At midnight Thursday, filmmaker Peter Jackson’s long-awaited first “Hobbit” film will hit theaters across the United States.
Fans of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” and those of Jackson’s celebrated 2001-2003 film trilogy of the latter fantasy saga, will see if he can pull off the magic yet another time.
As Tolkien’s tragic, pathetic and villainous Gollum might say, “We shall see, my precioussss, O yes, we shall see.”
But this will not be the first time an animated production of “The Hobbit” opens in Boulder. In 1973, a young University of Colorado student and Boulder native named Bill Johnk poured his heart and artistic genius into an amazing marionette version of the story, which played for just three nights at CU’s Glenn Miller Ballroom.
Lovingly crafted and gorgeously attired, the 27 marionettes included the eponymous Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the wizard, Thorin Oakenshield and his dwarves, hideous goblins, Gollum and Smaug, the golden-red dragon.
My parents were going to be gone that weekend and I nearly had an infarction.
Thankfully, the old people that stayed with me were instructed to take the little geek to his puppet show. I have never forgotten it. Bill’s images have remained with me nearly four decades later and I have friends who also treasure the memories.
The key ingredient, I’m convinced, was love. Bill was a Tolkien fan. And like many people, he loved escaping into the Oxford don’s vividly imagined worlds.
“Someone introduced me to (the books) and I loved them,” says Bill, now 65, who still lives in Boulder. “I got to the point where I couldn’t walk down the streets and see shrubs and crows without it becoming a tunnel into Middle Earth.”
Bill graduated from Boulder High and was honorably discharged from the Army after six months because of an injury. He enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute. But he didn’t want to study art, he wanted to make it. So he moved to Monterey, Calif., drawn by its romantic associations with Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.”
There he lived the life of the starving artist in an apartment directly above the Wing Chong Market. He washed dishes at a restaurant that once had been Herman’s Café; both places were made famous in Steinbeck’s work.
“I spent my time with my feet propped on a wood-burning stove, reading the books and it dawned on me that I could make (“Hobbit”) marionettes. So I started making Bilbo Baggins, just to see if I could do it,” says Bill.
But he had no idea how to make a marionette and no Google.
“I took a book out of the library,” he says.
He took to self-taught puppetry with relish and by the time he forsook the life of a hardscrabble artist he had Bilbo, Gandalf and Gollum to accompany him back to Boulder, where he enrolled at CU. He worked feverishly around classes, seven days a week, 10 hours a day, painting backdrops, building puppets. He applied for and was awarded grants and set up a corporation. He connected with musicians John Ulinger and Alex Major, who created an eerie soundtrack and persuaded friends to record the dialogue.
That shorthand doesn’t do justice to the monumental effort, of course, but in October 1974 his labor of love came to life at last. Smaug blew smoke — and so did Bilbo’s and Gandalf’s pipes. Goblins and trolls terrified, Elrond and his moon-eyed elves mesmerized, Gollum riddled.
But beyond the three Boulder performances and a few in Vail, the project never grew into the full-time puppet theater he had envisioned. It wasn’t all fantasy and fun: “Playing manager and politician … I just got burned out.”
He went on to do artwork for the Fiske Planetarium and became an intern at Disney — just as filmmaker Tim Burton had arrived to change the way animation was done; Bill was old school. So he returned to Boulder, where he worked as a draftsman and early CAD designer.
But Bill never stopped being an artist. Today he displays a series of lifelike ethnographic busts (with real glass eyes), models and paintings in his house; the place is also full of fossils, Indonesian shadow puppets, insects behind glass and more; he could sell tickets to the place. And his scale model of the Steinbeck-era Cannery Row is on display at the Maritime Museum in Monterey.
Sadly, the “Hobbit” puppets were lost to a divorce and a one-time friend who spirited them away overseas.
But whatever cinematic wonders Jackson has in store for Tolkien fans, there’s no way the new movie can possibly be more magical for me — and lots of other grown up Boulder “kids” — than the one created by Bill Johnk’s loving heart and hands.
Note: Friends who know I am both an animal advocate and a Tolkien fan have urged me to boycott the movie over incidents of animal neglect and cruelty, not on set, but on a farm where animals used in the film were housed. The production company acknowledged the deaths in 2011 of a goat, two horses and some chickens, then worked to correct problems at the site. Animal abuse in service of entertainment is especially inexcusable. But I have looked beyond PETA’s misleading campaign and I am satisfied that Jackson’s company responded appropriately and in no way deserves a boycott.