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Hanging By A String

Operating on the margins of a marginalized art form, Ralph Kimpniss somehow keeps his puppets swinging and his hopes alive.

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By Sergio Barreto

The lights are going down for a performance at the Puppet Parlor, a storefront theater in Ravenswood that does puppet versions of fairy tales and operas and, occasionally, racy adult shows. It's a small space, with two wide wooden benches and enough metal folding chairs to seat 50 people. Today, a snowy, cold Saturday in January, only 12 people have shown up.

Ralph Kipniss, the 60-year-old founder and owner of the theater, doesn't seem concerned by the low turnout. He's excited because he's just hired two new young people, and he thinks they're going to work out well.

One of them, Scott Morgan, has wanted to be a puppeteer as long as he can remember. "Blame it on Jim Henson," he says. "Watching Sesame Street and the Muppets with my mouth gaping open--that's what brings me here today." He studied acting, then taught himself to make and manipulate puppets. Danielle Clements, a student at the School of the Art Institute who's majoring in sculpting, does set design for Redmoon Theater. "My metier has changed so many times," she says, "but I love puppetry and am seriously considering making a career out of it."

Morgan and Clements have been rehearsing with Kipniss for a week on the theater's small stage. It's only 12 feet deep, though it looks deeper from the audience's point of view. Hidden behind drapes are two "bridges"--sections of scaffolding that run eight feet above the stage--where the puppeteers stand. Between the bridges are wooden bars where the handmade marionettes, which stand three to four feet tall and weigh 25 to 30 pounds, hang from hooks when they're not being used. There's hardly any space between the bridges and the stage walls, and most of it's taken up by puppets. Kipniss, who's thin and wiry, negotiates the clutter easily, but his longtime assistant, Lou Ennis, who's 73 and weighs more than 300 pounds, struggles. It's even harder when there are four people on the bridges.

The dialogue and music are recorded, so the crew has little room to make mistakes. They don't even get a break during intermission, when they have to dash around rotating puppets and moving props and backdrops. When the script calls for the marionettes to sit or bend down, the puppeteers lean over the edge of the bridge, teetering perilously. Kipniss says no one's ever fallen onto the stage, and neither he nor Ennis seems concerned when the bridges sway during a show's most hectic moments. The stage lights produce a lot of heat, which Ennis says is almost unbearable in the summer. "We have to leave the back door open or we'd die of heatstroke."

Today's audience is the usual mixture of local families and young, childless couples. Kipniss stands in front of the stage and introduces the show, The Adventures of Jack Frost, which is based on an old Russian fairy tale. He answers questions from the children about puppeteering, then crawls under the "orchestra pit," a concealed platform in front of the stage containing 16 dolls clad in tuxedos--a conductor holding a baton, the rest holding an assortment of string and brass instruments.

"Maestro Puppetini, are you ready to conduct your mechanical orchestra?" he asks. Then he answers himself, adding an accent, "Yes, yes. This is Maestro Puppetini. You can bring us up!"

Kipniss raises the orchestra pit and manipulates the dolls from below so that they play their instruments as taped music fills the room. The little girls in the front row exclaim "Oh!" in unison.

After a few minutes, Kipniss lowers the orchestra pit. He climbs up to the bridges, and the show begins.

Up on the bridges Morgan and Clements are handling their puppets and scenery pieces well, though not perfectly. Kipniss tries to contain himself, but toward the end of the first act Clements lowers a smiling sun a little to the side of where it's supposed to be. "In the spotlight," Kipniss snaps audibly. "In the spotlight!"

In act two, Ivan the hunter gets mugged, and the script calls for him to kick the mugger's club offstage. But Ennis gets the strings that hold it tangled in the puppet's strings, and the club just hangs in midair. Kipniss bristles and snaps at him too.

