Happy Halloween! There is something inherently creepy about marionettes to me and after looking through photographs of marionettes used by the Federal Theatre Project, I thought a Halloween blog post might be the perfect way to highlight some of the photographs from the newly processed Ralph Chessé papers. All of these photographs are from productions of a Marionette Variety show produced in San Francisco in July of 1936 and a later incarnation in Los Angeles in 1938. I’m sure there was nothing scary about the actual performances; in fact at a time when the country was seized by the Great Depression I’m sure that the marionettes brought a lot of joy to the audience, but the shadowy atmosphere of the black and white photographs suggests that the puppets could have just as easily been involved in sinister activities. More images from the Chessé collection can be found on our digital collections site.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949) was a popular African-American entertainer from the early 1900s. A native of Richmond, Virginia he was most known for dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films from the 1930s. He began his career in the theatre and vaudeville in Washington, D.C., and New York City and developed as a tap dancer and actor in musical comedy shows. He was a popular figure on Broadway and in the nightclubs. It wasn’t until he was 50 years old that he began performing for white audiences. Fellow puppeteer Bob Baker also created a Bill Robinson marionette in the late 1930s. Video of Baker’s Robinson can be found on YouTube.
Ralph Chessé began his career with government sponsored work in 1934 when he was selected to add a mural to the Coit Tower in San Francisco. Two years later he joined the Federal Theatre project as Director of the Puppetry Unit and in 1937 Chessé moved to Los Angeles to take over as State Director for California. The Chessé papers contain materials such as photographs, watercolor set and costume design sketches, playscripts, and programs relating to Federal Theatre Project marionette productions in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some of these plays are Child of God, Crock of Gold, The Emperor Jones, Hansel and Gretel, Marionette Varieties, Rip Van Winkle, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night. The papers also include magazine articles from the 1970s that highlight Chessé’s mural painting at the Coit Tower.