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Steve Meltzer looks out of the doorway from the Santa Monica Puppetry Center on Broadway, which he founded 12 years ago. Meltzer, an accomplished puppeteer, is closing the doors Aug. 16 because of financial troubles tied to dwindling attendance, which he blames on the economy. (photo by Brandon Wise)

BROADWAY — Now even puppets are unemployed.

After more than a dozen years entertaining Santa Monica’s children and their families, the Santa Monica Puppetry Center is closing its doors, the latest casualty of the slumping economy.

Steve Meltzer, the founder of the center and a skilled puppeteer who worked on the cult classic “Team America: World Police,” said he owes his landlord $14,000 in rent and does not see how he and his dummy Fred Mingo can continue performing his musical review “Puppetolio!” and providing tours of his museum, which pays tribute to the great marionettes and ventriloquists of the Vaudeville era and beyond.

“We’ve lasted this long only because of the extreme patience of the property owner who, along with me, continued to believe that we would find ways to survive the loss of revenue from the drop off in school shows and private parties,” Meltzer, a former teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District, said.

Meltzer, who moved to Santa Monica in the 1970s to attend USC, where he earned a masters in fine arts, hopes he can reopen somewhere within the city, but after having moved three times and now deep in debt, he is doubtful.

“People ask me where I am going to move to and I tell them, ‘I’m moving to the poor house,’” Meltzer said, the comedic-performer trying to find some humor during these trying times. “I love Santa Monica. It would be my choice to stay here. I call it the Santa Monica Puppetry Center. We branded it here. We are loyal to this.”

While the economy hasn’t helped, Meltzer said his financial troubles began soon after he moved to his location on Broadway. The center used to be located on Second Street in Downtown, but the landlord raised the rent by 60 percent, forcing the move, he said. Expenses associated with getting his center up and running buried Meltzer.

“Whenever you are moving a business, you take a loss,” he said.

Meltzer, who was introduced to the magic of puppetry when he was a boy growing up in New York City watching variety shows like the “Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Show,” still believes there is an audience for puppetry, which is often overlooked in the age of elaborate and expensive special effects, hand-held video games and ever shrinking attention spans.

“Some people think puppetry is either scary, stupid or for kids,” Meltzer said. “I don’t see it that way and I never have.”

Meltzer’s last performance is scheduled for Aug. 16. He will be adding extra shows until then with hopes that he can pay down his debt and say good-bye to old friends, and make new ones.

The center currently contains close to 500 puppets, the majority of which Meltzer said he will have to put into storage.

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