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The Madison puppet maker behind the menagerie of high-flying characters at Ella’s Deli didn’t let others get their strings on him, until he started caring for a developmentally disabled man.

Ken Vogel, 68, grew up the second-oldest of 10 in the tiny village of Whitelaw in Manitowoc County. After grade school he studied to become a Catholic priest, but found himself drawn to more liberal politics during the 1960s and moved to Madison.

He started at UW-Madison, but dropped out after a semester. He joined the anti-war movement, burning his draft card in front of the Dane County Board. To avoid arrest, he took sanctuary in a local church for several days.

During that period he also began making puppets professionally, hitchhiking with boxes of puppets to local craft shows and selling them to the Wisconsin Historical Society, which still features his creations such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Fighting Bob La Follette. He is perhaps best known for making most of the papier-mâchè figures that fly overhead at Ella’s Deli, 2902 E. Washington Ave.

But he took a hiatus from his puppet-making career for about 25 years to work for Neighborhood Connections, first as a volunteer and eventually as a full-time caretaker for Dave, a developmentally disabled man who died unexpectedly about three years ago.

“That was really the most significant relationship in my life,” Vogel said. “And one that’s been so satisfying.”

How did Dave’s death affect you?

It was really hard. It’s like losing a child or a spouse or a brother or a sister, someone really close to you. People pay attention to me because of the odd thing I do now and that I did all these years with the puppets. But really the valuable work I did was that work I did with Dave.

How did you get into making puppets?

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I had a girlfriend who was an art student who said ‘let’s make some money by making puppets and taking them to a fair.’[ Coming from the seminary I was not art oriented at all and it wasn’t part of the curriculum, but I loved doing it as soon as we started experimenting with clay and fabric and color and painting.

How did your collaboration with Ella’s Deli begin?

Somebody who worked at Ella’s had seen the historical society puppets. (Ella’s Deli owner) Ken Balkin is a toy collector and he had just done a little bit of decorating, stylizing his restaurant, used a circus theme. It seemed like I was the perfect collaborator for him.

What’s your favorite of those?

Doc DeHaven just died. And we have a display back by the bathrooms, one of the band boxes, there are seven or eight musicians all modeled after actual jazz musicians. The trumpeter is Doc DeHaven. I like that display a lot because the heads are kind of small. I like the small characters better than the big characters out there because it allowed me greater control and detail.

What’s your favorite creation outside Ella’s?

Everything I do is sort of imperfect and I’m always looking forward to what’s in the next set and thinking how I will improve some aspect of what I’m doing now or that new one I’m doing next week.

What advice would you give for other aspiring artists?

It’s common for an artist to have to find some more practical way to earn money. Retirement is a wonderful opportunity for people like me. We’ve been appreciators and enviers of artists for all these years. And now with the help of the Social Security system and whatever savings we’ve managed to accumulate we can devote our time to doing whatever we want to do.

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— Interview by Matthew DeFour

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