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Student Reports - The Yale Puppeteers (Harry Burnett, Forman Brown, Richard ‘Roddy’ Brandon)

The Yale Puppeteers
by Moe Pomerantz
student paper for
Trends in Contemporary American Puppet Theater
University of Connecticut
1997

In the year 1919 Tony Sarg, the venerable marionettist who influenced so many of the early American born puppeteers, enthralled yet another two young men. It happened one afternoon in Ann Arbor.(1) Harry Burnett and Forman Brown, second cousins as well as roommates at the University of Michigan, were seeing a form of entertainment that neither one had had the opportunity to experience before. Sarg's production of "The Rose and the Ring" in the university's Natural Science Building so impressed the shy Burnett that instead of going backstage to simply ask the puppeteers how it was done, he endeavored to create a working puppet on his own. The crude marionette, fashioned from a lump of wax and without hands or feet, had an old tennis racket as a controller.(2) Nicknamed "Hamlet" this early puppet was the first of literally thousands that Burnett would design and build for the small troupe that would eventually become known as the Yale Puppeteers.

From the humble beginnings of "Hamlet" the team of Burnett, Brown, and Richard (Roddy) Brandon, who joined the team in New Haven around 1926, created a vital brand of puppetry that flourished on the road and in various permanent locations for fifty years. Burnett designed, built, and directed most of their shows, Brown wrote the lines, lyrics and scores, and Brandon booked the shows and handled many of the business affairs of the troupe. They all, however, performed the puppets. While a few other puppeteers worked with the company for short stints here and there, these three men were the true forces behind the success of the operation.

Before Burnett decided to attend the Yale School of Drama (from whence came the name of the Yale Puppeteers in 1927), (3) he and Forman spent several summer vacations touring their rag-tag little shows all over the countryside immediately surrounding Ann Arbor. Their bookings became so far reaching that it became necessary for them to purchase a vehicle in which to tour overnight. Before this purchase the troupe had to lug all of their equipment onto the busses which traveled between towns.(4) One can only imagine the difficulties this method of transportation must have caused the puppeteers. The summer tours in resort venues were quite successful and word soon got around that the variety shows the "Puppeteers from the University of Michigan" performed were filled with wit and sophisticated humor definitely not just for the kids. Burnett's talents as a puppeteer were soon recognized by other puppet companies as well, and during two successive years he was offered employment with a large touring marionette company. This company played legitimate theatres, auditoriums, and opera houses from Mississippi west to Denver, but their shows were not up to Burnett's artistic sensibilities. Still, it was money and valuable experience. (5)

During the mid 1920's Forman Brown tried to deny his inevitable fate to be a puppeteer. He accepted teaching positions in Michigan and North Carolina and participated in the troupe only through the written sketches he provided to Burnett. He also traveled to Europe. Upon his return to the States he related the sites of his trip to Burnett who became intrigued by the variety of puppet theatre available to Europeans. A trip of his own ensued and he returned chock full of inspiration and new ideas for productions. One idea of particular importance was that of commissioning a premiere Broadway designer of the time, Norman Bel Geddes, to design the puppets and sets for a Yale Puppeteers production of "Bluebeard" and "Hansel and Gretel." This may have been the first time in America that a designer of such stature designed for the puppet stage. It seemed a great idea in the planning stages, but the puppeteers realized after attempting to mount the shows that while Geddes designed beautiful sets and puppets for them, they were simply not able to function in a puppet play. The sets, while elaborate and beautiful to look at, were more like miniatures for the live theatre with no real attention paid to how the puppets must be operated within them. Moreover the stage became complicated and heavy -- unsuitable for the touring that was planned, in fact already booked. The sets would not even fit into the anemic one ton truck they had purchased for the tour. The puppeteers finally resorted to discarding unnecessary pieces of the set a little at a time along the roadside as they toured throughout New England. As Forman Brown writes, "The whole sorry venture ... taught us that the puppet show must be the product of the puppet artist, not of the stage artist or any other."(6)

Burnett, Brown, and Brandon decided after a disappointing Florida tour that perhaps a stint in California would do them some good. The year was 1929 and after some initial resistance from adult audiences they were able to "break in" with a new show "My Man Friday." The show and Burnett's so called puppet portraits of the local movie stars became an immediate hit and their studio/theatre in Hollywood, dubbed Club Guignol, quickly became a popular hang out for the celebrity crowd. They performed to full houses of twenty five on the weekends and toured the suburbs and gave puppet making lessons during the week. Soon however, a nosy neighbor who was not appreciative of the activities of the puppeteers, complained loudly and long enough to the zoning board, and the Club Guignol was forced to close down. This turned out to be quite fortunate because it opened the way for the Puppeteers to move their theatre to a renovated historic building on Olvera Street in Los Angeles in 1930. This playhouse could seat eighty instead of twenty five and it was to become known as "Teatro Torito," or theatre of the little bull after the bullfight scene that adorned the olio curtain.(7) It was here at the Teatro Torito that the custom of collecting their more famous patrons' signatures on a wall of the theatre began.

