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Puppet Master

Ralph Kipniss's latest marionette show promises production numbers, lavish costumes, and "girls, girls, girls!"



On opening night of his all-new, all-glamorous, all-marionette Les Petites Follies, Ralph Kipniss, wearing a frilly tuxedo shirt and black tie, is moving through the crowd and shaking hands. He wants to personally greet the nearly 50 guests who have come to the Puppet Parlor, his theater in a Montrose storefront. He's a showman, after all, and just like Florenz Ziegfeld he's no slouch on opening night. Les Petites Follies are modeled on the Ziegfeld Follies, but include acts from the Folies Bergeres and vaudeville. Kipniss has also taken routines from other sources--Liberace, The Addams Family. The Puppet Parlor usually hosts fairy-tale marionette plays for kids, but this, Kipniss says, is an adults-only show. The program advertises "many production numbers, lavish costumes, nostalgia," and "girls, girls, girls!" "I am warning you," Kipniss says to an audience member, "it's a bit risque, very risque."

Colorful hand puppets and marionettes sit on shelves in the theater's lobby. The walls are bright red and lined with posters for various kids' shows (The Wizard of Oz, Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel) as well as pictures from the all-marionette operas that Kipniss has put on, including Tosca and Pagliacci. Guarding the entrance to the theater are turban-wearing statues with jet-black skin holding electric candles. Gilt-framed paintings of opera sets hang on opposite walls in the theater: one from La traviata, the other from The Barber of Seville. The stage, ringed by a bright blue scrim, has standard dimensions for a puppet theater: the performance space is ten feet wide, four and a half feet high, and 12 feet deep. The four puppeteers who work the follies stand eight feet from the floor on specially constructed scaffolding.

The show's first big number stars a hairy-chested marionette wearing nothing but a mustard-colored towel. First he talks into a telephone that's dangling in the air next to him, then he chases a marionette that looks like Florenz Ziegfeld around the stage, "Hello, Frisco, Hello" playing all the while over the loudspeaker. At the sound of machine-gun fire they are yanked off the stage, replaced by three marionettes in lavish red dresses who do a racy dance to "Chicago." Out comes Chicky Boom, the "hostess" for the follies. She's a wide-eyed blond marionette wearing a feather boa and a green dress. Chicky introduces the next acts: Eddie Cantor (singing "If You Knew Susie"), Fanny Brice, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Later the follies take a turn for the exotic. The curtain comes up on a jungle setting for the "Chant of the Pygmies," as half a dozen Pygmy marionettes jump up and down and swing from vines. In the program Kipniss asks the audience to help "save the African Pygmies and preserve their unique rain forest songs." He provides an address for donations. The first act ends in the jungle, as four puppets seduce one another, urged on by dancing shamans with glow-in-the-dark voodoo masks for heads.

Ralph Kipniss comes from a family of artists. His mother was an opera singer, his father a concert violinist. He claims relations with actresses Stella Adler and Sylvia Sidney. His cousin Alice, he says, played the Yiddish theater with Paul Muni. Through puppeteering he's carrying on his family's theatrical heritage. "I think to operate a puppet is a very special gift. To almost cause reality on the stage is a very special gift. Not a god complex, but a very special gift. A puppet is not an extension of me....A good puppeteer should be able to put life right into his puppet. It's just like any character you do, you're that character."

Kipniss, 54, has been a puppeteer his entire adult life. "It has to be a living," he says, "because unfortunately it's the only thing I know how to do." He grew up on the near south side, first becoming interested in puppets at age 12, when his grandfather, a Russian wood-carver, showed him how to make a marionette. He started putting on puppet shows in nightclubs at 18. He worked a puppet as part of Jimmy Durante's show when Durante played Chicago, and also spent some time as a puppeteer on cruise ships. "I've never gone to Vegas," he says. "I would love to one of these days. But that's far off." Thirty years ago his parents gave him the money to start his own company, and he opened the Royal European Marionette Theater at Cermak and Michigan. The original Puppet Parlor opened 11 years ago at a different Ravenswood location; he's been in his current place for about five. Les Petites Follies were first performed in 1972 in Kipniss's old theater and have been revived sporadically. This is the first edition in four years because, Kipniss says, he wanted to make sure he had the right combination of contemporary acts and classic stars. "When you see all these wonderful things and personalities, past and present, and you sort of live in the films of them, well, you get very attached to them," he says. "I wanted to create a copy of them, something to, let us say, be mine, a character, a person. As I got into it, and saw more films, I became more and more attached to their personalities, and it sort of came to me that the follies were what I wanted to do."

The second act of the follies opens with a cancan danced by four female marionettes who spend most of the time lifting up their skirts. Then Chicky returns, wearing tasseled pasties instead of a dress. She introduces "Fannie Devine," who emerges in full makeup, wearing a long black dress. A male voice sings "I Am What I Am," and Fannie saunters around stage making tragic arm gestures. Halfway through the song Fannie lifts her dress up, revealing breasts and a floppy rubber penis. The marionette finishes the song exultantly.

Several scenes later comes the elaborate finale, a "parade of girls" starring more than a dozen marionettes in fancy gowns as well as dolls on swings. As the number ends the curtain drops, but it gets stuck about halfway down.

Kipniss emerges from backstage. He's sweaty, and his hair is rumpled. He has removed his tie. "Oh, Ralph," a woman says, "it was just wonderful."

"Thank you, thank you," Kipniss says. "It was such hard work. There are 75 marionettes in the show, you know."

"I know," she says, "and the costumes were fabulous."

He leans toward her and says, looking serious, "I just hope I didn't shock anyone."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector.

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