Twenty years and nearly 300 shows later, one might expect Russell Da Rooster to show some signs of aging.
Maybe moving a little slower. Being more cautious. Needing more rest.
But old Russell keeps proving that he’s just getting started – even getting married.
He and Silkie, a “beautiful puppet,” will wed next week at the Japanese Garden at Kukuiolono Golf Course and it promises to be the ceremony of the decade, with about a dozen puppets and people in attendance.
Old Russell has long been sharing aloha, spreading good news and helping keiki learn about environment, native species, history and community events around Kauai. He’s often joined by sidekick, Calvin Barker brought to life by Will Welsh, and filmed by camera man and technical director, Robert Zelkovsky.
The first show aired Nov. 8, 1997 on Garden Island Cable. After 20 years, they’re still talking, still teaching, still being part of Kauai through the eyes of Russell and Calvin.
“We’re very grateful for how far we’ve gotten,” said Mark Jeffers, creator and voice of Russell the Rooster.
“We’re like a well-oiled machine. A lot of oil, not much machine,” Welsh said, laughing.
This trio, in fact, has been together for two decades of the popular show filmed at Storybook Theatre in Hanapepe and locations around the island and broadcast on Spectrum.
“The improvisational style we’ve done has taken us a lot of miles,” Jeffers said.
Those miles have featured lessons in wisdom, laughter and love.
“If a rooster and a dog can form a cross-species friendship, then anybody should be able to,” said a smiling Welsh.
“Anyone can be friends,” he said. “I think that’s important.”
Zelkovsky, the man behind the lens, said the three men have a great friendship and easy working relationship. Plus, they are good at winging it.
“Ninety percent of what we’ve done has been ad-libbed — one take,” he said.
The show, Jeffers added, is about friendships.
“We want to see the world from the children’s point of view. How do children look at the world around them? It’s kind of like the innocence we come about with the program,” Jeffers said.
Jeffers said Russell’s roots go back to his teenage years when his aunt took him to meet Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. That show featured puppets, music and creative learning.
Later, Jeffers studied puppetry at the University of Hawaii. He also met crew members of Sesame Street who vacationed in Hawaii, and learned about puppetry from them, too.
He has a degree in early childhood education and founded a preschool in Honolulu. He believes it’s critical that their imaginations grow.
“They need to be able to imagine, and puppets help them to do that,” he said.
When Jeffers, Welsh and Zelkovsy met, it was not long after Hurricane Iniki in 1992. They wanted to help young people understand their experiences, their stress and they wanted to help restore the value of childhood that had been lost on the island after the storm.
“We started talking about what if we did something for children,” Zelkovsky said.
They chatted about filming on locations around the island, magazine style, and bringing keiki into places they don’t normally get to — learning while having fun. A tribute to keiki that was all about keiki.
“It’s real positive television, that’s what I like about it,” Zelkovsky said.
Their longtime home has been at the historic Storybook Theatre, for which they have a long-term lease and Jeffers is credited with saving from demolition and overseeing its restoration.
“I believe we have in 20 years very much contributed to what you see now, which is plenty of aloha for children, lots of children’s activities, people considering children when they produce an event. I believe we contributed to that,” Jeffers said.
This show, by the way, isn’t just for keiki.
People tell them today, they remember being on the Russell Da Rooster Show when they were children.
“We have a lot of seniors who enjoy it because it reminds them of a simpler time,” Jeffers said.
A puppet’s life
Over 20 years, they have created 270 half-hour shows and several specials. Last year, they shot during the Ka‘iulani Festival and filmed a Christmas special. They’ve also visited fun runs, the Coast Guard and community parades. A favorite episode was when they traveled to the Big Island for a look at volcanoes.
“There are serendipitous things that happen that are so beautiful,” Jeffers said.
The longevity of the show can be attributed to its dedication toward providing children with a rich and rounded early life. Toward that goal, they stay positive and avoid negative.
Jeffers puts it in an analogy about eating junk food. Tastes good now, but eventually it catches up with you and pretty soon, you’re not feeling so great.
“If you consume junk food stories, that’s what’s going to be rolling back in here,” he said.
So it’s good stuff only from Russell the Rooster and Calvin Barker.
This children’s educational program has won state and nation awards. One of the specials was “Birth of a Family.” Another focused on a tour of the islands.
And they do it on a annual budget of $15,000 to $20,000.
“That should be monthly,” Jeffers said.
The show’s success can be found in its consistency and versatility, said Zelkovsky, and a respect for childhood years. They’ve looked at literacy, environment and history, all with kids in mind.
“We’re always looking for ways to include young people in what we’re doing,” Jeffers added. “If we say anything, we always show and demonstrate respect for young people, listening closely to them.”
If you don’t know the world of children, Jeffers said, “your approach to it is simplistic and condescending.”
“If you look at a child as though they’re always about to become something, you’re missing what this child really is,” he said. “The respect of the world of children and the child himself, is so important.”
Jeffers recounted a conversation with a young Special Olympian, who told him, “Do your best and don’t be lazy.”
“That’s exactly what we need to hear now,” he said.
And that’s exactly what Russell and Calvin are about.