Things don't go much better the next day, when the audience for the show is down to eight. During the fight scene the backdrops fall with a loud thud onto the middle of the stage. Kipniss looks angry but says nothing. Morgan, whose slender frame lets him move easily in the tight quarters, races down to the stage and manages to lift up the backdrops without being seen by the audience.

Later Clements, who's supposed to handle the grandmother puppet that narrates the story, can't find a place to hang the two marionettes she manipulates during a wedding scene and misses the cue to bring grandma back on.

"Would you please grab the puppets you're supposed to grab," Kipniss berates her.

The audience doesn't seem to care about the mishaps. One girl says she thought the falling scenery was part of the story. But Kipniss is irritated. "Kids don't really notice these mistakes, but the parents probably do," he says later. "And anyway I want it to be done right."

When the show ends, Kipniss invites the children and parents backstage to see how the puppets are manipulated. "See how we operate the control?" he tells them. "It's basically two crosses strung together. When you open the control you can operate the puppet's head, make it bow. Here, give it a try." Some of the children are so captivated their parents finally have to drag them away.

A woman walks up to Kipniss and says, "I teach at a school for children with special needs. Your assistant tells me you do school performances, and I think our children would love it if you could come over."

Kipniss's face lights up, and he tells her he'll do it anytime she wants. He may be happy in part because the $500 to $600 fee for a school performance would cover his overdue $600 phone bill or a down payment on the $4,000 he owes his landlord.

After the audience has left, Kipniss, Morgan, and Clements pick up the trash and sweep the floor. Ennis plops down in a chair in the lobby, surrounded by the marionettes and ventriloquist's dummies Kipniss has out for sale, and promptly dozes off.

Later Kipniss says that in spite of the mistakes his new assistants made, he hasn't lost faith in them. "The other day Clements told me, 'I think I finally found my niche.' It's so wonderful to hear that coming from a young person's mouth. Morgan is also great to work with. There's an easiness to his personality that I appreciate very much. If he sticks around, I may offer him a partnership in the company."

As the descendant of a long line of Russian poets and performers, Kipniss always believed he was destined to be an artist. His father was a violinist who moved to America to avoid being conscripted into the czar's army and later became a doctor. His mother was an opera singer whose career was cut short when she contracted scarlet fever, which weakened her lungs.

Kipniss, who inherited his parents' love of music and opera, first discovered puppetry as a young boy attending marionette shows at Marshall Field's. Back then, puppet companies often performed in school auditoriums and would sometimes let Kipniss and other children help with the shows. "I thought it was almost miraculous to see those little people come to life on the stage, and being close to them made it even more special," he says. "That's why I always invite kids backstage. I hope some of them, even one of them might fall in love with this art and make a career out of it."

At first Kipniss wanted to become an opera singer, but he soon realized he didn't have the voice for it. He tried dancing, but damaged his tendons when he was a teen. Then he set his sights on a theater career, eventually enrolling in acting classes at Wright Junior College. It was around that time, in the early 60s, that he attended a rare Chicago show by the Salzburg Marionette Theatre. The Austrian company, long considered to have the world's best puppet artists, performed a sold-out engagement of Mozart's Magic Flute at DePaul, and Kipniss realized that this was the way to bring together his two greatest passions, opera and marionettes. "I sat there with my mouth gaping open, and I thought, this has got to be my future." Soon he was apprenticing with two local puppet masters, George Cole and Ross Coleman, and later he would work with puppeteer Charlotte Pollack.

"What I loved--and still love--so much about puppetry is the illusion of it, the near magic that we create for people onstage," says Kipniss. "Like in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, when the skeleton's head pops off and his body comes apart and the audience goes 'Oooh.' Or when the stripper takes off her clothes in Les Petite Folies. We use pins, strings, hooks, and magnets to create that effect. But the people watching have no idea. They're just enchanted and mystified."

