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Ralph Kipniss with Bill Clinton marionette
UPDATE: Thank you for your recommendations and support! It means a great deal to us and to Ralph!

Disclosure: I am the co-founder of The Underground Multiplex and coordinator for the campaign referenced in this piece.

It's almost a given that funding for arts and arts education in the United States is a pittance. What happened to me and my co-hort Joe Lewis during the summer only reinforced just what tragedies can bestow onto those who selflessly commit to a life of art and entertaining thousands of children and adults across the country.

In June 2013 Joe was informed of "strange wooden dolls" in an otherwise empty apartment building in our neighborhood of Wicker Park in Chicago. A tour of the building with its owner uncovered a remarkable discovery--dozens of trunks filled with beautiful hand-carved wooden  marionettes such as these:

 

Only a few of the 1000+ marionettes discovered in June

A Google search led us to the creator of these marionettes, a man named Ralph Kipniss. Below the fold: the incredible career and tragic life of an American master in danger of losing his entire life's work in one week's time.

The search for the owner of this stash of what the Chicago Sun-Times dubbed "a treasure trove of rare marionettes" led to this man, Ralph Kipniss.

Kipniss is the last surviving member of a family of marionette makers/puppeteers stretching back 100 years to Czarist Russia. Saved from pogroms in Russia by the Tsar, his grandfather  nonetheless fled the country after refusing conscription in the royal army. Landing in Chicago,  Ralph's grandfather resumed making marionettes and teaching young Ralph in the trade. Ralph's mother Ida first created the exquisite costumes for the marionettes and then taught Ralph so that he could continue making dazing works of art.

In his 50+ year career, Ralph was influenced by Burr Tillstrom (legendary puppeteer and creator of the classic TV show "Kukla, Fran and Ollie") and performed with such legendary talents as Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante, Jim Nabors, Dolly Parton and The Mandrell Sisters. In the late 1960's, Ralph met his life partner, Lou Ennis, and together they formed a marionette company that would travel across the country staging massive productions requiring truckloads of equipment, props, staging and crew.

While marionette theaters in such places as Sulzberg, Austria and the Czech Republic receive decent funding from government, Ralph and Lou had to rely almost exclusively on ticket sales (in the 1970's, up to $30,000 weekly!) to maintain the double artistry. I say double, because not only did Ralph carve and clothe incredible works of art, he also had to bring them to life in performance. As he says "your soul goes into the puppet. There's no other way to explain it."

The immense cost and rigors of traveling finally forced the duo to have a theater home on the north side of Chicago beginning in 1982. The Puppet Parlor remained in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago until 2005 when a series of tragedies beset Kipniss.

In April 2005 Lou Ennis fell, hit his head and eventually had a stroke. His entire left side was paralyzed, leaving him without speech. Lou communicated to Ralph, who was by his bedside day and night, using a marionette. In May 2005, Ralph was on his way to prepare for a performance out of town, when he received word that The Puppet Parlor was on fire. Returning to Chicago, he found the theater and many of the marionettes, scenery, etc. damaged from smoke and water.

The Puppet Parlor Theater destroyed by fire

Ralph had to keep the news of the fire from Lou, who was still ailing from the stroke and in need of a great deal of care. In August, Ralph lost his life partner of 37 years. In November 2005, distraught and financially ruined, Ralph's theater was evicted from its Ravenswood home.

Over the next few years, Ralph ventured on to other locations and finally believed he would be able to perform at a theater space for one of the Chicago City Parks. Under an agreement, he was allowed to keep his entire life's work plus his marionette theater's scenery, lighting, props and backdrops on two floors in a Chicago apartment building. In 2008, however, Ralph's physical health and continued financial woes forced him to abandon his work until it was discovered by my friend Joe Lewis.

Our bid to save Ralph's work from oblivion was covered in a great piece by Dave Hoekstra of The Chicago Sun-Times, making the front page of the Sunday, October 25th edition. The online version has a wonderful video of Ralph performing his magic before hundreds of amazed children. NBC5 Chicago also featured a fine report from LeeAnn Trotter, who's been an advocate for us. Lisa Stone, a Curator for The Art Institute of Chicago states:
 

"This is a remarkable discovery. This collection has great potential to revive the magic of marionette theater and the general wonderment of the genre. Like so many other creative endeavors in this city, it could easily have been lost...The rescue and preservation of these marvelous marionettes will enlarge and enhance Chicago’s history of theater, performance and inspired making
This type of art, dating back thousands of years, deserves a renaissance. Marionette puppetry is the first animation ever devised. Making inanimate objects come to life requires a magical skill to engage eager audiences. Operas were composed for them, royal courts used them to convey bad news to kings and they've been used for art therapy. Ralph recalled an instance when an autistic boy, closed off from the world, suddenly became engaging through the use of a marionette.

Without this art form, we quite simply could not have had movies, TV, video games.

We're hoping for a happy ending to this story, but it really hits home how the United States needs desperately to reinvigorate funding for the arts. In the richest country in the world, the plights of those like Ralph Kipniss shouldn't be happening. This is a man whose gifts to the world are comparable to a Renoir. It would be a tragedy if this art collection is lost, but a miracle if we're able to save it.

My campaign to save the collection ends 9:45am CST on 11/13.

Lew Ojeda

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