Homegrown puppeteers behind 'SNL' battering-ram lectern and a man-eating plant

Thursday Feb 16, 2017 Michael Latini is co-founder of props/puppets designer Monkey Boys Productions in Wyncote, creator of Audrey, the man-eating plant in Little Shop of horrors as well as big dinosaurs etc. for theater/theme parks, and most recently the SNL White House podium that Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer used to attack press corps. Michael Latini is seen here with the three variations of Audrey in his Wyncote workshop.

Taking a breather at Monkey Boys Productions in Wyncote after his sudden brush with Saturday Night Live notoriety, Michael Latini gazed fondly at Audrey II, his monstrous, man-eating, trash-talking, soul-singing Venus flytrap. “She pays the rent," he said. "She always has.”

The bloodthirsty botanical diva of the 1986 rock musical Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey II has been the cash carnivore for Latini and Monkey Boys cofounder Marc Petrosino ever since they climbed inside her and manipulated her mighty jaws during a 2004-06 national tour. When it ended, they built their own Audrey II,  and have rented her out for frequent Little Shop revivals ranging from the Paper Mill Playhouse in North Jersey to the Cloak & Daggers Theatre Company at Penn’s Landing and the Haverford School last month.

In 2015, a friend of SNL cast member Bobby Moynihan saw Latini operating Audrey II and knew Moynihan was writing a Little Shop skit for guest host Scarlett Johansson. And that’s how the Monkey Boys and Audrey II traveled from the banks of Tacony Creek in Montgomery County to Manhattan.

That Audrey II skit was a last-minute scratch, but through the SNL connection, Latini and Petrosino created the famous motorized lectern that Melissa McCarthy, portraying President Trump’s volatile spokesman, Sean Spicer, angrily rammed into the White House press corps this month.

Suddenly, every media outlet from KYW to CNN was asking for Monkey Boys interviews, and two guys who were accustomed to working the controls anonymously from inside their lifesize puppets were in the limelight.

Three weeks into his 15 minutes of fame, Latini, 38, Philly-born and Warminster-reared, hasn’t gone all New York attitude.  

“Professional puppeteers' egos are pretty small, because I’m always being upstaged by my right hand,” he said. “The guy who is Big Bird can walk down the street and no one knows he’s Big Bird.”

He said the SNL prop people “completely trust us” based on pre-lectern Monkey Boys creations, including the huge pile of business papers, all stuck together and clearly fake, that Alec Baldwin's Trump claimed as proof he was divesting himself of his companies.

SNL is on hiatus until March 4, but Latini is hoping to get a Wednesday call asking for a prop that must be in the show’s New York studio in time for Friday rehearsals.

Latini grew up working for his dad, Warminster carpenter and home remodeler Bob Latini. He had his puppeteer epiphany while attending Tyler School of Art, when Bill  Monahan, a friend from his Archbishop Wood High School days, wrote a biblical musical called The Word and cast him as Peter in a scene where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.

“I found a little bearded puppet and decided to do the scene with it,” Latini said. “So I sang to Jesus, who was Bill, while my puppet acted out the song. The audience at Our Lady of Good Counsel School gym in Southampton loved it. Something clicked. Puppetry was something I’d loved watching my whole life. Why don’t I start telling people this is what I want to do? So I did.”

Latini and Petrosino, 42, who started Monkey Boys Productions in 2007, work between Audrey II and an equally huge, equally toothy, hairy monster on one side of their studio, and a wall hung with Muppets-style creatures on the other.  They can make a simple puppet, the kind they use to teach mouth and limb manipulation in workshops, in two weeks. To design and craft Audrey II's four incarnations, from cute baby plant to crazed killer, took six months.

Until SNL calls again, Latini and Petrosino have a full workload in their little shop of props. They’re doing puppets for the Broadway musical Amelie, opening in March. They’re editing the second season of their pal Kevin Kelly’s adults-only punk rock puppet show, Welcome to Anhedonia, on YouTube. And they’re creating new episodes of their satirical Star Wars puppet video, “Ben in the Desert”; their first season won for best comedy at Lucasfilm’s 2016 Star Wars Fan Film Awards.

Latini’s takeaways from his SNL brushes with movie stars reveals his lifelong passion for puppetry and props. Instead of being intimidated by working with McCarthy, he was excited by her delight at first seeing the wheelchair-mounted lectern, then getting into it and speeding wildly around the rehearsal stage.

Instead of being bowled over by Johansson’s beauty during the Audrey II skit that never made it into the show, he was struck that she talked shop with the Monkey Boys. “She equated her lifestyle to ours,” Latini said. “She said, ‘We’re all doing what we love. I know where you’re coming from.’”

Latini smiled. “She understood us.”