Life on a String: The Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Theatre

June 07, 2021 to March 06, 2022

For 20+ years, the Los Angeles Public Library has been the custodian of what has always been referred to as the “Turnabout Theatre Collection.” And while this collection does indeed contain documents, photographs, ephemera, and puppets from the Turnabout, which operated on La Cienega Boulevard from 1941-1956, the collection and this exhibit are really the story of the Yale Puppeteers.

The Puppet Maker (Harry Burnett), the Songwriter (Forman Brown), and the Businessman (Richard “Roddy Brandon) found each other in the 1920s and formed a partnership, which ultimately became a family that lasted until their deaths nearly 70 years later. They had a shared vision of adult entertainment in the form of puppets, and this exhibit will chronicle that journey. From the Universities of Michigan and Yale to the roads of New England to the glitz of Los Angeles, the exhibit will explore their starts and stops until they finally landed on La Cienega and created the theater that would bring them international fame.

A large part of the exhibit focuses on the Turnabout Theatre itself, for which a great deal of ephemera exists. The story of the Turnabout is also the tale of the extended family that grew out of it, which included actresses Elsa Lanchester, Dorothy Neumann (who was also a co-owner), Lotte Goslar, Frances Osborne, and folk singer Odetta who met the Yale Puppeteers as a teenager when her mother was employed as the Turnabout’s housekeeper. A portion of the exhibit will also highlight the personal lives of the Yale Puppeteers, all three of whom were gay, but who felt it necessary to downplay that identity during an era of extreme hostility against homosexuals. It was only late in life that they came out after it was revealed that “Better Angel,” a seminal novel with a gay protagonist, written in the 1930s had actually been penned by Forman Brown under a pseudonym.

The puppets are key items, as this obsession of Harry Burnett’s is what fueled the Yale Puppeteers from the beginning. The images and physical scrapbooks demonstrate the deep emotional connections between the Puppeteers and the extended Turnabout Family. The original tribute art demonstrates just how strong an impact the group had on its audience. On a very basic level, the two costumes and props are visually some of the most interesting items. The love letters between Forman and Roddy reveal a deep intimacy these two men shared that lasted a lifetime and served their work.

The Turnabout Theater was operated by three gay men, co-owned by a woman, and employed African American actors in the 1950s. It is a unique and positive Los Angeles story that celebrates the diversity of this city. An exhibit highlighting their lives and legacies is long overdue.

There will be a catalogue and an audio tour to go along with the exhibition. The audio tour includes a welcome by John Szabo and narration by Emmy-Award winning actor James Reynolds (Abe Carver on Days of our Lives).