Berea College graduate living out grandfather's dream

Jan. 18—Chris T. Hayes' grandfather was a King with a dream.

While the dream was not as all-encompassing or profound as that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s, it had an extraordinary impact on his grandson.

On Monday, Hayes sat down for a special video convocation at Berea College in celebration of MLK Day called "Open Sesame: The Black Preacher and The Black Puppeteer."

During the program, Hayes reflected on his life story, the lessons learned from his family and heritage, and living up to his grandfather's dream.

"Everyone knows Martin Luther King's dream. My grandfather's dream he only told me. He called me up... 'Chris, my buddy, my pal, my buddy, my pal. I had a dream about you. The dream I had, was you were in your community and serving your community using your gifts and your talents. And you're just out there, you're working with the people and using what you're good at to serve your community. Alright, see ya,' and he hung up the phone," Hayes recalled.

Reverend Dr. King Thomas Hayes started out traveling from Georgia to Connecticut to work tobacco. He was a pastor for 31 years and the backbone of the Hayes family. King Hayes was a passionate voice for the civil rights movement and social justice, dubbed by The Connecticut Courier as "Connecticut's King."

The younger Hayes was born and raised in Connecticut. From a young age, he always wanted to be in art and entertainment. His family was extremely supportive of his endeavors. He had no idea he was going into a career in puppetry, as Hayes had always wanted to work in music. He has several screen credits in shows like "The Vampire Diaries" and has worked in theatre, stand-up comedy, and more.

For 15 years, Hayes has been a puppeteer, and the last six years he has been working as a puppeteer on Sesame Street.

Hayes worked in the arts throughout his time in school. One of his first major experiences on stage was a show on Black history he and his friends put together for their high school. He also worked on another play in middle school that is deeply important to him.

"We were doing a history project studying slavery in Connecticut... It blossomed from this one-time-thing about a theatre show about slavery in Connecticut. It transformed into this thing where we were researching slaves who were buried in ancient burial grounds. Burial grounds in the middle of this massive city; there were unmarked graves. There were like 300 or something slaves that were buried there on the outskirts," Hayes said.

The project grew into researchers and historians working on the burial grounds to find more buried slaves. Hayes and his friends later performed their play to raise money for a monument to the buried slaves. They even found themselves going outside of Connecticut to put on the play.

He briefly found himself in school at the University of Hartford before dropping out and working several jobs. His life was changed again forever by another phone call, this time from a cousin who asked "Hey, do you wanna go to college for free?"

Hayes then found himself on a plane to Kentucky to start classes at Berea College.

"This would be the place that I spend the next three years of my life being able to learn and grow," Hayes said. "If you jump in there and really try, you can make the most of that place. It's already great. But you can make it tailor fit to what you do. Berea was also the first place I put on a puppet... Coming out of there I was very excited, thinking that maybe this was something I could do."

In his junior year at Berea, he applied for work at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. While they turned him down after that initial audition, Hayes tried again later. After graduating from Berea, he spent three years touring with Madcap Puppets of Cincinnati and successfully auditioned again later.

Hayes' time in Atlanta was a busy one. He worked several jobs — one at the Center for Puppetry Arts, one working the box office at a theatre, and jobs performing improv and stand-up comedy. Kermit the Frog puppeteer Steve Whitmire taught Hayes and other puppeteers at the Center how to perform on camera — a skill that would come very handy for Hayes' next gig.

"After doing those, I had been sending in my resume to Sesame every couple years. And eventually someone who knows them said '...Hey, they're actually looking for puppeteers.' So I sent them in another tape. This one was different. This one I actually heard back from and they invited me to come to New York. That workshop changed things," Hayes said.

Hayes went to Queens, New York to the studio where Sesame Street is filmed. He was given a tour of the studio by Martin P. Robinson who plays characters like Snuffleupagus on the show. Martin shared an insight with Hayes — everyone cries their first time seeing the Sesame Street set.

Hayes was no exception.

However, there is little time to cry on set of the beloved children's program. Hayes learned that quickly after he was hired a year after that fateful workshop.

"Those tears dry so fast. We work so fast on set. We are pedal to the metal," he said.

He gets to perform several characters on the show on that hallowed set and even at his home office. Hoot the Owl is one of Hayes' favorite puppets on the show. Elijah Walker is another character that means a lot for him to perform. Elijah is a new puppet that debuted in 2021 alongside his son Wes. The pair are used in segments that illustrate racial literacy.

Hayes said he hasn't got to work with many other Black puppeteers. He hopes he can open doors for other Black performers like himself.

Looking back, Hayes thinks the stories he has helped tell have lived up to his grandfather's dream for him.

"A lot of theatre that I've done and a lot of work that I've done...especially with puppets, has been for the community around building education and closing the gap...We're pushing even more. On this day, on the King's day, it's good to know the company I work for is pushing for kids to know who they are. Hopefully, what I'm doing is pushing that forward.