December 01, 1986 12:00 PM

I want to tell you about something wonderful,” says Paul Newman, his blue eyes piercing the camera. “A stage event so extraordinary you would have to experience it to understand it.” That event, which Jack Lemmon and Liberace have also been raving about on TV commercials, is the Broadway musical A Little Like Magic. Two things make this production by the Famous People Players of Canada extraordinary. One, it’s a puppet show. Two, it’s a smash hit. Eight times a week, a black light technique turns the stage of the Lyceum Theatre into a phantasmagorical wonder, allowing life-size, fluorescent-colored puppets to erupt from total darkness. A plaster-and-clay Liberace pounds his piano while marimbas, musical notes and a candelabra float through space. Horses and kangaroos take wing, a gyrating Elvis dummy strums his guitar and a Michael Jackson break dances to Billie Jean. No humans are ever seen, though as many as a dozen performers, clothed in black velvet jumpsuits and hoods, manipulate the puppets. In their invisibility lies the magic.

Yet it pales beside the genuine magic that takes place behind the scenes. Twelve of the show’s 15 cast members are mentally retarded, and they are as professional a group of performers as any who have graced the stage. Credit this miracle to Diane Dupuy, the 38-year-old founder and director of the Famous People Players.

Dupuy prefers to call her troupers, who range in age from 21 to 39, developmental^ handicapped. “Mental retardation is a terrible phrase,” she says. “It was made up in the dark ages and has remained in the vocabulary ever since. I think we should be using the word exceptional. That’s what everybody in Famous People Players is.”

The word exceptional certainly applies to Dupuy, who has been appointed to the prestigious Order of Canada and has received numerous other awards. The 1984 TV movie Special People, starring Brooke Adams, was based on her life. Yet the animated, outspoken Dupuy refuses to accept all the accolades. “These kids didn’t develop in this company because of me,” she says. “I just took them out there.”

Getting them there was a long, hard pull, although Dupuy felt a special empathy with them because of her own childhood. A lonely, unpopular girl, she was taunted by her Hamilton, Ontario classmates for her looks and called “retard” for talking to her imaginary horse, Silver. Hating school, she was left back three times and dropped out before high school. After her parents divorced in 1958, Diane lived with her mother, Mary, a clothing designer. Her father, Stanley Thornton, a commercial artist, moved to Phoenix.

To earn money, Dupuy started putting on puppet shows at fairs and schools. In 1971 she was asked to perform for a group of retarded children. She initially resisted, afraid that her audience was going to be violent, ugly and crazy, but those fears vanished as soon as the children walked in the room. Then in the middle of her act, one of the kids had a seizure. “My mind raced back to the seventh grade when a new girl in my class had an epileptic fit and everyone laughed at her,” recalls Dupuy. “But here no one laughed. They all got up to help. I thought, ‘Who’s retarded?’ We are, the normal people. I was so ashamed of myself.”

Dupuy began working with retarded young adults, feeling there was a vein of creativity in them that needed to be tapped. In June 1974 she got a three-month $15,000 government grant to start up Famous People Players. The skit with the Liberace puppet was the first the troupe tackled, and it took them a year to perfect the five-minute number. There was lots of yelling and screaming from Dupuy, and as many steps backward as forward. “I had more people say, ‘Give up, give up.’ But I didn’t,” says Diane. “I was so determined.” When the grant ran out, she and her new husband, Bernard Dupuy, used their wedding money to support the project for the next three years.

Once the company got its act together, Dupuy started hounding Seymour Heller, Liberace’s manager, to see the show. She plied him with letters and phone calls and even threatened to lie down in front of the pianist’s limo. Heller, who now sits on her board, says admiringly, “She put her teeth in the seat of my pants and never let go.” When Liberace finally saw the show he was enchanted. Inviting the Players to perform in Las Vegas with him, he boosted their egos by saying, “It’s not because of who you are that makes people laugh or cry, it’s because you’re truly talented.”

Since then, the company has dazzled audiences in various parts of the world. To get to Broadway they raised half a million dollars by selling buttons, T-shirts and Paul Newman’s popcorn. Newman also donated $30,000 and did the commercial gratis.

The company tours for six months every year. The rest of the time Dupuy lives in Toronto with Bernard (a public relations director for Saab, Canada) and their daughters, Jeanine, 11, and Joanne, 10. Nicknamed Dora Doom because she’s always looking at the dark side of things, Dupuy is now worrying about what to do next. “How do you top the Great White Way?” she asks. Whatever her decision, the Famous People Players have already captured the hearts of those who have witnessed their accomplishment. One admirer, Alan Alda, wrote a congratulatory note: “As you move around in the dark, you turn on lights in our heads. Thank you.”

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