Steve Meltzer, 56, a gently enthusiastic puppeteer who ran a one-man theater and museum operation, the Santa Monica Puppetry Center, for more than a decade, has died.

Two hours after he performed his final show and permanently closed his puppetry center Aug. 16 as it fell victim to the economic downturn, Mr. Meltzer had a stroke. Days later, he had surgery for a brain tumor.

He died Nov. 30 of melanoma at his home in Santa Monica, Calif., said his friend Mike Clark.

"He had a big personality and was really devoted to his craft and kids," said Christine Papalexis, a puppeteer who preceded Mr. Meltzer as president of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry.

Trained as a teacher, Mr. Meltzer rediscovered his childhood affection for puppets in the 1980s after buying a banged-up puppet at a Long Beach swap meet. Soon he was restoring puppets and performing at birthday parties for children.

"I wanted to do what I am now doing when I was 4," he told L.A. Weekly last year. His signature performance was the modest musical revue Puppetolio, an informal variety show filled with "gentle charm and magic tricks," according to a 1998 Los Angeles Times review.

- Los Angeles Times