Kids have been out of school for quite some time, thanks to Covid-19. While some are languishing on sofas across the country, binging on Netflix and playing video games, others, like fifteen year old Owen Benjamin, are seizing the “downtime” to let their imaginations soar. Owen, a budding puppeteer, has combined his love of puppets, animals, and technology to advance social awareness and educate the public about endangered animals. While in quarantine, Owen has produced three public videos on his YouTube channel, “The Land of Puppetaria,” which can best be described as Sesame Street meets the animal loving Kratt brothers.
Like the Kratt brothers, zoologists who transformed their enthusiasm for animals into a family entertainment brand (The Kratt Brothers Company), Owen Benjamin hopes to educate children about zoology through the use of fun characters and humor. While the Kratt brothers created Zoboo, a talking lemur that headlined their popular PBS show, Zoboomafu (from 1999 to 2001), Owen Benjamin has created Animal Boy, an eclectic puppet mix of various animal features, and Mr. Monster, a bright, red, furry creature much like the famous Oscar the Grouch. Both characters are prominently featured in “The Land of Puppetaria.” While Animal Boy hosts “Animal Boy’s Animal Atlas,” an educational look at endangered species, Mr. Monster recently took center stage in “Puppetaria’s” YouTube public service announcement on the importance of facial coverings during the Covid-19 pandemic.
PHOTO: Owen's puppet, Mr. Monster, appears in a public service announcement about the importance of wearing masks during the Covid-19 pandemic.
All the puppet residents of the fictional “Land of Puppetaria” are products of Owen’s imagination. In addition to writing the scripts for his YouTube productions, directing, filming and editing, Owen provides the voices for his characters and crafts the puppets himself.
“When I first started,” Owen explained, “my puppet, Animal Boy, who was a cartoon I had drawn since first grade, was the only one I had built. Over time, I started to use more puppets that I had built. Sometimes, I would add features to puppets I already had to make them my own, like Mookey (Owen’s brown puppet), or create a better version of the puppet from scratch, like Mr. Monster. As I get better at puppet building, more and more puppets are originals.”
While Owen, a self-professed “zoology nerd,” obviously controls every aspect of his YouTube productions, he is quick to point out “The Land of Puppetaria” is a “family project.”
“My dad helps out a ton,” Owen said. “I always need an extra hand when puppeteering (literally), so he usually does a second puppet, from wombats to gnus to manatees. He taught me how to edit videos, and we have a lot of fun together. He helps with the building of some of the puppets I design. Of course, my mom and sister support us through all of it, especially with being okay having a kitchen covered in monster fur and googly eyes! They watch all of my videos before we put them out.”
Owen credits public television for awakening his creativity and concern for animal welfare. He learned about endangered species through “Go Diego Go,” a PBS cartoon in which the main character introduces viewers to various animals and their habitats. Owen grew up watching Sesame Street, the quintessential land of puppets. When his third grade teacher asked each of her students to portray a famous person in a “hands on” biography, Owen decided to profile puppet master and Muppet creator, Jim Henson, and instinctively knew the best method to impart Henson’s love of puppetry was through puppetry itself. Owen creatively assumed dual personalities for his assignment, and in the guise of Fozzie Bear, interviewed himself in the persona of Jim Henson.
“This was my first puppet performance,” Owen remembered, “and I had a blast. Plus, I got a ton of people smiling and laughing when I did it. Since then, I was hooked.”
PHOTO: Fifteen year old Owen Benjamin displays his "Coldbear" puppet modeled after comic Stephen Colbert
When Owen Benjamin isn’t creating puppets and producing YouTube videos, he enjoys nature documentaries, gaming, drawing, visiting zoos and aquariums, and caring for his fish and two dogs, Buzz, a corgi, and Panda, a shih tzu. Owen also enjoys The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In fact, Owen’s latest and perhaps best puppet to date, aptly named “Coldbear,” was inspired by the popular comic and even has Colbert’s trademark bent right ear.
Owen’s parents, Jodi and Dwayne, are understandably proud of their son’s accomplishments.
“I absolutely adore Owen’s passion, and it’s all about wanting to make people happy while doing whatever he can to educate and help save the animals,” Dwayne said.
Owen’s friends are equally appreciative of Owen’s talents; Owen is grateful for their support.
“My friends are artsy and funny,” Owen commented, “so they help out with jokes and puppets. What I love about our friend group is that we all have our own thing, from history geeks to writers to drawers to anime lovers to gamers, but we all hang out and learn from each other’s hobbies.”
Apparently, young Owen has learned what some adults never do: we are all different, but if we combine our varied talents and interests, we can make a difference in the world. Owen Benjamin’s talents could lead him anywhere!
“When I’m older,” Owen said, “I would want to work with puppets or animals, preferably both. Of course, my dream would be working with the Muppets, but I can also see myself working at a zoo. I would either be a zookeeper or someone who puts on puppet shows for kids about animals.”
At his young age, Owen has already discovered the true measure of success.
“In my life,” he said, “even if I got one laugh from someone, or made one child want to learn about and help animals, it would have been worth it.”
Others recognize that Owen has embarked on a unique altruistic journey.
“I feel Owen is destined for his own path,” Dwayne remarked, “and I can’t wait to see it all play out. We never have to teach him anything because the second he gets passionate about it, he is off to the races and just swallows every piece of information about the topic he can. Nothing gets in his way, but he is so kind about it all that before you know it, you are at some zoo in the middle of somewhere, and he is talking to the keepers and sharing stuff they sometimes don’t even know! And he just does it all with a smile. My wife, Jodi and I are just along for the great safari!”
To tag along for Owen’s great safari, and to see the debut of “Coldbear” (scheduled for later this month), check out “The Land of Puppetaria” on YouTube. And remember the name: Owen Benjamin. The Kratt brothers and the Muppets may reign supreme in the world of puppetry today, but Owen Benjamin is the star of tomorrow.