The Teatro Torito was an unqualified success. Never before in America had a strictly commercial puppet theatre managed to support itself so well without touring. So it was a surprise to many when after two years the Yale Puppeteers decided that they were tired of the routine and closed up shop on Olvera Street. Back east they went to try a similar feat in New England. In June of 1931 a barn in New Hampshire was converted to a theatre and the shows began. Unfortunately the depth of the Depression in 1931 was so great that the attendance at the Tally-Ho Theatre was greatly diminished from their expectations. In September the puppeteers packed up and moved to Manhattan where they assumed it would be easy to locate a space to set up a permanent theatre. Of course things were somewhat bumpier than expected and there was a great deal of bureaucratic red tape and political maneuvering to be done in order to secure a location. Finally the right strings were pulled and The Puppet Show, was able to open its doors on West Forty-sixth Street on December 6, 1932. While the audiences were as enthusiastic as ever, the houses were often not as full as the puppeteers were used to and great efforts had to be made to advertise constantly. Eventually favorable reviews and word of mouth began to fill the theatre with happy crowds.(8)

During the summer off season the company received a telegram from the Hollywood studio, Fox, inquiring as to whether the Yale Puppeteers would be willing to construct the puppets for the film "I Am Suzanne." The Italian puppet company Teatro de Piccoli had originally been hired to do all of the building themselves, but had insisted on a lengthy construction schedule that the studio did not want to follow. The Yale Puppeteers accepted the offer to assist with the production and while Burnett and Brandon built 200 puppets for the film, Forman Brown worked on the music.(9) Once filming was completed they performed in their old Teatro Torito for several months before returning to NY to occupy yet another space in an old church on East Fortieth Street just east of Lexington Avenue.(10)

Over the next few years the puppeteers had their hands in a number of projects. Forman Brown began to write special material for other shows including radio, and the company developed a musical revue called "It's A Small World," which opened at the Lyceum Theater in New York.(11)

Eventually the confines of the marionette theatre began to seem too limiting, and the puppeteers hit upon the idea of combining puppet theatre and live performers in the same theatre.(12) They teamed up with Dorothy Neumann to open up the Turnabout Theatre on July 10, 1941 in Los Angeles. The Turnabout was so called because of its unique set up with a stage at either end of the house. A marionette show would begin the presentation on one stage and then at intermission, while the audience had coffee and refreshments on the patio, the backs of the streetcar benches on which the patrons sat would be flipped so the audience would face the other stage for the second half. On this second stage a live actor production would take place. There were 184 seats in the theatre on La Cienega Boulevard and they were constantly filled. The theatre played six performances a week, fifty weeks a year, and grossed around $140,000 a year.(13) The theatre building cost ten thousand dollars to construct and in the first ten months this was paid back to the building's owner in rent money alone.(14) Even today these numbers are incredible.

It is obvious that the old fans and friends the Yale Puppeteers nurtured in their earlier stints in Los Angeles returned to partake in more fun at the new theatre. In addition there were plenty of new attendees. The Wall of the Stars returned with them to the Turnabout, and after 4,535 performances by the time the theatre closed in 1956, many more signatures were added. According to the puppeteers, the advent of television in the 1950's may have had something to do with the drop in attendance at the theatre in the few years before it closed. Even so, the Yale Puppeteers did open successful revivals of the Turnabout in the late 1950's and early 1960's in San Francisco, La Jolla, and Los Angeles.

The Yale Puppeteers were able to provide the necessary mixture of design artistry, music, business acumen , and creative wit to be successful in a field where so many are not. Their ability to find a market and have the tenacity to stick with and believe in their abilities as performers should be an inspiration to us all - - not only puppeteers, but to any individual who is driven by the desire to make their living doing only what they love, without compromise.

Endnotes

1 The National Capitol Puppetry Guild Calendar, March 1983
2 Small Wonder, p- 4
3 The Puppeteers, p. 30
4 Small Wonder, p. 8
5 ibid, p. 28
6 Small Wonder, pp. 57 - 66
7 ibid, P. 119
8 Small Wonder, p. 154
9 The Puppeteers, p. 31
10 Small Wonder, p- 172
11 The Puppetry Journal, vol.48 -2, p. 13
12 Small Wonder, p. 183
13 The Puppetry Journal, vol-2- 5,p-6
14 The Puppetry Journal, vol.48 -2, p. 13
References

1. Small Wonder - The Story of the Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Theatre, Forman Brown, The Scarecrow Press, 1980.
2. The Puppetry Journal, vol.2, no.5, The Puppeteers of America
3. The Puppetry Journal, vol.48, no.2, The Puppeteers of America
4. The Puppeteers, Ted Salter, The Puppetry Journal, 1983
5. The National Capitol Puppetry Guild Calendar, 1983






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