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The great puppet caper

How a Wicker Park building full of "creepy wooden dolls with strings" led a young documentarian to (almost) reunite a prolific puppeteer with his life's work

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During his years as a touring puppeteer, Ralph Kipniss had some uncanny run-ins with strangers. Like the time in the winter of 1963 when he was driving from Chicago along the Pennsylvania Turnpike to meet his William Morris agent in New York City. He was supposed to arrive that afternoon but was delayed by weather. "It was snowing like you wouldn't believe," he recalls. "I said, 'God, I hope we get there.'" All of a sudden a man appeared and, according to Kipniss, he said, "Follow my white truck; I'll get you through the storm." Kipniss made the passage safely with the man's help. And then the man vanished. There was also a time he was on his way to San Antonio, Texas, and a multiple-car pileup left his vehicle marooned in a gully. "Three or four guys lifted the car and got it back on [the road]," he recalls. He wanted to thank them, but they were gone.

Then, in the summer of 2013, Kipniss was 72 years old and living in Michigan City, Indiana. Much of his life's work—thousands of hand-carved, hand-painted, hand-costumed marionettes—had disappeared five years earlier, essentially abandoned in two Wicker Park apartments. Again, help materialized. A less phantasmic sort.

Joseph Lewis in August, the first time he entered the Wicker Park apartment to verify the existence of the marionette collection - THE UNDERGROUND MULTIPLEX
  • The Underground Multiplex
  • Joseph Lewis in August, the first time he entered the Wicker Park apartment to verify the existence of the marionette collection

Joseph Lewis, a 30-year-old documentarian and children's performer who lives in Noble Square, had heard from a neighbor, a maintenance man, about an apartment filled with "creepy wooden dolls with strings" (the maintenance man's words, not Lewis's). Naturally, Lewis was intrigued enough by that description to investigate. He searched the Internet and found an e-mail address associated with Kipniss's former performance space, the Puppet Parlor. He sent a note inquiring about the potential owner of a cache of marionettes left behind in an apartment. He received a response, which led to a phone call, which led to an in-person meeting with the man who was desperate to see his puppets again and amazed that they hadn't been disposed of or destroyed in the years since he'd left them behind. And why had he left them behind, anyway?

He and the building's landlord aren't on good terms, and it's a touchy subject for everyone involved. Lewis has become a conduit between the two men in the hopes that they can strike a deal. He's made it his mission to rescue "the lost marionettes of Ralph Kipniss," as they're referred to in the Kickstarter campaign he's helped spearhead.

"When you build a marionette, just like when you paint a picture, a bit of your soul is in it," Kipniss says. "It sounds odd to people." It didn't sound odd to Lewis.

Approximately 300 handmade marionettes hang in Kipniss’s Michigan City basement. Thousands more hang in limbo in Wicker Park. - RYAN LOWRY
  • Ryan Lowry
  • Approximately 300 handmade marionettes hang in Kipniss’s Michigan City basement. Thousands more hang in limbo in Wicker Park.

In the basement of Kipniss's Michigan City home, around 300 marionettes dangle from their strings, suspended in a state of wonder, their eyes lidless and smiles wide. They vary in size and species, from people (mostly) to horses to elephants to a griffin and a Jabberwock. Aside from the space occupied by a small workbench for repair jobs and the old Singer sewing machine his mother used to craft all the puppets' tiny costumes, every inch is occupied by marionettes. If you see a trunk, a Rubbermaid bin, or a suitcase, rest assured that puppets are inside. "This place is puppet heaven!" Kipniss says, and his eyes light up behind a pair of glasses large enough to make him feel self-conscious, even though they just look sort of cute. It's his heaven, for sure. And probably a claustrophobe's hell. As vast as it looks, it represents a tiny fraction of his collection. There are more puppets in the garage. And then there are the ones enjoying a cold, dusty extended stay in Chicago.

Lewis, who performs with the educational theater company Elephant & Worm, and his team of fellow performers and artists are attempting to raise $25,000 to save the stockpile of puppets in Wicker Park. As of November 5, with seven days to go, close to $3,500 had been raised. On Kickstarter, if a goal isn't met, the money raised goes back to its donors. Recompense to the landlord for years of storage will cost significantly less than $25,000, but Lewis and Kipniss set their goal so high because getting the puppets back isn't the be-all and end-all of the campaign. Lewis explains, "When I first went [to Ralph] and said, 'I found these marionettes and I believe we can get them back,' the first thing he said to me was, 'You know what I really want to do is I want to train people to do this.'" Lewis continues, "You know, it wasn't, 'Oh, thank you, I can't wait to see my collection again.' It was, 'That's great, but I really need to teach people how to do this and soon.'"

Kipniss has been waiting on a savior for a long time. When the Reader last interviewed him, back in 2001, the Puppet Parlor was up and running in its space on Montrose in Ravenswood—but it was struggling tremendously to survive "on the margins of a marginalized art form," as we put it. He still remembers that article, and he remembers it negatively. It wasn't the characterization of puppetry as a dying art form that stuck in his craw, but the way his longtime partner, Lou Ennis, was described. "I think the one thing that really teed me off was the part about Lou being a fat slob at the popcorn machine," he says. No such line exists in the piece, although the writer did point out that Ennis's weight made it challenging for him to negotiate the narrow bridges above the stage.

