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Yale Puppeteers Turnabout Theater collection
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Collection Overview
 
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Description
The Yale Puppeteers Turnabout Theater collection, circa 1910s-1990s, consists of several thousand photographs and negatives, hundreds of items of ephemera, many journals and items of correspondence, and several puppets and stage props owned by the Yale Puppeteers: Harry Burnett, Forman Brown, and Richard “Roddy” Brandon. This collection provides a unique look at Los Angeles theatre, puppetry, and the lives of gay men through the 20th century. The collection’s photographs are primarily black and white snapshots, but also include hundreds of 8x10 black and white portraits of Turnabout Theater players.
Background
The Yale Puppeteers were formed in 1928 by Harry Burnett, Forman Brown, and Richard “Roddy” Brandon, college friends who had met through a mutual love of puppet theater during their educations at University of Michigan and Yale University. The group toured New England in 1928 before establishing themselves in Los Angeles, on Olvera Street, at the Teatro Torito in 1929. The Puppeteers stayed on at the Teatro Torito for two years before returning to the East Coast for a brief run on Broadway from 1931 to 1933. In 1933, the men returned to Hollywood to work as puppeteers on the films “I Am Suzanne,” and later “Whom the Gods Destroy.” In 1941, Burnett, Brown, and Brandon opened the Turnabout Theater at 716 North La Cienega Boulevard with co-owner Dorothy Neumann, a stage and film actress who would become a mainstay in the Turnabout. The Turnabout Theater held two stages on opposite ends of the house, and hosted both marionette plays and live-actor performances on respective stages. Audience members were seated on decommissioned Pacific Electric Railway seats, which could “turn about” at intermission so that both stages could be seen over the course of the night. The Turnabout Theater was the home of the Yale Puppeteers from 1941 until its closure in 1956, save for several limited national tours. During its run, the Turnabout became a fixture of the Los Angeles theater scene, and a local attraction of some popularity. The Yale Puppeteers’ performances and celebrity parodies attracted many celebrity patrons, who left their autographs on the inner walls of the theater, as well as on personalized headshots gifted to the company. The Turnabout revue was created primarily for an adult audience, and included productions like “Gullible’s Travels,” “Caesar Julius,” and “Uncle Tom’s Hebbin,” as well as limited-engagement musical acts, and smaller-scale parodies using puppets and live actors. Notable performers in the Turnabout include Elsa Lanchester, Dorothy Neumann, Lotte Goslar, Leota Lane, and Frances Osborne. Odetta, the folk-singer and civil rights activist, was another notable figure from the Turnabout. Odetta’s involvement with the theater began as a child, assisting her mother Flora Feliz in her position as a maintenance worker. The family developed a friendship with the Yale Puppeteers, Harry Burnett arranging Odetta’s early operatic vocal training several years later in the mid-1940s. Odetta performed ensemble roles in the theater, and went on to have a major role in the 1952 production “Tommy Turnabout Jr’s Circus” shortly before embarking on her career as a folk-artist. In 1956, Burnett, Brown, and Brandon relocated their operation to San Francisco, but returned to Hollywood in early 1957. The Yale Puppeteers spent the rest of their retirement in Hollywood, and staged occasional, scaled-down performances out of their home and workshop “The Turnabout House”. Harry Burnett constructed and operated the marionettes for the Yale Puppeteers, and performed live in many Turnabout Theater productions. Burnett was also a prolific photographer, and documented the personal lives and travels of the Yale Puppeteers in several thousand photographs, spanning from 1928 to the early 1990s. Forman Brown wrote the Yale Puppeteers’ plays, including all music and lyrics, from the troupe’s formation in 1928 until their retirement. Brown produced two books on the Yale Puppeteers’ careers, “Punch’s Progress” and “Turnabout.” Forman Brown was also the author of the 1933 novel “Better Angel,” which explored gay sexuality without condemnation or a tragic ending—making the novel unique for this period of gay literature. Roddy Brandon served as a producer, business manager, and puppeteer for the Turnabout Theater. Brandon was Forman Brown’s romantic partner from 1928 until Brandon’s death in 1985, and their correspondence is included in the collection. The Yale Puppeteers Turnabout Theater collection documents the history of a prominent midcentury puppet theater. In doing so, it also provides a unique look into the early years of Los Angeles theatre, and the lives of traveling performers and gay men in 20th century America.
Extent
105 boxes (46.6 linear feet)
Restrictions
Availability
This collection is stored on-site at the Central Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. It is open for research by appointment only.