Kirk Bixby as Mr. Popper

Actor, puppeteer, circus artist and animal lover Kirk Bixby appears with penguin friends -- operated by his fellow cast members and puppeteers -- in "Mr. Popper's Penguins," the family-friendly musical coming to the Overture Center's Capitol Theater on Jan. 7.

To understand Kirk Bixby — the spirited actor who plays the penguin-loving Mr. Popper in the musical “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” — first you have to know about the ducks.

Bixby loves ducks, especially a particularly famous one named Donald.

“I don’t know why. I just think he’s wonderful and hilarious,” Bixby remarked in a recent phone interview. “I was wearing a Donald Duck sweatshirt just today, in fact. I just love to collect anything: I’ve got comic books and little figurines, Pez dispensers, stuffed animals, clothing.”

“It just makes me happy,” he said of his collection. “I like to have something that I can just look at and instantly feel a little joy. That inner child in me that makes me love to do children’s theater also loves Donald Duck.”

Happiness and water-loving birds are also at the center of the family-friendly musical “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” now on its first national tour. Based on the 1938 (but timeless) children’s novel by Richard and Florence Atwater, the hourlong stage version comes to the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater for a 3 p.m. public performance on Jan. 7. Two sold-out field trip shows for schools take place Jan. 8.

“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” is the light-hearted but intelligent story of a small-town house painter who is fascinated by all things Arctic and Antarctic. Mr. Popper studies, reads and dreams about being a polar traveler himself, when one day an actual explorer sends him a mysterious crate — with a live penguin inside. Mr. Popper, his wife Mrs. Popper and their children take on the bird as a pet, and their lives change forever.

A 2011 movie version of the story, starring comic actor Jim Carrey, sets “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” in modern-day New York City and re-writes most of the human relationships in the tale. The stage show is much more true to the original book, Bixby said.

“The show is really exciting. It’s fast-paced, with a lot of laughs,” he said by phone in December, when “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” was in the middle of a two-week run at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

“Adults love it, too. Not just the little ones will get a kick out of this,” he said.

The stage show was created in the United Kingdom by Pins & Needles Productions. Casa Manana, a theater company based in Fort Worth, Texas, partnered with a UK entertainment group to launch the national U.S. tour.

The four-person cast is joined by a waddle (or flock) of penguins, all puppets, who get into plenty of mischief as one might imagine.

Playing Mr. Popper, Bixby doesn’t operate any puppets during the show — which is a little ironic, since Bixby is an expert puppeteer. Backstage for “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” he also serves as “puppet captain,” meaning he must maintain and repair all puppets in the show. In rehearsals, he helped coach his fellow cast members to get “as much life and emotion out of these beautiful puppets as we could,” he said.

Bixby, 33, grew up in Howell, New Jersey, and went to college to become a music teacher, but soon switched to musical theater and contemporary dance.

It was a natural fit: One of his earliest friends grew up in a circus family, “so I grew up helping with events here and there, and as I got older started learning more and more tricks to work with them,” he said.

“That’s where I learned stilt-walking and fire-spinning and balloon animals and face painting and clowning, through this family who was with Ringling Brothers — and it’s been invaluable in children’s theater, because I work with kids all of the time.”

Bixby added puppetry to the mix after he suffered an injury doing aerial acrobatics. The new theatrical art form consumed him during his recovery.

“And I just fell in love with puppetry,” he said. “It was something I never, ever thought I’d be doing, had no knowledge of, (but) all of a sudden I started really loving it.”

In 2013, he got a job as a puppeteer on the national tour of “Jim Henson’s Dinosaur Train Live,” “and all of a sudden my career took off,” he said. “I’ve been doing puppetry every since.”

Bixby, who now lives in New York, founded the puppet troupe 4PuppetPeople, and hopes that it, too, will someday offer its own touring shows. In the meantime, he also works in the education department of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the zoos and aquarium in New York City. In that role, he helps teach children in schools and on zoo field trips about animals and the environment.

“It’s really important for kids, especially city kids, to gain an appreciation of the environment, and for animals and other things they don’t normally get to see all the time,” he said. While at the city’s zoos, “I’m lucky that I get to see penguins all the time, penguins from all over the world.”

It’s a duck, however, that stays close by his side on the road.

“I actually have a tiny, little 6-inch Donald Duck that I call ‘Adventure Donald,’ who comes on all my tours with me,” Bixby said. “So he has seen the whole world, just like I have, because he’s small enough to pack.”


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.