Four years later, in April 2005, Ennis suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side and incapable of speech, though he was still able to communicate by using a marionette. (Kipniss keeps that puppet upstairs in his room.) Then, while Ennis was still in the hospital, the Puppet Parlor caught fire. The fire, which was electrical in origin, damaged or flat-out destroyed dozens of puppets—including the members of their puppet orchestra, a source of particular pride for Kipniss—along with curtains, lighting rigs, and sets. To cover the damages, the insurance company gave them just $4,000. Even if that sum would've been enough to complete the repairs necessary to reopen the theater, the landlord wasn't interested. The Puppet Parlor was told that after nearly two decades in that location, it was time to go. Meanwhile, Ennis's health worsened. In late August 2005, he passed away in hospice. Kipniss never told him about the fire.

Ralph Kipniss and Lou Ennis in an undated photo - COURTESY JOSEPH LEWIS
  • Courtesy Joseph Lewis
  • Ralph Kipniss and Lou Ennis in an undated photo

It's visibly difficult for Kipniss to talk about this period, Ennis's illness and death in particular. "When Lou died, it was quite a thing," he says quietly, shifting his weight in an armchair in his living room. "Lou and I had been together for 37 years, worked very, very hard, built many, many puppets and many, many shows." They had met in the late 60s at the Bryn Mawr Theatre. "He was working at Belden Wire at that time and he told me what he was interested in, liked to do creative things. He was also an excellent artist." They also had in common failed marriages, two apiece. Besides being business partners, Kipniss and Ennis lived together. Kipniss refers to him as a roommate.

A first-generation American, Kipniss comes from a family of Russian artists. His mother was an opera singer, his father a violinist turned doctor, and his great grandparents founders of the Royal European Marionette Company. He followed in their footsteps, eventually changing the name of the company to National Marionette Company of Chicago. In his teens and early 20s, Kipniss worked for the Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera, the erstwhile Swedish restaurant in River North that performed full operas using pole puppets (the sort that are operated from beneath the stage, as opposed to marionettes, which are operated from above).

After spending several costly years touring, Kipniss opened his own dedicated puppet theater, first on Michigan Avenue and later on Damen. In the late 80s, he relocated the theater again and renamed it the Puppet Parlor. Over the years, his collection of puppets grew to the point that their company could perform as many as 50 shows. The repertoire included classics such as Snow White; operas such as The Blue Bird, The Magic Flute, and Les Petite Folies; a puppet version of the Folies Bergere; a country and western revue with characters including Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, and the Mandrell Sisters; and a bunch of educational programs. Performing for children is Kipniss's preference. "Kids are the most fantastic audience to work with, because they take it as reality." A favorite anecdote involves a mother coming backstage after a show and requesting that Kipniss explain to her daughter that she couldn't be a marionette when she grew up. "I told her, 'No, I can't tell her different,'" he recalls with a laugh. "I didn't want to destroy the illusion."

Ralph Kipniss and the marionettes he used for his production of The Wizard of Oz in 1964 or ’65 - COURTESY JOSEPH LEWIS
  • Courtesy Joseph Lewis
  • Ralph Kipniss and the marionettes he used for his production of The Wizard of Oz in 1964 or ’65

The most unusual thing about visiting Kipniss at his home isn't the basement full of puppets. Nor is it that he leaves one of them, "the harlequin," hanging by the door so he can use it to greet guests. (More than one reporter has been treated to the same show.) The most unusual thing is that he lives with a woman named Marilyn Giedraitis. Because of his age and his consuming interest in puppetry, it's easy to imagine him as a loner. But when he opens the door to let us in, Giedraitis is sitting in their living room holding their fat Labrador, Louie, by the collar so he won't jump. Or hump anyone's leg, which he's wont to do. Giedraitis's wild abstract paintings decorate the walls. Their console television is flanked by pale pink statues of nude Adam and nude Eve.

The two met at a Jewish social club in 2006, about a year after Ennis passed away. Giedraitis, whose late husband, Arnold, was a producer and director at the Old Orchard Country Club theater, also had a background in theater. She's forever puffing on an e-cigarette and has a voice that says she used to smoke the real kind. She's warm and smart.

Not long after they met, Giedraitis became Kipniss's performance partner. He calls her the vice president of his company, which elicits a groan. But she has a lot of respect for the art. "As I progressed into knowledge of marionettes, I realized it's a very challenging discipline," she says. "It's something you really have to give a lot to to give a passable performance."

Since they teamed up, they've sort of cobbled together an existence as performers. For a while they had a small theater inside a mall. Around the time they met, he had a space inside a Masonic temple in Des Plaines. They've done some regional performances in a 25-foot show trailer Kipniss was gifted by a family friend. They occasionally perform in schools. Before relocating to Michigan City, they had a standing gig at the Pulaski Park field house. The landlord of the building where the marionettes are stored, whose name Kipniss won't even utter, happens to be president of the Pulaski Park Advisory Council.

Kipniss blames an illness, a cancer scare, for forcing him to leave the puppets behind. The hospital bills had taken a toll, financially, and he owed back rent. Then there was the logistical conundrum of transporting all the puppets—and the question of where to put them. In the end, he and Giedraitis moved to Michigan City without them.

Because Lewis wants Kipniss and the landlord to keep the peace by maintaining distance, Kipniss hasn't been able to see his puppets since they were discovered. He's eager to. Lewis envisions a museum-slash-performance space where Kipniss can display the marionettes and teach people his craft. "That's the thing that I'm just trying to keep in my mind," Lewis says, "this moment when I can take Ralph into a room and he can do a 360 and see his entire life's work hanging there in front of him."

I ask Lewis if he's nervous about not making his Kickstarter goal. He says he isn't. Plus, he adds, "It's no good for me or for Ralph to be stressed out. I gotta be focused." Neither he nor Kipniss has much interest in entertaining what happens if they don't raise the money, can't get the puppets back, and can't fund a facility in which to house them.

"It's up to God and up to Joe," Kipniss says. "I don't know what will come." But he can only hope that help materializes once again. Stranger things have happened.

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