Arts & Culture

Steampunk coffee puppeteer brings his passion to Garden City

Can one person shift the culture of a city? Well, if it’s up to Jodi Eichelberger, the answer is yes. A world class puppeteer, St(r)eam Coffee & Tea Bike proprietor and Garden City artrepreneur, Eicheberger is enhancing the area’s culture one cuppa — and one event — at a time.

The steampunk bicycle barista pedals to farmers markets, street fairs and other events and often can be found on the Greenbelt by the 36th Street footbridge. He and his partner, artist Sam Paden, moved to Idaho last year for a better quality of life. The pair had been living in New York City and Reykjavik, Iceland, where Eichelberger, 44, operates and voices the puppet Stingy on the show “LazyTown.”

They landed in Garden City within the Surel Mitchell Live-Work-Create Art and Spirits District, which they discovered on a visit with Eichelberger’s mom last year.

“It’s just a little slice of heaven,” Eichelberger says.

Now that he’s settled, you’ll be hearing more from Eichelberger. He gives bicycle tours of the cultural district around Surel’s Place artist’s residency. This month he will present Portland’s Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” at the Garden City Boys and Girls Club’s Moseley Center. This funky steampunk adaptation of the Jules Vern underwater adventure also played at Treefort’s Kidfort last month.

“It’s really very contemporary and visual,” he says. “And the puppets are cool.”

That’s something Eichelberger really knows about. He has a long history with puppetry and is the former artistic director of Tears of Joy. You also can see him perform a new piece before “20,000 Leagues” that he is creating with puppet maker Willow Socia. Now he is excited to help develop an audience for puppetry in the Treasure Valley.

Eichelberger grew up in Boise fascinated by puppets. He even wrote to “Sesame Street” creator Jim Henson asking how he could work for him someday.

Henson responded.

“I remember trembling as I opened the envelope,” Eichelberger says. “He said ‘Your goal shouldn’t be to join Henson Company, but to truly pursue what you love and if that brings our paths together, that will be your rainbow connection.’ ”

Eichelberger never met Henson, who died in 1990, but Eichelberger’s path toward that goal was well underway. While Eichelberger studied vocal performance at Lewis and Clark State College, he stumbled into an internship at Oregon Puppet Theater that launched him into the world of puppetry and onto some pretty heady places, including a Broadway stage and a major motion picture produced by, yep, Jim Henson’s company.

As a puppeteer, he has created, performed and toured shows across the United States. In 1999, he found himself cast in the film “ The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland,” starring all the “Sesame Street” characters.

“It was great to work with some of the original ‘Sesame Street’ people,” he says. “It was a dream come true.”

Afterward, he went back to direct Tears of Joy. But wanting to get back to performing, he left in 2003 and started his Other Hand Productions. As he waited for that to develop, he took a job as a singing waiter on Portland Spirit Cruises. That’s when he started getting calls about a puppet musical in New York.

“People were like, ‘You have to audition for this show,’ ” he says. “But I didn’t want to move to New York.”

Eventually he caved, and flew to New York City to audition for the Tony-winning “Avenue Q.” After three calls, he was cast as the cover for lead actor and puppeteer John Tartaglia.

“That show was electric,” Eichelberger says. “And I got to go on a lot. Early in the run, John tapped me to go on mid-show because he didn’t think his voice was going to last. So it was all hands on deck pushing me from place to place. But the audience didn’t notice until they made an announcement during intermission.”

Broadway was a great adventure, but he found it limiting.

“You’re not able to go anywhere, and you’re doing the same show every night. It wasn’t for me.”

So, when the chance to do a TV show in Iceland appeared six months into the run, he jumped at it. Based on an Icelandic children’s book and play, the TV show became a hit. It films in a super high-tech studio in Reykjavik.

“I never would have wanted to miss that opportunity. It was so unique, enriching and truly life-changing,” he says.

“LazyTown” airs on NBC.

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