He was also fascinated by the history of puppetry. The earliest known string- operated toys date to Egypt in around 2000 BC--terra-cotta figures that were designed to perform a single function with the pulling of a cord. Jointed dolls seem to have been developed for use in Greek and Egyptian funerals and other rituals. Other cultures gave the art form their own spin. The Vietnamese developed water puppetry, which is performed in a chest-deep pool whose surface serves as the stage. "Indians thought puppets were alive," Kipniss says, "and in medieval times puppeteers were considered sorcerers. Before the advent of print, there were no Bibles, so puppetry was used to pass Christianity on from generation to generation. Puppeteers would roll into town to dramatize biblical stories, and when a Jesus puppet appeared, people would genuflect to it." The word marionette means "little Mary" and is believed to have derived from the use of the figure of the Virgin Mary during medieval performances of the Nativity story.

Kipniss believes that in the right hands puppetry can ascend to high art. He cites the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, which has been one of that city's premier cultural institutions since it was founded in 1913; its performances of Mozart's operas sell out its baroque theater months in advance. He pulls out an old promotional brochure with pictures of him manipulating a puppet and a short essay titled "A Confession of Faith," by Anatole France. It reads, in part: "I believe in the immortal world of marionettes and dolls. Doubtless there is nothing human in the way of flesh in these little beings of wood or cardboard; but there is in them something of the divine, however little it may be....They bring to the little children the only vision of the divine that is intelligible to them. They represent all the religion available to the most tender age....I should like these words to be taken in their most literal sense."

"I do think it is a godlike gift to be able to give life to these little people," says Kipniss. "I really take this piece to heart. I've used it to screen job applicants for years. I ask them to read it, then write a short essay explaining what they gleaned from it. Their responses are a good indication of how interested they are in the art of puppetry."

Kipniss got his first major gig as a puppeteer when he was in his early 20s, doing a film for a Cook County agency explaining to children what it would be like to go to court. He made his own marionettes representing a judge, a bailiff, and jurors, and spent two days in a real courtroom manipulating them for the camera. Around this time, he started working at the prestigious Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera, at Michigan and Ontario, and took a position teaching puppetry at Wright.

Soon he felt confident enough to start his own company, with a portrait artist and nightclub performer as his partner. He hired an agent from William Morris to handle his bookings and turned his parents' northwest-side garage into an office. He and his partner spent a year building marionettes for their first show, Les Petite Folies, a puppet version of the Folies Bergere.

In 1964 Kipniss decided to go it on his own. He borrowed $30,000 from his family and founded the Royal European Marionettes Theater, named after the company his parents had performed with in Russia. His mother made most of the puppets' costumes and sometimes sang during performances. He approached Field's about letting him bring back the shows that had enchanted him as a child, but the store wasn't interested.

The company hit the road, becoming a regular in places such as Columbus and Cleveland and the theaters owned by the national Schubert chain. Touring was expensive, requiring the transportation of 12 company members, as well as the puppets, sets, and props. Kipniss says agents and unions were constant thorns in his side, and stage managers were often ignorant of the needs of a marionette company. He remembers a performance in the late 60s in Cleveland where the stage manager decided to lift the backdrops high above the stage. The backdrops were under the puppeteers' arms, and when the backdrops went up, the puppeteers and marionettes went with them. "These people were flying way up in the air, hanging on for dear life and still trying to keep the show going. I told the manager to get them down, and he wouldn't--because he thought it was a nice effect." Kipniss says he and the manager got into a backstage shouting match. The manager claimed Kipniss had hit him and filed charges, but they were later dismissed.

"The children made it all worthwhile," says Kipniss, who was married twice but has no children. "I love them because they are so sincere. When they applaud at the end of the show, you know they really liked it." He fondly recalls a little girl who brought her mother backstage at a Sioux Falls mall and told him she wanted to grow up to be a puppet. "Her mother was exasperated, asking us, 'Please tell her what a puppet is.'"

