Puppet Man: Ray of Sunshine Spent Entire Adult Life at Sea


"They're my children," he said of the puppets. "It's like giving birth without the pain. It doesn't take nine months but it takes six or eight weeks." Ray makes all of his own puppets but he doesn't make all of the costumes.

Ray will only perform alone. "I will only sing solo. I'm a solo entertainer. It's me being in charge of the whole thing."

As Ray has matured his passion for singing has increased. But his singing wasn't always welcome. "When I left the post office I was doing puppet shows at night in the workingman's clubs. They were a baptism of fire," he said. But Ray never made enough money entertaining to earn a living. So he got a job in a bakery.

He lasted only a week before he was fired for singing too much on the job. He wasn't working fast enough. "We didn't want you anymore, didn't like the singing," he said. "I nearly went back and bought it a few years later."

Ray took his puppet act to TV in England, which eventually led to a performance for the queen 43 years ago. Officials from the Cunard line saw it and asked him to work on cruise ships. He was billed as the youngest entertainer to work on a cruise ship. "I'm now the oldest entertainer to be on a cruise ship," he declared.

Ray's puppet show was the opening act for the Count Basie orchestra. His contract called for only for three 12-minute shows a cruise. "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," he said. "It had to be a strong 12 minutes. You lived and died by the quality of the act. Because the puppets appealed to all ages and nationalities, they kept renewing my contract."

Eventually the people at Cunard believed Ray could do more than just perform. "After a while they said, 'Ray we'd like you to join the social staff.' I said no. They said it's more money. I said yes," he recalled.

So began Ray's path to becoming a cruise director. But while Cunard was happy to have him on the social staff it didn't think he qualified for the top job. Ray wanted to be cruise director, but the line said no. Ray told them he'd finish out his contract and go home.

His vacation lasted one week. Cunard called him back to be a cruise director. He would spend the next 15 of his 20 years with Cunard as a cruise director. While he enjoyed managing the entertainment and socializing with passengers, Ray never gave up entertaining. "I'd be bored out of my mind," he said. "I'm hyperactive. I can't sit still. I like to be in charge. I like to try and organize things."

Cunard used to get a lot of celebrity passengers. "I danced with Ginger Rogers," he proudly proclaimed. "She sailed quite a bit on the QE2, and I got to know her. If I wrote a book, I would call it 'I Danced with Ginger Rogers.'"

And he got to chat with Nelson Mandela. "I had to go and escort him down to the theater. I knocked on the door, and he said I'm not quite ready," Ray recalled." He said come have a cup of coffee. So I had five minutes with Nelson Mandela."

But there were also some scary times at sea. "I abandoned ship twice in my life," Ray recalled. In 1973 the Cunard Ambassador was sailing from Miami to New Orleans without passengers when it caught fire and was sinking. Ray was lowered off the ship in a lifeboat and could see flames shooting up from the middle of the ship.

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