Life on a string : the Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Puppet Theatre
The story of the Turnabout Puppet Theatre, and the three men who created it, is a quintessential LA story. In the 1920s people came west for adventure and opportunity, for year-round good weather, for not being hampered by history, but instead find a place where they could make their own history. Los Angeles was a city that was starting to grow and prosper, and the setting was mostly hospitable, with affordable personal and professional rental spaces. When the theatre was in its permanent place, a part of fading history was incorporated, with the discarded seats from the Pacific Electric trolleys used for the “turnabout” feature.There were peformances for children, but the ones for adults were a major draw, with satirical acts that had risque’ and cheeky dialogue, and were astutely political. The story of the three men began in the 1920s and endured through the 1990s. The life of the The Turnabout Theatre was shorter, 1941-1956, but the friendship and story of the three men endured longer.
It all began in Michigan when a touring marionette company came to Ann Arbor, and Harry Burnett convinced his distant cousin, Forman Brown, to have their own marionette company, which eventually had many successful tours around the state. The men enrolled in the Yale School of Drama, where they met Richard “Roddy” Brandon, and the rest comprises a rich serendipitous history. They were talented, young, engaging, innovative and gay. Their energy, knowledge and willingness to try something new made them a magnet for others, who were captivated by their audacious creativity.
The list of established celebrities, and others who were discovered because of the Turnabout Theatre, is remarkable and breathtaking. The panels on the theatre walls were used for autographs by the well-known, and on page 137 is an alphabetical list that includes a number after each name, indicating the panel that was signed.
The Turnabout Theatre Collection came to the Los Angeles Public Library, which is the custodian of the archive that contains: photographs, documents, original puppets and costumes, all of which documents the long career of The Yale Puppeteers and The Turnabout Theatre. The archive is the basis for this in-depth and all-encompassing book, written by Christina Rice, Senior Librarian – Photo Collection. The design of the book is by Amy Inouye. Their combined talents have resulted in an exceptionally beautiful and informative book, which vividly brings to life a rich history that many do not know about. However, there are others, who attended performances at the theatre, and will discover how much more there was to that charming theatre at 716 North La Cienega Boulevard.
There is an exhibit, that has the eponymous name of the book, in the Getty Gallery at Central Library. It was scheduled for a grand opening this past April, 2020. Until the Central Library reopens, take the virtual tour, which is a real treat and absolutely fabulous: Life on a String. When you take the virtual tour, be sure to take your time to look at all the parts as you click through the various entries, and listen to the recordings. The book was recommended as an LAPL Reads Best of 2020: Non-fiction. For a last-minute holiday gift, you can buy the book at The Library Store.