A Retrospect of KANGA RODDY is a series of features exploring the making of the PBS children’s series, ADVENTURES WITH KANGA RODDY, in honor of its 20th anniversary.

A unique element about ADVENTURES WITH KANGA RODDY was the inclusion of puppetry. This was all thanks to the creative efforts of long-time puppeteering duo/business partners, Kamela Portuges and Lee Armstrong.

Photo courtesy of Allison Langley

Portuges has a long history of both puppetry and sculpting in the film industry. A few of her credits include JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and LIFE AQUATIC.

Armstrong worked in TV puppetry for a decade in Canada before relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area. She had actually gotten her start working on Jim Henson’s FRAGGLE ROCK.

Until the two had met at a conference, Portuges had never considered pursuing puppetry as a career.

“The concept of being paid and actually making a living being a puppeteer was not even on my spec in any way, shape, or form,” said Portuges. “I just never thought about it as a living. So we came down [to the Bay Area], and Lee was speaking at the conference. I ended up corresponding with her.”

From that first correspondence, the two quickly became friends, and eventually, business partners. They are the co-founders of the Sonoma-based production company, Images in Motion.

For over 25 years, Portuges, Armstrong, and their team offer a multitude of services; whether that be doing puppeteering, transforming a client’s idea for a puppet into reality (with a little help from 3D printing), and even allowing for clients to rent out the studio itself.

KANGA RODDY was one of the company’s earliest projects.

Photo courtesy of Lee Armstrong

Armstrong had been working on another project in Mountain View when the two were summoned onto the show. With their skill set, they were a rare find.

“If people are looking for TV puppeteers, we are probably the most experienced in the Bay Area,” she stated.

They designed, created, and performed all the puppets that appeared on the show.

“It’s nice that we built stuff,” Armstrong reflected. “Kamela designed, so she came up with the sketches for the characters. Then we built them. Kamela sculpted the heads, and they were unusual in the sense that Muppets usually use a foam understructure, which is not very detailed. The shape is very simple and foam.”

As a result, the puppet characters seen on KANGA RODDY had very distinct looks compared to the Muppet characters Armstrong had previously worked with.

Photo courtesy of Lee Armstrong

Much like other people who worked on the show, Portuges and Armstrong had quite the commutes from their homes in Sonoma to the former KTEH Studio in San Jose; often leaving as early as 5AM, making it in time for their call time, and working for 10-12 hours before driving back.

Despite the commute, the duo was happy to work in such a positive environment, surrounded by a cast and crew that were giving their all into making this show.

“It was well organized, people were well-treated, people worked very hard on it, we came in and we did what we did, and we didn’t really have any problems,” said Armstrong.

Portuges did note how the sets, for the most part, were not as well built to accommodate puppetry. She recalled one instance where she was in a small space when a break was announced. She didn’t hear the announcement, the lights were turned off, and she was stuck there for a while.

Portuges also reflected on her time working opposite of Pat Morita. Out of all the puppet characters she did, one of them was as his sidekick, Shakespeare the bookworm.

Photo courtesy of Lee Armstrong

“I remember the first day when he came in – he was sort of the big fish in the little pond – and he starts running his lines without me, and I’m an integral part of the scene with him, because I was his sidekick,” she explained. “He’s running his lines and I said, ‘Excuse me, but I’m doing this scene with you, and we need to work together.’ And he looks at me and he goes, ‘Okay then.’

“I don’t think he really worked with puppets that much or if he has, then I was not aware of it. It was never introduced. We just started working, and after that, we would improv, we would do whatever, and it was quite delightful to work with him, with regards to the scenes that we did.

“I think once he recognized I was an actor, that was significant.”

It has been 20 years since KANGA RODDY first aired, and until this interview, neither Portuges nor Armstrong had realized that. It made for a delightful discovery for them.

“[KANGA RODDY] was promoting a healthier lifestyle,” said Portuges. “Getting [kids] up, getting them moving, [and] also getting them thinking about mind and body. I think it was a big part of it at the time. It was something a little bit different. It was a very unique sort of project, because of the nature of what they were trying to do.”

Photo courtesy of Allison Langley