As a small child, I loved a children’s story by Margaret Wise Brown called Never Worked and Never Will. I found it in a library book called Storytime Tales – A Treasury of Favorite Stories. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the illustration in the book: a group of children gathered in front of a shop counter festooned with various hand -carved and realistically painted duck decoys. The kids are all looking up at a white-haired, grandfatherly gentleman, who’s happily working behind the counter, a knife in one hand and a block of wood in the other, carving wild birds.
The children asked about the sign that hung over the woodcarver’s door. It said Never Worked and Never Will. The old man explained, “It means that I never worked a day in my life and I never will. And you wouldn’t have to work either, if you knew my secret.”
Unable to guess his secret, some of the kids walked away shaking their heads saying, “The old man’s crazy: all he does is work!” But a few of them watched in fascination as he carved. It made them feel happy to see him working. Sometimes he even let them help paint the birds. And the children were so engaged in what they were doing, they never thought of it as work. They had learned the old man’s secret. And so had I.
* * *
In 1970, when I was nine-years old, aunt Sooky and uncle Aaron took me to see my first Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup, at the Tantamount Theater in Carmel Valley.
Duck Soup was a revelation – fast-paced, unpredictable, extremely amusing, and entirely entertaining. In fact, it was almost a cartoon starring real people. I could easily relate to the Marx Brothers: four (and later three) oddball, anarchic outliers who rebelled against every manner of authority and pretension. They never got the girl, but they always got the better of their oppressors. Though they were short and disenfranchised, through a combination of chutzpah, contrivance, and pure unabashed brashness, they somehow managed to prevail.
I became a devout Marx Brothers fan. Groucho became my new idol, much to the relief of my shy older cousin Bobby, who had politely tolerated my effusive idolatry for so many years. I would practice using Groucho’s one-liners and snappy comebacks in conversation, embarrassing my female classmates and enraging my parents’ houseguests.
I proceeded to read every book in the Pacific Grove Public Library about the lives and careers of the Marx Brothers. The librarian, peering over her spectacles, would look at me incredulously – a nine-year old attempting to check out a 482-page volume entitled, Harpo Speaks. I still read every new book about them.
Of course, I was too young to know the definition of the word “scholar,” let alone knew what one looked like. Later in life, Holly Tannen, the Mistress of Folklore, explained it to me quite succinctly, “A scholar is someone who has taken the time to read everything that has been published on his or her subject.” As a nine-year old boy, I was too young to realize it, but that’s what I was already doing.
Mr. Hayes, our fifth-grade teacher at Forest Grove Elementary School, was a great advocate of literature and he turned us on to a bunch of wonderful books and authors. Each student kept a journal containing the book reports they’d written about what they were reading that year. I still have my fifth-grade book report journal. I drew a nice, full-color portrait of Groucho on the cover. Every book report I wrote that year discussed a book about (or authored by) one of the Marx Brothers.
My fifth-grade book report journal is an interesting artifact of that chapter of my life. Seeing the Marx Brothers movies for the first time, while simultaneously reading through all the library books about them, I first got in touch with my inner scholar. Admittedly, this behavior does seem a bit obsessive/compulsive for a fifth-grader. I was (and still am) a pretty obsessive/compulsive person. It’s a condition that lends itself to the research, reading, and reflection essential to the creation of non-fiction essays, such as the one the reader is now enjoying.
Although, in my own childlike way, I vaguely understood the concept, the adults around me were largely unaware of any manner of scholarship, mine or theirs. I hoped I might receive praise for my extensive research and focus. But that was not to be. On the cover of my book report journal, Mr. Hayes wrote the following comment. His little offering would continue to dog my confidence through decades of scholarly research and study. “Couldn’t you read something else for a change?”
* * *
Back when the world was young, there was once a magical art-house movie theater eleven miles down the Carmel Valley Road called the Tantamount Theater. It was only a twenty five-minute drive, but fifty years ago when I was a child it seemed the longest car trip ever – a veritable endurance test spent in the back seat of uncle Aaron’s silver Mercedes sedan. I can still remember the smell of the red leather seats. As we barreled down the empty two-lane highway, I would crane my neck to look out the window at the expansive starlit sky.
The Tantamount Theater was unlike any other theater. Set in the Carmel Valley countryside, it was only open on weekend nights, so as not to disturb their neighbors. François and Ralph, the impresarios, an older gay, bohemian couple, were world-class puppeteers.
There were no streetlights. Just above the Los Laureles Lodge, you’d turn off of Middle Canyon Road and proceed in pitch-blackness, down the long gravel driveway. Just when it seemed as if you might have made a wrong turn, François, a diminutive older gentleman, clad in a hand-woven cloak of his own design and manufacture, would materialize out of the darkness, holding a flashlight, directing you to a parking space in the gravel lot. His partner Ralph, a tall, thin gentleman, was inside selling the tickets. Admission was $2.50.
François and Ralph exuded congeniality and good humor. They were bookends, but completely and diametrically opposites. Where Ralph tended toward the sarcastic – a newspaper reporter once described him as “sort of Charles Laughton without the sneer” – François tended toward the sincere. Where Ralph was caustic and loud, François was quiet, shy, and retiring.
