DOWNTOWN — Steve Meltzer, the founder of the Santa Monica Puppetry Center, which entertained scores of children and their parents for more than a dozen years, has died. He was 56.

Just two hours after performing his final show and permanently closing his puppetry center Aug. 16 as it fell victim to the economic downturn, Meltzer had a stroke. Days later, he had surgery for a brain tumor.

He died Nov. 30 of melanoma at his home in Santa Monica.

“He had a big personality and was really devoted to his craft and kids,” Christine Papalexis, a puppeteer who preceded Meltzer as president of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry, told the L.A. Times.

Meltzer was first introduced to the magic of puppetry when he was a boy growing up in New York City. Television was relatively young then, and stations were dominated by variety shows. Meltzer’s favorite was the “Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Show” on NBC. A 30-minute variety show for adults and kids, it captured Meltzer’s attention and his imagination. He fell in love with the ventriloquist and his wooden dummy.

“The biggest thrill was to stay up late and watch his 7:30 (p.m.) broadcast,” Meltzer told the Daily Press in an interview nearly three years ago. “He was unlike any other ventriloquist. He was innovative. His dummy just didn’t sit on his knee. It was just fantastic. I just remember thinking, ‘I know that guy’s not alive, but in a way, he was. It was my first dichotomy.”

Little did he know at the time, but Meltzer would eventually meet Winchell and become friends with the voice of Tigger on the “Winnie Pooh” series. The two became so close that Winchell gave his last performance at the Puppetry Center before he died in 2005.

In his teen years, puppetry on television began to fade, but Meltzer’s fascination with the art stayed strong. While working at a summer camp, he decided to make his own dummy, and that’s when the sarcastic Fred Mingo was born. Meltzer appeared with his dummy on Nickelodeon and “The Daily Show,” and worked on the cult classic “Team America: World Police,” the first feature film to use marionettes instead of real actors.

The two also starred in Meltzer’s one-man show “Puppetolio!” It was a marionette musical.

In addition to performing, Meltzer operated the Santa Monica Puppetry Center, a museum and theater that featured dozens of classic marionettes, puppets and dummies from the earliest days of the art in what could only be described as an elaborate shrine that paid respect to the performers that came before Meltzer.

Each artifact came with a unique story, starting with the first puppet Meltzer purchased for $5 at a Long Beach swamp meet in a “spur-of-the-moment” decision that re-energized the performer, who was working as a teacher at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Meltzer and the center fell on hard times earlier this year because of the struggling economy. School field trips dried up and the audiences shrunk, leaving Meltzer in debt and unable to pay rent. Meltzer was forced to move the center three times throughout the years because of rising rents. Each relocation forced Meltzer to invest more money, putting a strain on his finances, he told the Daily Press in August.

Meltzer’s collection of over 400 puppets will be donated to museums and sold to private collectors.

He is survived by his mother, Sylvia Falk, 92; and his sisters, Susan Slatnick and Roberta Zwart.

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