In 2010, longtime local set carpenter and puppeteer Buzz Schwall took a job as an electrician on the set of “Big Miracle,” despite having no experience as an electrician. Schwall, known for being friendly, easy going and amenable, took the gig in stride -- even when he accidentally wired something wrong and ended up blowing up $12,000 worth of lamps on the multi-million-dollar film.
Friend and colleague Eric Lizer was with him on the shoot. He said despite the hassle Schwall's mistake created, the California-based film crew still loved Schwall and kept him on the film.
“He was so well-liked he didn't get fired,” Lizer said. “He just got he got ribbed a bit for it.”
Schwall, well-known in the Anchorage theater community and beyond, died suddenly Monday night from a heart attack. Schwall was 64, though Lizer and others noted that his energy and enthusiasm for life made him seem much younger.
“He was always the guy I thought would be 90 years old,” Lizer said. “I thought he'd have a lot left in him.”
While Schwall was an almost constant part of many Anchorage theater productions -- either as a stage technician with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees local 918 or just as a supporter. But those less involved with the behind-the-scenes work are probably more familiar with his passion: marionettes.
Over the last decade, Schwall has traveled the world learning about and building marionettes all while leading the charge for more puppeteering in Anchorage. His small, two-bedroom apartment in Bootleggers Cove was packed to the brim with dozens of marionettes, according to neighbor and longtime friend Brian MacMillian.
Over the years, Schwall -- originally from Atlanta -- added character and creativity to numerous Alaska stage productions with his whimsical puppets. Many Anchorage-staged operas -- from Don Giovanni to Eurydice -- used his puppets are part of their performances. He even traveled around Alaska teaching both adults and children about building and manipulating puppets.
Puppets took him all over the world. He performed in Prague, had marionettes displayed at a museum in Germany and even took several puppets to Afghanistan. He staged puppet shows that ranged from the ballet “Petrushka” to a bug-filled interpretation of Federico García Lorca's “The Butterfly's Evil Spell.”
Developing carpal tunnel syndrome led Schwall to start building puppets in the early 2000s. Friend Tammy Sitar said before Schwall moved to Alaska he had worked building skyscrapers on the East Coast. After developing carpal tunnel, he moved into much smaller work: theater set design. When carpal tunnel crept up on him again doing stage work, he turned his attention to miniature theater.
When wood comes alive
Sitar helped manipulate and costume the puppets Schwall dreamt up. Great thought and attention went into building Schwall's puppets. She said he spent a great deal of time doing research on whatever he was working on -- whether that meant learning music theory to complement his design of opera puppets or extensive research on the whimsical insects and spiders he developed later in his career.
Sitar said he had a fascination with the ability to take a piece of wood and make something emotional out of it.
“He could make people feel things,” she said. “People would cry. He could get that kind of emotion from people with just a basic block of wood.”
MacMillian said that attention to small details in puppetry lent itself well to Schwall's work as a stage technician with IATSE.
“It's what he brought to the theater,” MacMillian said. “He was always looking at how we can make things better, make things easier.”
A true renaissance man, in recent years Schwall had begun learning how to play music, including piano. Losing the tip of his right index finger in a construction accident didn't stop Schwall from learning to play the instruments with his left, non-dominant hand, Sitar said.
“He's been an artist all his life,” Sitar said. “He just followed the muse wherever it took him.”
Sitar said friends are hoping to set up a donation fund in memory of Schwall to help provide music instruments to needy youth. Until then, Sitar suggested raising a glass to Schwall at his favorite watering hole, Darwin's Theory.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com