By 1970 he'd decided that he could no longer afford to tour. He says union rules forced him to pay stagehands $500 to $600 per week, and theater owners were taking at least 60 percent of the gate. "When it got to the point that we had to bring in $20,000 a week to break even, it became a losing proposition."

Kipniss decided to settle down in Chicago again and opened a storefront theater on the northwest side. He relocated a few times, moving to his current location, at 1922 W. Montrose, 13 years ago.

Kipniss commissioned scripts from a graphic artist and made his own puppets in the theater's basement. Children's shows were his bread and butter, but over the years he also developed more adult-oriented fare, including a cabaret revue that featured puppet nudity. And he indulged his passion for operas, gradually creating puppets for several different condensed works. He says The Magic Flute, which made such a strong impression on him as a young adult, will always be his favorite. His performances use an English-language recording, so he thinks it's an ideal way to introduce children to opera. He does other operas in their original languages, including a 45-minute version of Tosca using a Maria Callas recording and an opera highlights show with scenes from works such as La traviata, Faust, and Madama Butterfly. His Cavalleria rusticana, using a recording by the Hungarian State Opera, has two characters fornicating against a church wall. "You have to be faithful to the original text," he says with a smirk.

Kipniss does the operas when he can--he says he performs them for his own pleasure as much as for the audience's. Many of them require lots of puppets onstage at the same time, which means hiring extra assistants, so he doesn't always make a profit, even though he charges $14 a ticket. But then he's never made much of a profit doing the nonopera shows, for which he charges $8 a ticket--unless he gets large school groups, who pay only $6 a ticket. He's always on the lookout for alternative ways to help pay the bills. He's offered lessons in puppetry and puppet making, he's rented out the theater for birthday parties, and he's done numerous performances in school auditoriums throughout the Chicago area. In the mid-80s he produced a short-lived TV show, The Puppet Parlor--The Place to Be, which aired on the public-access channel. He says that five years ago the Lyric Opera approached him about doing a marionette performance of Siegfried that was to be filmed and used to teach children about opera, but the plan fell through.

Kipniss has always welcomed special requests, even bizarre ones. He's willing to go just about anywhere or open his doors to just about anyone, as long as the price is right. A few years ago he was paid $2,500 for performing during a birthday party at a mansion in Kenilworth. A couple who met at the Puppet Parlor during a performance of The Wizard of Oz paid him to let them have their wedding pictures taken at the theater. An acquaintance once asked him to allow a wealthy friend to have an "unusual" ceremony at the Puppet Parlor. People brought in a casket, and a woman Kipniss presumes was an actress came in dressed like Eva Peron. "She stood by the casket and said, 'Evita is not dead,'" he says. "Then she sang 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina,' and mourners wept. I have no idea who was in the casket. But it was a nice catered affair, and they paid me $500 for it."

The only time Kipniss ever turned down a request was when a gay nudist group asked him to let them watch Hansel and Gretel in the buff. "You have to draw a line somewhere," he says.

When Kipniss went into the business, there were several marionette theaters in Chicago. Today only the Puppet Parlor remains. Most of the theaters disappeared without a trace, though the Kungsholm left most of its puppets to the Museum of Science and Industry. Kipniss has two of the theater's dolls from The King and I displayed in his lobby.

It's not clear how long Kipniss's theater can hang on. He's had to cancel his puppetry and puppet-making classes because he doesn't get enough students. The Puppet Parlor's regularly scheduled Saturday and Sunday afternoon nonopera shows, which usually run for two or three months at a time, draw only 25 to 30 people during the busiest season, from March to June. Each of the two or three performances he does for school groups every week draws 40 to 75 children, but he hasn't been able to perform The Magic Flute for months because he never gets the 30 reservations he needs to turn a profit.

Yet Kipniss refuses to characterize puppetry as a dying art form. He says it's been absorbed by other forms and can still be seen in films, on children's television shows, in special-effects work, and in theatrical performances that mesh puppets and live actors. "There may be a decline in interest in the marionette theater," he says, "but the art of puppetry will always have a place in the popular imagination."