The Tantamount Theater was obviously a labor of love. You can’t buy that kind of enthusiasm. They never pretended their theater was going to make them rich. On a particularly rainy evening, they might screen a film for an audience of only a dozen people. Like the musicals on Broadway, the show always started at 8:40 p.m., so you didn’t have to rush through your supper. And, as if you were a visiting houseguest, a cup of coffee was waiting for you when you arrived.
They only screened vintage 16mm silent and talking cinema classics. The audience was seated in a beautiful set of well-kept, vintage theater seats mounted on risers. An ancient Chinese temple gong – the kind that sat on the floor on a pillow – was sounded just before the screening and at the intermission. Before the film began, the elfin François, flashlight still in hand, would return, breathless from his duties in the parking lot to stand in front of the gold and cream-colored velvet curtain and address the audience with perfect diction in his sonorous voice. His heartfelt spoken introductions kindled in me a deep and abiding love of great cinema, which has lasted a lifetime. I listened carefully to his words. The audience would applaud when he was finished, then Ralph (or sometimes a hired projectionist) would climb the narrow ladder up to the tiny projection booth in the balcony and the lights would dim. They only had one projector and, consequently, there were brief respites between reels – but as strange as it may sound, this never seemed to diminish the impact of the featured film.
“We try to bring back the old movies of particular interest,” François once explained, “and we look for the unusual, out-of-the ordinary films … The old films are popular with the younger set who never saw them before and the generation that wants to see them over again and our audiences would rather see them here than on television. We have no commercials and no popcorn.”
During the intermission, surprisingly good complimentary coffee was served in thin-walled, white porcelain demitasse cups with little saucers. Years later, I learned that it was Edwards brand (the local Safeway supermarket house blend!) I would mosey into the green room gallery to peruse the shelves of books about art, and glance with heartfelt disinterest at the exhibit of paintings that I was still too young to enjoy.
Perhaps if François had explained the paintings to me with the same respect and enthusiasm he expressed when introducing a film, maybe I would have been able to appreciate them better. Their art gallery was renowned for having exposed the theater-going audience to the works of a generation of local artists. Nonchalantly, I’d reach for a cup of coffee, palm three sugar cubes, and saunter outside, beyond the spreading canopy of the majestic oak trees, to behold the wide awe and wonder of the night.
The centerpiece of the theater was an unforgettable thirteen by twenty-one foot canvas drop curtain that stretched across the entire stage. It took François about two months to paint it, copying the tiny, unsigned the 17th-century painting Farceus, that hangs in the Comedie Française in Paris, said to depict Molière and his comedic actors. The fifteen traditional French and Italian commedia dell’arte masked characters that François painted on his drop curtain were three-quarters actual life size. This stunning painted curtain was the sort of thing one usually only saw in a museum.
Just as the lights dimmed, moments before the movie began, this painted drop curtain would rise up into the rafters to reveal the projection screen itself. This painted drop curtain completely captured my imagination. The many times I sat in that theater, I studied it carefully, as if it were Rembrandt’s Night Watch, committing its many characters to memory. Half a century later, I can still close my eyes and recall it in all of its glorious detail.
I loved aunt Sooky and uncle Aaron for taking me to the Tantamount Theater. It was one of the treasured experiences of my childhood. I am so grateful to them for having exposed me to the golden age of cinema (as François liked to call it). It really was life changing.
* * *
Ralph and François grew up about 300 miles apart on the California coast, in the days when the motion picture industry was brand new.
John Ralph Geddis, born in San Jose, California, on August 3, 1906. He was one of seven children born to John and Henrietta Geddis. He got his first professional theater job at the age of fourteen, as a scenic artist’s assistant, painting scenery at Ye Old Liberty Theater in Oakland, California.
Ralph studied with Irving Pichel and Sam Hume at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California. Ralph came to Carmel, California, in the early 1920s, to play leading roles in three productions at the outdoor Forest Theater.
Ralph and François are listed in Paul McPharlin’s definitive history of puppets and puppeteers, The Puppet Theater in America (1948). McPharlin tells us that, while still in high school, Ralph studied with Maurice Browne and Ellen Van Volkenburg in their San Francisco School of Theater. Van Volkenberg, a pioneer in modern puppetry and puppet plays, co-founded the Chicago Little Theater in 1912. Ralph helped in her 1924 San Francisco production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. .
Then Ralph moved to New York City. There, he studied ballet with the famous Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokine and acting with Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya at the American Laboratory Theater.
In 1925, he was invited to join the professional staff at Irene and Alice Lewisohn’s Neighborhood Playhouse, as an actor, dancer, and stage technician. The Lewisohn sisters descended from wealthy German Jewish New York banking family and were philanthropists and patrons of the arts. Taking dance classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse from choreographers Martha Graham. Ralph performed in the Lewisohn sister’s and Charles Weidman’s (1901-1975) dance productions. He also appeared in Ernest Bloch’s Israel at the Manhattan Opera House.
