Tony Dominguez's Rock Opera La Muerte Vive With Ginormous Dia de los Muertos Puppets
|Tony Dominguez, maker of giant Dia de los Muertos puppets|
Tony Dominguez is a 3-D kind of guy. Most people look at a photo and see it only in two dimensions. Dominguez looks at a flat image and sees its geometry in three. He can spin it around in his head. He senses its depth.
As a maker of giant Dia de los Muertos puppets, he is well served by this talent. Lately, though, it seems as if three dimensions aren't nearly enough.
Dominguez got his start making piñatas. He then moved on to papier-mâché puppets. Then big papier-mâché puppets. Soon giant puppets were not enough. He decided there ought to be music and the puppets ought to dance.
Since he had always liked Dia de los Muertos, he envisioned a play with the Mexican celebration of death and the afterlife at its center. No, he thought, an opera. A rock opera. A theatrical event of national proportions, with elements of burlesque, cabaret, mariachi songs and pageantry to complement the puppets.
"The entire stage will be a living altar," Dominguez was saying, less than a month before yesterday's premiere of his rock opera La Muerte Vive. He and the performers were rehearsing in the dimly lit Million Dollar Theater downtown. "You're gonna do a big dance number in Act 1 and drive everyone nuts," he says to his lead actress, Ruby Champagne.
With big arm movements, he explains the concept, which is still evolving. She'd be dead, brought out on an altar and resurrected. The giant puppets -- skeletons, Virgens de Guadalupe, cactuses, suns with faces, skulls -- would be marched down the aisles. Then a bit with naughty nuns. "Imagine the girls painted like sexy skeletons doing a sexy dance. Whenever you resurrect someone it's a big carnaval," Dominguez adds.
Champagne nods her head slightly but continuously, like one of those bobblehead dashboard chihuahuas.
"Flores! Flores por los muertos!," narrator Don Garza reads from the script, drawing a frown from Dominguez's friend, musician Santos de los Angeles -- also the opera's star. "Do it more creepy. Flooooooooores!," de los Angeles says in an exaggerated way. "Flooores por los muuuuertos."
"They're summoning Death into the theater," whispers Gina Linn Espinoza, Dominguez's producer, publicist, business consultant, best friend and former life coach.
People in Dominguez's life tend to wind up as multihyphenates. Such is his enthusiasm. He and de los Angeles, for instance, met 12 years ago at a concert where the latter was performing. De los Angeles jumped off the stage, wild and crazy, and Dominguez decided de los Angeles was someone he ought to get to know.
Dominguez is 42 years old with an expressive, childlike face and big ears. If time is the fourth dimension, his puppets, in a way, exist in more than three dimensions. They dominate his past, present and future.
If the party was oversized, involved giant papier-mâché and happened in Los Angeles, chances are Dominguez had a hand in it. For 10 years he ran Festival de la Gente on the Sixth Street Bridge, where 170,000 people saw his giant skeletons. Before that, he helped launch Hollywood Forever Cemetery's famous Day of the Dead party. His ex-girlfriend now organizes that event. "She used me for puppets," he jokes.
As soon as one Dia de los Muertos is over, Dominguez starts building puppets for the next one. In this manner, his collection -- already the largest in the world -- keeps growing.
The giant, traditional puppets Dominguez makes are called judas. In Mexico's old days, judas as tall as houses were taken to festivals and set on fire. They represent Jesus' traitor disciple, Judas Iscariot, and thus often look like devils or demons.
Over time they took on diverse forms. In modern times, it is not unheard of to see a judas in the shape of a corrupt politician or a witch or SpongeBob SquarePants. The knowledge of how to make these fantastical papier-mâché figures was passed down in families from generation to generation.
Eventually, though, ginormous puppets ceased to make economic sense. Demand for Mexican folk art in the United States was growing, and it was far easier to ship the smaller stuff than to figure out the logistics of transporting, say, a two-story devil across the country.
With barely anybody making it, large-scale papier-mâché mostly died with the old guard. Save for a few isolated spots in Mexico, the art of building giant puppets was lost.
Every so often, artisans in Los Angeles would try to make the big stuff and fail. Once the papier-mâché surpassed a certain size, it would inevitably collapse. The artists didn't know how to reinforce the structure. Or they used the wrong kind of cardboard, or folded it with the grain flowing in the wrong direction.
Dominguez brought the big scale back. Traditional judas call for cardboard held together with flour and water paste, draped over a wood armature. Dominguez supplements this with 3M masking tape, newspaper, napkins and chipboard. His family didn't exactly pass down the specific techniques for making giant sculptures, but they did inadvertently give him the requisite skills. He worked for a while in his grandfather's construction business and now uses many of those same basic framing and building techniques. The artistry is his alone.
"There's no school that teaches you this," he said at his studio a few days after the rehearsal. He pointed to a bas relief papier-mâché skull the size of a garage door. "You have to learn from a master craftsman." He painted the skull white with blushing pink highlights and nestled it on a field of black, surrounded by bones. It's creepy, but makes you feel happy to look at it.
Dominguez's master was his baby sitter, a woman from Juárez, Mexico, who owned a piñata store. She and Dominguez used to build piñatas together after school. With her, he discovered that he is a natural sculptor. When Dominguez later opened up his own piñata store, that natural ability was honed by years of piñata making.
"It came from years and years of people coming in with a picture and saying, make this for me," he says. He'd make five special orders a day: Donald Duck, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Power Rangers, a horse, you name it. He'd bring it to life with paper and glue.
The figures got bigger from there. "These are extensions of my personality," he notes, walking around the studio, observing his creations. "And now you'll see them onstage." He pauses in one corner next to a grinning devil in yellow pants. It's almost as tall as he is. Dominguez kicks its feet. He and the devil are wearing the same black Converse shoes. "It's my alter ego," he says.
In another corner is a frog with a big, drooling tongue. Of the frog he whispers conspiratorially, "I was dating a stripper at the time. My ex-wife was not happy about that."
Occasionally, stuff gets rather too three-dimensional. He once made an 80-foot skeleton for a Jaguares concert. He and his brother hung it over the side of the parking structure at the Wiltern Theater. Its head was on the roof, but its feet grazed the sidewalk. It was taller than the parking lot. "OK," said Dominguez. "Who did the math on this?"Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.