UConn Magazine: Unmasked

How a UConn puppeteer went from being the beer guy at Whole Foods to creating animatronics for the biggest theme parks, robotics for cinematic superheroes, and crazy-clever costumes for Masked Singers

Saunders created this chupacabra puppet head for Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights 2022.

Saunders created this chupacabra puppet head for Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights 2022. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

It was 1990, and the world was mourning the untimely death of iconic puppet master Jim Henson. A 16-year-old aspiring puppeteer in Chester, New Hampshire, Rob Saunders ’96 (SFA) had long admired Henson’s artistry and aesthetic, the way he blended otherworldly elements and realism on children’s television shows like “The Muppets” and “Sesame Street,” and in fantasy cinematic visions like “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal.”

“For a young person his passing was like a call to arms, to take up the mantle. It sparked a sense of purpose for me and other puppeteers that came out of that time, we felt compelled to carry on his legacy. I felt I gotta do this.”

Sitting in his high school counselor’s office, Saunders discovered that answering the call could mean earning $13,000 a year. “To my teenage mind, that figure sounded amazing. In that moment, it was clear to me where I was heading.”

Saunders set his sights on, and gained admittance to, UConn’s School of Fine Arts, renowned for its illustrious puppetry program, and in so doing became the first of his family to attend college. Almost immediately, he found himself working with the esteemed, longtime head of UConn’s puppetry program, Bart Roccoberton Jr., on a production of “A Christmas Carol.”

Off and running, Saunders immersed himself in courses for performance, directing, design, and fabrication, and created lifelong friendships with fellow puppeteers including David Regan ’95 (SFA), ’01 MFA; Tim Legasse ’92 (SFA); Jennifer Barnhart ’94 (SFA); and Jim Napolitano ’93 (SFA). “They’re all UConn grads who went on to do well commercially,” he says, citing some of their collective work with entertainment giants The Jim Henson Co., The Walt Disney Co., PBS, and Nickelodeon.

Read on for more.