He doesn't consider his shows too antiquated for 21st-century audiences. He thinks puppetry is "an ideal way to introduce children to many different art forms. A movie is something kids will watch and quickly forget, but a marionette show is a special experience they'll remember for life. Every once in a while a parent will call me and say, 'Mr. Kipniss, I saw one of your shows 15, 20 years ago, and it made such a difference in my life that I have to take my kids to your theater.'"

He proudly takes out a letter sent to him a year ago by an attorney for the Chicago Public Schools. "I wholeheartedly endorse the Puppet Parlor's performances of classic children's tales," she wrote. "This is pedagogy at its best." Kipniss says he's received many such accolades, which he quotes in his promotional materials.

The Puppet Parlor may be the last puppet theater in Chicago, but the city has other puppet companies. And their owners, who work out of their own homes, insist business is great. "I'm doing very well," says Dave Herzog, whose Dave Herzog Marionettes did 350 shows last year. "I'm not missing any meals, and I drive a new car." He works alone and thinks his success is based on marketing savvy. "I cater extensively to preschools, because I feel they're an excellent market. I've been working with area preschools for 18 years, and 85 percent of my business is repeat customers--preschools who like my work and want me to keep coming back." Lolly Extract of Jabberwocky Marionettes, a company that moved to Chicago from New York six years ago, says, "We did 52 shows in November and December alone."

The nearest marionette theater in the Chicago area is William Fosser's Puppet Opera Theatre, which performs scenes from well-known operas in conjunction with the Rolling Meadows Park District. "We have been trying to build up our audience," says Fosser. "It goes up and down. There definitely are high expenses involved in maintaining a marionette theater. Ideally, everybody in this business wants to have her own theater, but it's not always feasible."

Marilyn Price, a puppeteer based in Kaneville who started her business around the same time as Kipniss, agrees. "People don't want to come to you anymore--you have to go to them," she says. "Even schools don't want to put kids on a bus--they want you to go to the school."

But Kipniss insists, "There should be a theater like this in Chicago. There should be a place where children can go to watch these shows. You can only make so much money by going to your audience."

He knows he'd get better turnouts if he could afford to advertise in the big papers, but he has to rely on community newspapers, listings, and direct mailings to schools. He also thinks he'd do better in a different location. "The space is too small," he says. "You should see what it's like when we have a group of 50, 75 schoolchildren. They love the show, but they're all packed in like sardines."

He's afraid the survival of his theater may depend on relocating to the suburbs. "Out there I could get a bigger space with parking available. It would be sad for Chicago to lose its only marionette theater. But if that's what it takes to keep the Puppet Parlor alive, then that's what it takes."

It's hard to see how he could afford to move. His landlord is now insisting that he pay his rent. "He says there are 50 people who want to rent the place," Kipniss says. "I told him all the other storefronts around me are going vacant, so I don't know what makes him think he can get other tenants easily. My god, we've been here for 13 years."

In the past few months he's tried to find new ways to raise cash. He approached CAN TV with a proposal to produce another show--"sort of an updated version of Howdy Doody"--but never got a response. His friend Zeke Gonzalez, an independent movie producer, spent a few days filming at the theater, hoping to make a tape of Kipniss's Little Mermaid for the home-video market. But Kipniss says he doesn't think it's going to pan out, and he puts part of the blame on an assistant who worked for him only briefly. "We had to reshoot several scenes from different angles, but she said, 'I don't care. I have a date.' Not exactly professional. I begged and pleaded for her to stay, but out the door she went--and her date wasn't until two hours from then."

Gonzalez wrote his next film, Strings, with the theater in mind and is now filming it there. Kipniss plays the main character, a puppeteer who watches one of his creations come to life. "In that sense, it's like Pinocchio," says Kipniss. "But since the puppet proceeds to kill most of the cast, it becomes sort of a Chucky kind of thing."

