Turnabout Theatre

As the 1930s wound down, the Yale Puppeteers sought to expand their horizons by supplementing their marionette shows with revues featuring live performers. They knew their elaborate puppet stage could not be struck down and replaced with a full one in a reasonable amount of time, so instead they envisioned a space with a puppet stage on one end and the revue stage on the other. The concept for the Turnabout Theatre was born.

Cardboard model of the Turnabout Theatre on La Cienega
Charles Taylor Turnabout Theatre Model, ca. 1950s Mixed Media

Looking back on the warm reception they had received in Southern California, there was never any question that Hollywood was the place for this latest venture. Countless locations were scouted but failed to yield suitable results, many times because the property owners, according to Forman Brown, “regarded the whole project as crazy, and us, its promoters, even crazier.” Finally, they found a parcel owned by a man who, “entered into our scheme with an eagerness unusual and unexpected in a landlord.” The building at 716 N. La Cienega was a little off the beaten path for those days, but designed to their specifications and came to be a perfect fit.

Entrance to the Turnabout Theatre
Turnabout Theatre Entrance, 1942

The trio knew their knowledge of live theater was limited, so Dorothy Neumann was brought on as a fourth partner. As someone familiar with all aspects of running theater productions, including directing and costuming, “Dottie” proved to be indispensable. Serendipitously, at the same time the Turnabout was being constructed, the Pacific Electric Railway was in the process of refurbishing the cars on their lines, including the replacement of passenger seats. Seventy-seven discards were purchased for $3.50 apiece. The flipping mechanism on the seats enabled theater patrons to literally “turnabout.”

Theatre Patrons reversing the seats in the Turnabout Theater
Theatre Patrons “Turnabout,” ca. 1940s Newsprint on paper

Operating from 1941-1956 and featuring a steady stream of guest performers, including actress Elsa Lanchester, who became a mainstay, the Turnabout Theatre was a smash success. Attracting repeat visitors, including some of the film industry’s top personalities, the Turnabout brought the Yale Puppeteers international attention and proved to be the pinnacle of their careers.

Frances Osborne, Harry Burnett, and Dorothy Neumann Performing “The Beauty Shop,”
Frances Osborne, Harry Burnett, and Dorothy Neumann Performing
“The Beauty Shop,” ca. 1950s (Photo by: Otto Rothschild)
Haydn Trio Violinist & Pianist
Harry Burnett Haydn Trio Violinist & Pianist, ca. 1933 Mixed Media Marionette
Yale Puppeteers Turnabout Theatre Opening Announcement on cardstock
Yale Puppeteers Turnabout Theatre Opening Announcement, 1941 Cardstock
Yale Puppeteers Turnabout Theatre Broadside program
Yale Puppeteers Turnabout Theatre Broadside, ca. 1940s Cardstock
“Turnabout Jr.” Program & Storybook Cover. shows a blue elephant wearing a hat holding balloons in it's truck with a small child and circus tents in the background
Forman Brown Cover, “Turnabout Jr.” Program & Storybook, ca. 1950s Heavy paper stock
Cast of “Tommy Turnabout’s Circus,” A few horses and aproximatly 15 casts members in costume pose under a circus tent
Cast of “Tommy Turnabout’s Circus,” 1951
Odetta and Cast Members on stage of “Tommy Turnabout’s Circus"
Harry Burnett, Odetta, and Cast Members of “Tommy Turnabout’s Circus,” 1952 (Photo by: Otto Rothschild)
Harry Burnett, as Bobolino, the clown Giving out tickets to a group of children and their guardians outside of the Turnabout Theater.
Harry Burnett as Bobolino the Clown Gives Out Tickets, 1950
(Photo by: Otto Rothschild)
Richard “Roddy” Brandon Runs the Box Office
Richard “Roddy” Brandon Runs the Box Office, Balboa Park, ca. 1950s
Cast and crew of Thruabout Theater pose for a photo along the side of their large show truck
Turnabout Theatre Hits the Road, 1953
Opera Singer and Pianist Marionettes Used in Traveling Tour
Harry Burnett Opera Singer and Pianist Marionettes Used in Traveling Tour, ca. 1953 Mixed Media

Support the Los Angeles Pubic Library by shopping our carefully curated collection of Yale Puppeteer books, scarfs, pins, and postcards.