THE Yale Puppeteers & The Turnabout Theatre

They amused Albert Einstein, enchanted Elsa Lanchester, discovered Odetta, and sort of impressed Aimee Semple McPherson. Collectively known as the Yale Puppeteers, Harry Burnett (1901-1993), Forman Brown (1901-1996), and Richard “Roddy” Brandon (1904-1985) serendipitously found each other in the 1920s and formed a partnership, lasting until their deaths nearly 70 years later. Driven by a shared vision of sophisticated adult entertainment in the form of marionettes, they pooled their individual talents as a puppet maker, songwriter, and impresario, allowing the fantastic to become real. Their exploits took them from the universities of Michigan and Yale, to the roads of eastern United States, and eventually to the glitz of Hollywood. Undeterred by starts and stops, they landed on La Cienega Boulevard and created the Turnabout Theatre which brought them international fame. These three men, who for most of their lives were unable to be open about being gay, forged a professional and deeply personal lifelong bond.

The Turnabout Theatre was only in operation from 1941-1956, but made a strong and lasting impression on all those in attendance. Author Ray Bradbury attended nearly 40 performances. Part revue, part marionette show, the Turnabout, which utilized discarded seating from Pacific Electric trolleys, staged evening performances catering to adults. They also developed spectacular programming for children, but the after-dark offerings were a must-see for Los Angeles residents. The entertainment at the Turnabout Theatre was so dazzling, actress Elsa Lanchester, who had signed on for a brief residency as a performer, chose to remain a featured player for over a decade. Opened when the country was on the verge of war, the Turnabout provided needed relief when the conflict became the nation’s reality. In the decade following V-E Day and V-J Day, as Americans tried to figure out their new place in the world, the Turnabout persevered, but finally succumbed, in part, to the success of television.

Forman Brown, Dorothy Neumann, Harry Burnett, and Roddy Brandon stand in the courtyard of the Turnabout on opening night.
Forman Brown, Dorothy Neumann, Harry Burnett, and Roddy Brandon on opening night at the Turnabout Theatre, 1941
Forman Brown and Lotte Goslar celebrate the Turnabout Theatre's 6th birthday by blowing out large candles.
Dorothy Neumann, Harry Burnett, Elsa Lanchester, Frances Osborne, Forman Brown, and Lotte Goslar celebrating the Turnabout Theatre's 6th birthday, 1947

During its brief reign, the Turnabout Theatre brought much celebration to the Yale Puppeteers, including articles in magazines such as Time and Harper’s Bazaar. When the doors were closed for good, the trio remained a tight unit who continued to find ways to share their unique talents. Now part of the Los Angeles Public Library’s permanent collections, the programs, posters, scrapbooks, costumes, props, and yes, marionettes, from the lives of the Yale Puppeteers, represent the life’s work of three extraordinary individuals. However, the objects only tell part of a greater story. Those in the orbit of Harry, Forman, and Roddy became a part of that bond, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation. The real story of the Yale Puppeteers is one of human connections and of family.

And yes, the marionettes are pretty great too.

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