Kipniss knows starring in a low-budget local production won't bring in enough money to get him out of the hole. Asked what he would do if forced to close, he stares at the wall for a moment, then shakes his head and says, "I don't know." Then he changes the subject.

A few weeks after they were hired, Scott Morgan and Danielle Clements, Kipniss's two new assistants, stopped showing up for work. Kipniss has never been able to keep employees very long--except Ennis, who started out doing advertising for the theater back in 1968. He doesn't have any family to rely on, and it doesn't help that he can't afford to pay his assistants for rehearsal time.

One night in January a young Russian immigrant walks in, responding to a help-wanted ad Kipniss has taped to the theater's window. "Do you have any experience in puppeteering?" Kipniss asks.

"No," the man says. "I'm a stained-glass artist."

"Then what brings you here tonight?"

"I just need the money, really."

The man opens a briefcase and pulls out some samples of his work. Kipniss looks at it and says, "I'm not sure what you want to do here. I can teach you puppetry, and I'm sure you could do it. But I think you'd be wasting your talent. My god, these are such beautiful pieces. You should be making a good deal of money from your art. Stained-glass art is very specialized work. So is puppetry. You shouldn't get into such a line of work unless you have a love for it."

He advises the man to check out the jobs board at the Art Institute to find something more suited to his talent, then sends him on his way. After he's gone Kipniss says, "I don't want to waste his time--or mine. It takes a certain kind of person to do this job. I don't want to go through the trouble of training someone just to lose him in a month or two." He says he's hired many applicants with talent and glamorous resum├ęs who didn't last long.

Asked if he might be a difficult boss to satisfy, he says, "I am a perfectionist, yes. But I don't hold people up to a standard that is beyond their ability. The problem is, people don't want to get up on the bridge and do the same movements over and over. When we are getting ready for a show the rehearsals go on for about three hours a night for a week. It's hard work, and I pay $15 per performance. And most people are not interested enough in the art to do the work that it takes. So you see why I have to be picky with whom I hire. It has to be a person who really has a love for the art. As an early mentor told me, 'If you can't be the puppet onstage, you can't be a puppeteer.'"

By February, Kipniss has managed to hire four middle-aged Russian assistants, one of whom has years of experience as a puppeteer. "They're good people," he says, "but the language is a problem. I don't speak Russian, and they don't speak much English. I hope they learn fast." He's also hired a publicist, Rudy Linke. "Linke is very enthusiastic about the theater, both the art side and the promotional side of it. He told me, 'Let's face it, you need new ideas to draw an audience.'"

On February 9 Kipniss and his new crew perform The Magic Flute for an audience of two. "We had reservations for a group of 20," he says. "But the weather was lousy, so they canceled at the last minute. The show was great though."

Down in the theater's basement, Kipniss points out the saws and molds he uses to craft his puppets, and the old sewing machine his mother used to make costumes. Most of the space is crammed with the marionettes, props, and sets he's built over the past three and a half decades, including the Mae West puppet from his very first show, 36 years ago. There's also the 60-pound griffin from Alice in Wonderland that takes two people to operate, the three-headed dragon from Aladdin, the female stripper and the male streaker from Les Petite Folies.

He says he wants to do Cavalleria rusticana in April, for the first time in years. And he has March performances scheduled in Kansas City and a suburb of Detroit.

He puts on a videotape about the Salzburg Marionette Theatre. "This is what I patterned my opera work after," he says, as he watches the director, who's sitting in front of the stage, tell an assistant to lower a ballerina puppet. The marionette descends and starts to spin on its toes. But the director isn't pleased, and he shouts a few commands, clearly expecting from the puppet everything he'd expect from a flesh-and-blood actor. "Now that's what I hope to be able to do in the future," Kipniss says wistfully. "Maybe with corporate support."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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