By M. Scott Morris
HOLLY SPRINGS – Rick Provow has a memory he doesn’t actually remember.
“As a child in ’63, my mother would call me to the living room when Topo Gigio was on TV,” he said.
Topo Gigio was a mouse puppet that appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” a variety show that captured Americans’ attention on Sundays for more than 20 years.
As Provow’s mother told him many times, little Rickey climbed under the TV and started talking.
“Mom said, ‘What are you talking about?’” he said.
“I said, ‘I’m talking to the mouse.’
“She said, ‘What is he saying?’
“‘He said I’m going to meet him one day.’”
That mouse, or his mother’s memory of it, was telling the truth. Through divine will, destiny or dumb luck, Provow’s fascination with puppets combined with disco music to take him to Topo Gigio’s front door.
But it’s not always a fun story.
Provow, 59, was born in Memphis, and that’s also where he was molested by a neighbor over the course of about 6 years.
“As a child, I was sexually abused,” he said. “My sister saw I had issues and stayed in my room all the time. She said puppets could be my friends. She saved my life. I fell in love with the art form.”
He said he tried to talk to his father about it, but the conversation was shut down before it really started.
Mental health professionals sometimes use puppets to get children to open up about their abuse, but Provow’s puppetry was self-directed. He picked up what he could from books at the library, and he did little shows for his church.
“I was making puppets out of socks,” he said. “I was taking stuffed animals apart and turning them into puppets.”
He listened to the radio and lip-synced his puppets to the vocals. In addition to songs, he was inspired by comedy routines from a DJ on WMPS.
“He had Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots,” Provow said. “It sounded like he had a multitude of characters in the room with him, but, really, he was doing all the voices.”
Provow decided to make puppets to go with each of the voices, and he played around with Dees’ routines. With practice came enough confidence to take a chance.
“I played hooky from school,” said Provow, who was about 16 at the time. “I took the puppets, put them in a trunk and went to WMPS on a bus. It was a cold call, I guess you could say.”
Dees agreed to meet and was intrigued. He made up a comedy routine on the spot and sent the recording home with Provow.
“I was supposed to meet him at a pizza place,” he said. “We turned on the show. I moved the puppets to the voices. The people in the restaurant loved it.”
The two knew they had something, and Dees came up with a plan to take the act to Memphis nightclubs, even though Provow was a teenager.
“I asked my father, and he said, ‘I don’t see what it would hurt,’” Provow said.
There were no nude puppets, though the language was crude and the situations were adult. In defense of his dad and Dees, it was the 1970s.
Besides, it was a crucial step toward Topo Gigio.
One day, Dees asked Provow, “Can you make a duck?”
The DJ had an idea for a novelty song. “Disco Duck” had a beat people could dance to, as well as a Donald Duck-esqe voice those same people could laugh at. It became a chart-topping hit in 1976.
Provow built the duck, which he named Disco, and he performed the character around the country with Dees. They appeared on seven national television shows, and met some of the most popular personalities of the day, including Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore and Dick Clark.
The public’s reaction to the song earned a spot on the “People’s Choice Awards,” where young Provow had a backstage meeting with John Wayne, the Duke himself.
“John Wayne said, ‘You know, I like puppets,’ and he shook my hand,” Provow said.
The United States of America couldn’t contain “Disco Duck.” It went worldwide, so Provow found himself in San Remo, Italy.
When he thinks back on it, Provow has mixed feelings about Dees. The DJ opened doors the young puppeteer never would’ve imagined existed, but it wasn’t all spotlights and applause.
He toured the country and the world but didn’t have any money to show for it. And though he enjoyed letting puppets have the attention, Provow would’ve liked more recognition for his effort.
“The puppets were Rick’s puppets. He never referred to me,” Provow said. “His puppets were doing this and his puppets were doing that.”
In Italy, Dees’ manager told Provo that disco was dying, so the days of “Disco Duck” were numbered, too.
“He said I’d be flipping burgers,” Provow said. “I don’t know if that was the way Rick felt, but it motivated me to stay in Italy.”
When an Italian record company executive asked if Provow wanted to connect with the local puppetry community, he was ready.
Soon after that, he was offered the chance to met Maria Perego, the woman behind Topo Gigio.
“My mouth fell open. I said, ‘What? I would love to meet her,’” Provow said.
The first thing he encountered was a glass case that contained a familiar mouse, the one from his mother’s story. He’d heard her talk about it so many times that it felt like his own memory.
“I cried. Man, I broke up right there,” Provow recalled. “Maria said, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘You won’t believe this.’”
He took her back to a Sunday night in 1963 and the glowing television set in a Memphis living room. He told her about the two-way conversation between the American child and the Italian puppet.
“She started tearing up. She said, ‘That’s amazing. I believe you,’” Provow said. “That had a big impact. You can’t imagine. She said, ‘Do you want to learn about puppets?’ Of course, I said, ‘Yes.’”
She and her fellow performers taught him to use a black background and strategically placed lights to create what essentially were live-action, 3-D cartoons. He also learned to tackle serious topics because puppets said things on street corners in Italy that could get a person arrested.
“In Europe, puppetry was loved there,” he said. “They didn’t care about the money. They just wanted a roof over their heads.”
He soaked up all he could in three years. When he returned to the U.S., his brother was doing construction work in Las Vegas, so Provow went for a visit. That’s where he met Wayland Flowers, who operated the popular and saucy puppet, Madame.
“I got to put Madame on,” he said. “That was neat.”
For a while, the two puppeteers worked together to prepare a show, but it was canceled due to Flowers’ health problems.
“I came back to Southhaven,” Provow said.
He visited schools to teach kids about puppets, and his creations were featured in commercials and corporate films in the Memphis area. He also invested some $30,000 in a show meant to help kids tackle tough problems in their lives.
But that show never fully materialized. The treatment for one illness brought about another. Tardive dyskinesia caused involuntary, repetitive body movements, which rendered Provow’s puppetry skills useless.
“I was hard-headed at first and tried to stay with it. Kids were saying, ‘What’s wrong with the puppets?’” he said. “It’s pretty much like a pianist getting his fingers cut off.”
After 15 years of searching, he found a doctor who could help him. Provow said the culprit was a prescription drug called Reglan. He is involved in a lawsuit, but he doesn’t expect to get much out of it.
The constant, jerking motions have ceased, but he’s not back to his old self, and these are unsettled times. He’s been dogged by heart problems, financial trouble and a 60-day stay in jail.
Issues with disability payments led to the loss of his home in Southaven about four months ago. He moved in with a puppeteer friend in Potts Camp, but that proved to be more temporary than expected.
Last week, he moved to Tampa, Florida. A friend offered him a place to stay and promised to watch over him after he gets much-needed surgery to install a pacemaker.
When he recovers, he might stay in Tampa, especially if he can fall in with a good bunch of puppeteers.
“I need to get back on track to doing what I’ve done since I was 6 year old,” he said.
No matter how things play out, he’ll make at least one return to north Mississippi to collect his puppets. They’re tightly packed in a unit at Taylor Self-Storage in Holly Springs.
Before he left for Florida, sweat soaked through his black pants and shirt, as he searched through nearly every box and trunk he had. Provow uncovered all sorts of fuzzy characters before finding his old friend.
“Ah, here he is,” Provow said with a laugh. “This is Disco, the actual 1976 puppet.”
He put the puppet on his right arm, and for a moment, puppet and puppeteer appeared to consider each other and the memories they’d made together.
“That’s him,” Provow finally said. “He got me to Italy to meet Maria and Topo Gigio. You’ve got to thank Rick Dees for his part in it, I guess.”