The Los Angeles Public Library’s Iconic “Life on a String” Collection
LOS ANGELES – The voice was almost stunned, “They kept everything!” That “everything” is the famous “Yale Puppeteers and Turnabout Theater Collection” from the Los Angeles Public Library and the voice belonged to Christina Rice, Senior Librarian for her incredible photo collections. The story of the puppeteers of Yale and the Turnabout Theater spans nearly 70 years of a unique personal and professional relationship and the incredible 15-year tenure of a historic LA theater.
Passing through 716 North La Cienega Boulevard in today’s West Hollywood, one would barely notice the undescribed off-white building with a black iron door in the center leading to an interior courtyard.
But from 1941 to 1956, the Hollywood elite, dignitaries from all walks of life as well as the general public would walk through this door after stepping out of limousines, taxis and private cars in this inner courtyard.
They would gather to witness a unique theatrical performance of magical puppets on a stage, after which there was an intermission where they would return to the courtyard for refreshments and then return. However, they would return the backrests of the old tram seats reused to face the second stage at the opposite end of the theater for a musical review and therefore the reason for the place’s unique name – The Turnabout Theater.
The theater and its three founders, along with actors and a crew who saw themselves as family, gained international fame with their beloved productions, music, comedy and atmosphere created in this very special place.
The story began, however, in the 1920s when Harry Burnett and Forman Brown, Brandon would form an enduring partnership at university, first at the University of Michigan and then later at Yale University where the duo performed. joined Richard ‘Roddy’ and the nickname “The Puppeteers of Yale” was born.
In an interview with The Blade, John F. Szabo, City Librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, pointed out that the story of the Yale puppeteers and their Turnabout Theater is essentially part of the history of LA, its inhabitants and its heritage. “The collection reflects LA’s central place in entertainment and film, it marks the history of the city that was hidden or unknown, but it is also an integral part of LA’s LGBTQ history and heritage,” Szabo said.
Forman Brown and Richard ‘Roddy’ Brandon were lovers and partners at a time when being openly gay was simply not possible and in fact the exposure could have serious ramifications including imprisonment as homosexuality was illegal. It was not that the three men necessarily concealed their orientation, it was rather that their knowledge was generally not known outside certain circles of those who knew them well. Harry Burnett was gay too.
This Szabo-felt legacy is the essence of LA and is an integral part of the library’s continued efforts to share with the public in the current exhibit “Life on a String, Yale Puppeteers, and the Turnabout Theater” currently hosted at the central library, Getty Gallery.
Szabo said he was delighted with the hard work Christina Rice, Senior Photo Collection Librarian and her staff were able to put into creating the exhibit by curating an impressive array of artifacts that tell the story.
The library acquired the collection in 1998, two years after Forman Brown’s death, when the executor of his estate and longtime friend Michael Bridges donated it.
Rice told the Blade that it was a pleasure to keep the collection for the exhibition. “The coronavirus pandemic precluded their ability to present the exhibit to the public in person, so Rice instead said the library made a limited virtual presentation with audio tours on the library’s website. Now people can visit the library to see this unique entertainment treasure for themselves.
The Turnabout Theater collection is vast, recognized by Szabo, but it is also unique due to the diversity of its artefacts. “From the whimsical nature of the puppets to the amazing photographs, posters and other memorabilia, this exhibit is museum quality,” he said.
In addition to the exhibition, the Library also showcases Forman Brown’s efforts as a published author. Szabo said the uniqueness of his personal journey as a member of the Yale Puppeteers, coupled with his inability to speak openly about his sexual orientation, had forced him to use a pseudonym for his first book, “Better Angel,” an autobiographical novel that recounted Brown’s awakening as a homosexual.
First published in 1933 by the Greenburg Press, Brown, writing when Richard Meeker found a modest audience Szabo wrote in the new version of the republished 2020 version of the LAPL. The book gives a rich sense of contextual reference to the author and his era related to Szabo. Interestingly enough, the book had been rediscovered by Alyson Publications in the late 1980s and after a search for “Richard Meeker” despite the book being in the public domain and permission not required, Alyson published it.
In his article, Szabo described a funny anecdotal story that after Alyson put the book on the market, Forman Brown went to a local bookstore for a copy and the clerk told him he liked the book because it was well written. Brown replied “I’m sure I will, I wrote it down.”
Rice and Szabo both told Blade they were deeply thrilled that the exhibit could bring the story of the puppeteers of Yale and the Turnabout Theater to life with the visual displays of the artifacts, especially the puppets themselves, and the plethora of posters. , newspaper advertisements, photographs and memorabilia and now let the public see it for themselves.
Published by Photo Friends of the Los Angeles Public Library Publications, the detailed, 170-page book with photos and text provides insight into the collection and the uniqueness of the human and family history that was the Turnabout Theater.
Fittingly, Rice ends her book with a poem written by Forman Brown titled “Walls, II, Puppeteer.”
The vastness and completeness of the collection marks a moment and a moment in LA entertainment history.
For more information, please visit the library’s website here: [Link]