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Toe tales can in-grow on you

I'm here today to crank up some recognition for one of the world's newest vanishing arts. Yes, I'm talking about the performance art form whose time has come, looked around and crept out through the dog door. You guessed it. I'm talking about toe puppetry.

Okay, so you didn't guess it.

Keep your Kabuki. Pooh-pooh to Punch and Judy. Pooh-pooh to Bunraku, too, and say no to Noh. It's toe puppet theater that's on the cutting edge of the envelope in the window of opportunity, to coin a phrase. Or so it could have been, had toe puppetry not stubbed its start on the doorsill of disappointment, metaphorically speaking.

If memory serves _ and lately it's been serving like a greasy-spoon waitress who knows she's not getting a tip _ the concept was originated by Ken Helle, ace Times photog and, more to the point, a skilled masseur of sturdy Viking stock. (To protect his privacy, we'll call him "Ragnar" from here on.)

Ragnar had one of those portable massage tables with the oval hole in it where the client plants his or her mug while lying face down. Not much to do in that position but stare at the floor. So to keep his massagees amused, Ragnar thought of sticking little rubber finger puppets on his toes and waggling out little dramas on the floor below while speaking the various parts in standard puppet falsetto. Maybe you're beginning to see why it became a lost art before it was found. Credit or blame lays literally at the feet of Ken Helle. I mean Ragnar.

The story up to here is true. From this point on, though, don't strain your credulity.

He started small, Rags did, first staging the award-winning Odor-Eater Theater children's classic, This Little Piggy, reliably diverting fare for wee folk, but not exactly a mega-hit with grown-ups. His talented talons soon spread their repertoire to Toe for the Seesaw, Toe Have and Toehold, Sox and the Single Girl and the necessarily abridged musical hit, Five Brides for Five Brothers. Also limited by cast size were the critically acclaimed jury-room drama, Ten Angry Men, and the stirring West Point saga, The Short Gray Line.

The rest is history. Take it from Ragnar's agent, who watched his act for 30 seconds and said, "You're history!"

I could tell you how showbiz became ingrown in him, how his arches were his sole support and how he foot the bill himself to take his show on the road (in a toe truck, which was no mean feat), but I'm the last person to resort to cheap puns.

His customers weren't prone to argue. Neither were they inclined to take it lying down. In fact, they got up and left before intermission and the baby oil application.

He tried to adjust to the modern pace. For those who didn't have time for a full three-act massage, Ragnar offered brief renditions of Tea For Toe or I Get a Kick out of You. The act folded in Peoria before Ragnar could stage his magnum opus, the first pedal-digit production of Shakespeare _ The Taming of the Shoe.

Ragnar doesn't do massage anymore, but his training isn't going to waste. He can knead pizza dough like nobody's business, which it isn't.

I'm concerned about the quality of thought exhibited lately by our nation's Supreme Court, which has ruled that if a guy swaps a gun for drugs, he's "using" the gun in the commission of a crime and deserves extra punishment. Surely the framers of the law meant using a gun as a gun, wouldn't you think? But apparently if I use a gun as a hammer to loosen a stuck sprinkler head in my yard, I can get an extra 33 years in prison for watering on an even day.

The same soberly robed justices allowed as how, since the words "under God" are mere "ceremonial deism" and have "lost through rote repetition any significant content," it's okay to leave them in the Pledge of Allegiance for everyone to recite. Seems more like a good reason to take them out.

Scientists in Perth, Australia, just developed the sapphire clock, which is accurate to one-millionth of one-billionth of a second. Not exactly an urgent bulletin to a society that still makes dinner dates for "about sevenish."

Don Addis is a cartoonist for the Times.