Take a bike. Attach a large, brightly painted wooden box with curtains to the back. Assemble a cast of adorable Steiff animal puppets and add a small band of friends and neighbors. The result is Puppet Bike, a beloved theater-on-wheels that has pedaled the streets for the past 10 years entertaining visitors and residents of all ages.
Puppet Bike was created by Chicago Heights native Jason Trusty. Trusty’s original plan was to build a coffee bike for which he had already purchased commercial brewing equipment—but a city regulation and a trip out west changed all that.
Trusty happened upon a puppet show in a Colorado mountain clearing and was captivated by the Steiff puppets. When he learned that the coffee bike would necessitate the use of a commercial kitchen, his plans changed and Puppet Bike was born. With the help of his brother Eric, Trusty constructed the bike in about five weeks.
“It’s like a radio station, TV studio and playhouse all in one,” Trusty says.
Trusty is a self-described skilled craftsman and handyman as well as an artist and inventor. He even has a couple of patented inventions, including a ladder rack for the interior of service vehicles called JetRack.
In the early years Trusty sometimes performed with the puppets, although these days he mostly does maintenance on the bike, leaving the performing up to a volunteer group of puppeteers.
A performance lasts anywhere between two and five hours and includes little or no spoken dialogue. Clover, Lefty, Amtrak, Monkee and the other puppets dance, mime and generally ham it up to a musical rotation which includes Cajun zydeco, blues and old timey tunes.
While the Puppet Bike’s location isn’t always easy to pin down, it does have some favorite parking spots including Michigan Avenue near the Art Institute; Daley Plaza; and the corner of Clark and Berwyn in Andersonville.
The bike stays locked up outside and the Chicago weather has been kind of rough on it. With its future in question, Trusty shares a not-so-secret secret: he’s working on building a replacement. There’s even a Puppet Bike Fan Club that hopes to raise a little cash to help with the costs of construction. He plans to refurbish the old one, too, and then Chicagoans might be lucky enough to double their chances of catching a Puppet Bike performance.
What drives Trusty to keep the bike out on the streets? “It puts people in a good mood; it’s unique; it’s free; and it’s something forgotten. I can’t begin to quantify all the smiling faces that have stood in front of the box.”
Check out the Puppet Bike website for photos, videos and interesting trivia at puppetbike.com.