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Puppet Master

Adam Hiller learned the art of performance at Six Flags

Published in 2022 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers Magazine

Bankruptcy lawyer Adam Hiller can thank the Viper roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, for his well-tuned improvisation skills.

That roller coaster had its own character, a hand puppet named Vinnie the Viper. After Six Flags puppet master John Hardman got to know the teenaged Hiller—who was a new park hire slinging nachos in the employee cafeteria—he thought the kid had something, so he removed him from food services to mentor him in the art of “line-relief entertainment.”

“When the lines are too long, and people are annoyed they’re waiting two hours for a roller coaster, there’d be entertainment, like street performers,” Hiller says. 

Hardman, a 30-year veteran of Six Flags puppeteering who was revered at parks across the nation, died last year. “What a mentor,” Hiller says. “He always wore a sailor cap and kind of looked like a puppet himself, which I loved.”

It wasn’t long before Hardman gave Hiller his own daily show. 

“He realized I was much more useful and talented as a puppeteer than I was a food server, as it’s hard to find someone who can do puppeteering … what’s the word … ‘confidently,’” Hiller says, laughing. “Puppeteering put me through college.”

From a small adobe hut that was about as big as a phone booth, Hiller performed Vinnie, who sunbathed from a flowerpot until a park visitor walked by. “There was a screen behind the flowerpot so I could look out but no one could see me,” Hiller says. “There was barely enough room for me in that thing.” 

With the theme park full of snarky teenagers, delighted kids and over-it parents, Hiller had to not only improvise the script, but tailor it to the right audience. 

“Mr. Hardman taught me a lot about the physical stuff, but I had to make up a lot of the mental stuff on the fly, which comes in handy in the courtroom,” Hiller says. “There was also the art of defense, because not everyone was nice. You had to learn how to improvise in a lighthearted way that doesn’t allow yourself to become the butt of the joke.”

It’s also useful beyond the courtroom. Hiller is an officer of Profundo Bono, the Delaware theater company composed entirely of judges, lawyers and other legal professionals. 

“When [the late] Judge [Robert] Young heard I was a puppeteer, he sought me out and said, ‘Profundo Bono needs a puppeteer!” Hiller says. “The puppet only made it into two shows. I was then relegated to just an actor.”

While Hiller doesn’t work with puppets anymore, he says Profundo Bono and his weekly time spent singing with Center City Chorale, a group that provides noon concerts in downtown Wilmington, keep performance art—and serenity—in his life.

“I’ve always been interested in performance, and puppeteering just really made it all the more clear to me at a young age,” Hiller says. “What it most offers me is peace of mind. If all you ever do is work, sure, you’ll be rich, but you’ll get worn down so much faster. This is how I fight that.”

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