For years, New Orleans puppeteer Miss Pussycat has been a recurring curvy and sparkly presence in Memphis rock clubs as the maracas-shaking sidekick and opening act for her longtime collaborator in art and matrimony, the "swamp-tech" master of the psychotronically modified Hammond B3 organ who calls himself Quintron.
As it turns out, Miss Pussycat doesn't just construct and manipulate puppets for her live shows. She also writes scripts for them and shoots them in action on elaborate handcrafted tabletop sets of felt, sequins, glow-in-the-dark paint and other materials and found objects.
The latest result of this painstaking dedication to the odd, disturbing and whimsical is "The Mystery in Old Bathbath," a puppet feature film (more or less — it runs 46 minutes) that creators Miss Pussycat and Quintron will debut in Memphis at midnight Friday and Saturday at the Malco Studio on the Square near Overton Square. Puppeteers Jayme Kalal and Lefty Parker, key performers in the movie, also will be present, and Miss Pussycat promises she will wear "a special new outfit."
The screenings of the puppet picture show precede a Sunday night concert at the Hi-Tone Café featuring Quintron and Miss Pussycat, along with Goner Records label mates John Wesley Coleman (from Austin, Texas) and The Sharp Balloons (of Memphis).
Inspired by her longtime love for girl sleuth Nancy Drew and by a recent trip to Hot Springs, Ark., the tourist town famous for its thermal spas and gangster-era Art Deco hotels, "The Mystery in Old Bathbath" suggests a David Lynch redesign of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." Pee-wee Herman would feel at home in this Pussycat playhouse, although Pee-wee might balk at the scene in which mesmerized chipmunk-like puppet Trixie takes an ax to the cloth-fanged head of her band's drummer, the obstreperous J.J. Suade, who sneeringly dismisses a surreal painting with the comment: "Art is for people who cannot read."
"I've been privy to this information from these puppets for some time," said Miss Pussycat, explaining how she came to write this story of the puppets' visit to the strange spa town of Bathbath, where signs direct visitors to locations specializing in "Old Timey Photos" and "Shenanigans." She said she knows her puppets well, and they are as versatile as any flesh-and-blood actors. "They can have stunt doubles, so you can blow them up. They can go to sleep, and you can make small shut eyelids for them out of felt."
The lead puppets are "Trixie and the Treetrunks," a Josie and the Pussycats-esque rock band that receives "secret messages from the center of the Earth" from their friend, the Happy Tree. The puppets originated in a series of short films that Miss Pussycat posted online.
The puppets are mostly Muppet-style hand puppets with attached arms on rods, although finger puppets occasionally are used. Marionettes are rare, because "a hand puppet's like an electric guitar, but a marionette's like a violin," Miss Pussycat explained. "You have to be a virtuoso."
She and Quintron also have created a puppet holiday film called "North Pole Nutrias" that has become a Christmas-season staple on New Orleans television. (A nutria is, essentially, a 15-pound swamp rat native to Louisiana.)
Miss Pussycat (who declines to disclose her age, and says she has had her name legally changed to Panacea Theriac) says she wanted to show "The Mystery in Bathbath" in theaters because putting it online is "anticlimactic," especially after almost a year of off-and-on but often-intensive labor. The film began screening in public this month; the Memphis date is the sixth, and comes two weeks after a sold-out show at one of the famous Alamo Drafthouse theaters in Austin.
Miss Pussycat said she made almost all the props, puppets and sets seen in the film at Spellcaster Lodge, the Ninth Ward home she shares with Quintron. Exceptions can be seen on the walls of the Bathbath art museum, for which friends contributed scale paintings and tiny photographs. This concept enabled Miss Pussycat to be the curator of, essentially, a miniaturized gallery show.
"One of the nicest things about art is when it's sentimental, and it means something, so it was very nice to put all these things in the museum that were very lovely and made by people we know."
Miss Pussycat makes a movie
Screenings of "The Mystery in Old Bathbath" will be at midnight Friday and Saturday at Malco Studio on the Square. Admission: $10. Miss Pussycat and Quintron will introduce the screenings and answer questions afterward. Visit quintronandmisspussycat.com or malco.com.
Miss Pussycat makes music
Miss Pussycat, Quintron, The Sharp Balloons and John Wesley Coleman in concert Sunday at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar. Doors open at 9 p.m. Admission: $12; $2 off with ticket stub from "The Mystery in Old Bathbath." Visit hitonememphis.com.