On display for the first time on the Los Angeles Public Library’s website, the online exhibit “Life on a String: The Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Theatre” provides a digital sneak peek at the history of a performing trio of entertainers, who were a cohesive unit–professionally and personally–for nearly six decades. It chronicles the long career of Harry Burnett, Forman Brown and Richard “Roddy” Brandon, collectively known as the Yale Puppeteers.
The story of the Yale Puppeteers begins not at Yale, but on a different campus in another state. Brown and Burnett were distant cousins who reconnected while attending the University of Michigan in the early 1920s. They toured around Michigan during their school breaks, performing puppet shows at barns, schoolhouses, churches and social clubs. After graduating in 1922, Burnett began touring with other puppet companies before enrolling in the Yale School of Drama where he encountered Brandon, who immediately bought into Burnett’s vision and obsession with marionettes. Together the three toured around the country before setting up the Turnabout Theater from 1941 to 1956 on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles.
When the Yale Puppeteers moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s, the city was a rapidly growing center for the production of aircraft, ships, and war supplies as the nation prepared for WWII. Hollywood thrived on the burgeoning war effort and audiences yearned for cheerful diversions. When the Yale Puppeteers opened the Turnabout Theater, they filled the niche by eagerly presenting both puppet-shows and live review entertainment.
Planning how the theater would work, they came up with the concept of having a rotating stage, like a carousel with puppets stage in one half of the circle and a live revue act on the other half. With a stage at each end, the audience would simply turn about from one direction to the other direction.
Serendipitously, the Pacific Electric streetcars were being refurbished at the time and had seats that flipped back and forth so no one would have to ride the streetcars backwards. This proved to be the perfect solution. The Puppeteers purchased the discarded Pacific Electric seats and installed them in the aptly named Turnabout Theater.
Throughout their careers, the trio, who traveled and lived together, never hid the fact that they were gay. Yet hostile discriminatory attitudes prevented them from being open about their orientation for most of their lives. Forman and Harry were distant cousins who had engaged in a brief adolescent romance, and Forman and Roddy had a deeply personal long-lasting connection.
The online exhibit reflects their devotion and dedication to each other and their art. It was created as an enticing teaser to encourage library patrons to come see the larger exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Getty Gallery, when the library reopens.
The Yale Puppeteer collection was secured in an archived collection by the Los Angeles Public Library more than three decades ago. The archived helped preserve carefully hand-crafted marionettes; photographs capturing a bygone era; and a wide array of ephemera of original set pieces, programs, posters, scrapbooks, and props that represents the life’s work of the three extraordinary artists.
In connection to the exhibit, the Los Angeles Public Library’s Photo Friends reprinted the highly regarded work of literature, Better Angel, as a tribute to Brown. Published in the 1930s under a pseudonym, the reprinted book features an introduction written by City Librarian John F. Szabo.
“When Forman Brown began writing Better Angel in the early 1930s, he didn’t envision the book actually being published, let alone having an audience close to a century later,” said Senior Librarian Christina Rice, exhibit curator and manager of LAPL Photo Collection. “An autobiographical novel chronicling his sexual awakening as a gay man, the subject matter was considered so ‘sensitive,’ that Brown opted to publish it under the pseudonym Richard Meeker. In 1987, the book was rediscovered and reprinted under the assumption Richard Meeker was no longer alive.”
The rediscovery enabled Brown to finally come forward as the author of the novel, which Variety once called, “a delicate and sometimes moving depiction of the class.”
The exhibit is on view at https://exhibits.lapl.org/lifeonastring, and includes a link to the Library Storethat offers exhibit-related items for sale including pins, scarves and copies of “Better Angel.”
After navigating this informative exhibit, visitors are encouraged to explore:
- lapl.org – Discover the Los Angeles Public library’s many resources, e-media and services.
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- Library To Go – Select books and materials and pick up items at any of 26 library locations.
- Tessa – Instant access to rare and historical collections.