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

PHOTO: Ray of Sunshine is a cruise director and puppeteer who has spent more than 40 years at sea.Courtesy Tom Giusto
Ray of Sunshine is a cruise director and puppeteer who has spent more than 40 years at sea.

When the audience jumps to its feet after every performance, Ray Solaire knows he made the right decision when he quite the post office in Blackpool, England, where his father envisioned Ray might someday rise to postmaster general.

Ray was born to perform. In 43 years at sea, he has chatted with Nelson Mandela, danced with Ginger Rogers and entertained tens of thousands of people. An accomplished singer, puppeteer and ventriloquist, Ray has worked his entire adult life at sea. He is now a cruise director for Regent Seven Seas Cruises, a small highly rated luxury cruise line.

Ray always wanted to be in entertainment. He motivated the kids in his neighborhood to play games. "I was a cruise director at 5 years old organizing things," he said. Ray is still organizing games. But he's older and so are the kids.

"I come on the ship. I wine and dine. I meet lovely people, and I'm paid! It's amazing," he declared. Ray loves people. "I never pass anyone without saying hello to them."

As cruise director Ray doesn't have to perform. He has plenty to do coordinating the other entertainment and keeping the passengers happy. But he usually does two shows each cruise and for some passengers, they are the highlight of the trip. Ray thrives on entertaining people. "I would pay to do this. I would pay to do this," he repeated.

"It's a lifestyle. It's my life. To do this job right you have to live it," he believes. "I can't think of anyone else who did 43 years and is still doing it. It's being yourself and not trying to be someone else."

His real name is Raymond Hook. He thought the name was too blunt and that he needed something more theatrical. He took his name from a popular suntan cream in England called Ambre Solaire. He became Ray of sunshine.

Ray's shows are a combination of singing, puppetry and a few jokes. He knows his older audience well and plays to them. He draws the audience in with his singing. Ray worked with a voice coach last year and believes his voice is now better than it has ever been.

But the stars of his show are the puppets, all of which he makes himself. In one show he sings a duet of "Wonderful World" with a Louis Armstrong puppet. Ray has to sing in his own voice and use ventriloquism to sing an imitation of Louis Armstrong.

In another bit that he admits has Puccini turning in his grave, Ray sings Nessun Dorma as a duet with a puppet. And there are his marionettes, Mae West and Dolly Parton. You could imagine what he does with them. "I'm cheeky, never offensive," he said.

Ray's love of puppets gave him the keys to the world. He was 5 when his interest in puppets began. His parents in Blackpool bought them for him as gifts.

Ray found some books and taught himself to make his own puppets with clay and Plaster of Paris. By the time he was 8, Ray found he could make better puppets than the ones his parents could buy. By age 12 he was doing shows for children in hospitals.

Ray performs with two types of puppets, hand puppets and marionettes. To work with the hand puppet Ray taught himself ventriloquism. "That's years of just standing looking in the mirror," he said. "It was all a part of the old Vaudeville."

Ray wanted to be in total control and the puppets allowed him to have it. "It was total theater. I could write the play. I could design the sets. I could direct it. I could do everything," he said. "I was in control of it all."

"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.

He spent eight hours bobbing up and down in the lifeboat before being picked up by an oil tanker and brought back to Port Everglades. The ship didn't sink. The forward and aft sections were fine. Only the middle of the ship was destroyed. The crew was allowed back to pick up their belongings. "All my puppets were gone because the stage was in the center," Ray recalled.

But there was one puppet Ray was working on that he had left in his cabin. He went back to his room to look for it and it was gone. Ray had to go home and completely rebuild his act.

Ray was soon performing on another ship. After his show a man came to him and said, "Were you ever on the Ambassador when it caught fire? I said yes," Ray proclaimed. The man worked for Coast Guard. They broke down all the doors to make sure no one was still there. "Someone thought a child was in the cabin. It turned out to be a monkey puppet which the man took with him and gave to his son," Ray recalled. Ray made a deal and carved the man another puppet for his son and got the original back. It's now in a glass display case at Ray's home, and the puppet is wearing a life jacket.

"My favorite word is quirky. We're all quirky," Ray said. "After 40 years on ships it's made me a quirky person. I am happy in who I am. You become self centered. It's not selfish. But I do what I want to do when I want to do it because there's no one else to consider."

Ray is thrilled with the way his life is going. "My needs are not much. I don't like flashy cars," he said. He lives with his brother in a 22-bedroom manor house in the Lake District outside of London.

"There's someone looking after me," Ray believes. "Success is taking opportunities, not being afraid to take opportunities. Not being afraid of hard work. Everything I've done I've applied myself 100 percent to, even working in the post office and the bakery." If you apply yourself 100 percent people will want you to work."

At age 62, Ray doesn't plan on retiring anytime soon. "I'm peaking. I've never been as content," he said. Everything Ray has is paid for and he holds no debt. "One of the biggest evils was the advent of credit cards," he said. "It gave people access to money they didn't have."

And what if Ray hadn't taken the road that led to the sea? "If I stayed in the post office I would be doing local opera, have a wife and grandchildren and be very happy living in a semi detached house," he said. "And it could have been another life for me and it could have been wonderful. I took the opportunity of going on to these ships and what it did is it broadened my mind incredibly. I can hold my own with anyone. I'm not afraid of people."

"I invested well. I didn't borrow things. I'm single and I don't spend anything," he said. "All I need when I go home is a pint of beer. I eat my meal, have some wine and I go to bed at 8 o'clock at night."

How much longer will he do this? "As long as I enjoy it, I'll do it," he said. "The day it becomes a chore I'll say it's time for me to go. "I'm content as I ever will be. I have no regrets."

Editor's note: ABC News producer Tom Giusto is sailing with Ray Solaire aboard the Seven Seas Navigator. He paid full price for his cruise and received no special consideration.