the marionettes and set. She has performed it for 15 years.

She wears a red and black striped shirt and tights and dyes her hair red and purple. At the end of the show, she tells the children, many of whom come back year after year, to “have a terrible evening.”

When Shackleford performs, “You feel like you know her,” said Irvington resident Tracy Litvan, who takes her family to Shackleford’s performances at the Irvington Halloween Festival each year.

Shackleford is passing the talent on to her daughters, who have had parts in the Halloween shows.

“It makes me so unbelievably proud that they will not sit behind stage and cower,” Terence Shackleford said.

But no one pushes the girls to continue.

“The more you try to force something like that, the less it’s going to happen,” Melchior said.

Both Melchior and Shackleford went to art school and had side careers — Melchior as a graphic designer for an advertising agency.

Mother and daughter have put their “thumb- prints” on the business, Melchior said. She started both theaters and gave Melchior Marionettes a place to perform. Shackleford took the business into the 21st century with Facebook, and she also brings a different perspective with her charismatic performances as Gertrude the Witch.

But the future of Peewinkle Puppet Studio and Melchior Marionettes seems uncertain. Shackleford is considering expanding the studio and creating a venue for traveling performers. She also wants to continue her silk painting business, which has been on hiatus for eight years.

Melchior thinks about slowing down, but said she doesn’t have plans to retire anytime soon.

“I don’t come from a family where retirement is in your vocabulary,” Shackleford said. “What you do with your life is your life.”

And what Shackleford, her mother and grandmother have done for a living, passion and fun is ingrained in who they are.

“I’m pretty sure that had I not been born into this, I probably wouldn’t be a puppeteer,” Shackleford said. “But it is what I do. It’s just who I am.”

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