Puppet performances were part of the Neighborhood Playhouse repertoire since its opening in 1915. In March of 1926, Ralph appeared in the their production of A Burmese Pwe. It was one of three one-acts that, as John P. Harrington wrote in The Life of the Neighborhood Playhouse on Grand Street, “emphasized exoticism: the pieces were a dumb show with marionettes.”
The New York Times said A Burmese Pwe was “a dance pantomime by Irene Lewisohn, based on the Burmese form of dramatic entertainment.” One wonders if Ralph’s Burmese Dancer marionette – one of the few of his puppets to have survived into the 21st-century – was made specifically for A Burmese Pwe?
Ralph appeared in the 1927 Neighborhood Playhouse production of Grand Street Follies. The show ran for two weeks off Broadway at the Neighborhood Playhouse, then transferred to the Little Theater on Broadway, where it enjoyed more than 130 performances. The New York Times praised the satiric group as one of the “most colorful and vital factors in the theatrical life of the city.”
Act Two of Grand Street Follies began with a sketch called: “A Revival of Miss Ethel Barrymore in The School for Rivals,” (in which the part of Ethel Barrymore was played by a man in drag). Ralph didn’t perform in this sketch, but it may have given him an idea: a couple of years later he and François would parody Ms. Barrymore in a comedic sketch of their own.
Ralph worked as a stage manager for Michael Strange’s 1928 production of L’Aiglon, on Broadway and on the road. He taught puppet theater during the summer session at a Mills College in Oakland, California, and at the School of Theater in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Around 1928, Ralph joined Jean Abel Gros’ ( Punch and Judy show, where he distinguished himself as a gifted puppeteer. Gros was born in France in 1894. He had a strong tenor voice and his company of puppeteers performed grand operas such as II Pagliacci, which were acted, sung, and danced by dozens of marionettes, with as many as 75 singers hidden behind the curtain.
Over the years, Gros created increasingly elaborate traveling marionette shows. At its peak, his show reportedly involved 150 puppets, controlled by some 2,000 strings. His puppet play repertoire included The Rose and the Ring, Robin Hood, Uncle Wiggly, Babes in Toyland, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Huckleberry Finn, Wizard of Oz, Cinderella, David Copperfield, and, of course, Punch and Judy.
Ralph toured the United States with Gros’ company. The front page of the Saturday, March 14, 1931, issue of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, School Gazette announced Jean Gros’ Punchinello Puppets presentation of four puppet plays:
“John Ralph Geddis who heads the company is acknowledged as the foremost guignol [hand puppet] exponent in the county. His manipulation of the puppets combines a definite talent for acting and a super rhythmic sense which makes the character live and command the complete interest of the most sophisticated audience. Mr. Geddis has been associated with the stage since a boy of fourteen [sic] … He has done vaudeville, stock, has been a property manager, stage manager, costume designer … Mr. Geddis was stage manager at the Capetown Playhouse at New York, the Manhattan Opera House where he danced in Orchestra dramas and privately conducted puppet dramas. He studied designing under Donald Penslager and Ernest De-Weerth, the latter being connected with Max Reinhardt.”
Working for Gros confirmed Ralph’s belief that hand puppets were much better actors than marionettes. He experienced first-hand the personality problems that arose from working backstage with a large group of puppeteers. And, judging by the titles of puppet plays that became staples in Ralph and François’ performing repertoire, Ralph was influenced by Gros’ devotion to bringing time-honored literary classics to the puppet stage.
A few months later, Ralph met François.
* * *
François Joseph Martin was born on October 17, 1909, in Santa Barbara, California. In his 67th year, David Fuess interviewed him for a story that ran in the October 23, 1975, issue of the Carmel Pine Cone:
“[François’] early childhood was filled with magic. His mother was California’s first woman violinist and his father was a professional stagecoach driver. His mother taught him to appreciate the essence of things rather than their overt qualities. She gave him large, leather books and said, ‘It’s not important that you read these books, just feel them, smell the ink.’ Santa Barbara, at the beginning of the century, was a cultural center. It was a center for movies and actors who were ‘unworldly, different people.’ The theater offered François, who was painfully timid as a child, a vehicle to project himself and touch people’s hearts.”
At the age of seven, he appeared in a silent movie comedy in blackface makeup. As a thirteen-year old, he remembered watching the massive set pieces for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923) being carted up the highway to Santa Maria, California.
If it had not been for the Santa Barbara earthquake on June 29, 1925, which collapsed the local church, François Martin would have become a priest. (He’d already spent time as a novice monk.) He never forgot the enormous boulders that tumbled down the steep slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains “like cotton balls.”
“I couldn’t bear the loss of the church, so I went into the theater,” he explained. To François, the church was theater. He loved how the churches he visited in Mexico City combined music and performance, and how they allowed the poor peasants to witness something of great beauty.
Although he claimed he’d never been to France, his mother was French and there was a hint of French in his speech. His namesake, François Martin de Vitré, the 17th-century French adventurer, was among the first Frenchmen to write of his travels in the Far East.
François had perfect color sense and perfect pitch in music. While still in his teens, he worked as an actor and also painted sets for local theater companies. He performed in several silent films. He studied painting with Lyla Vivian Harcoff. For three years, he attended theater classes at the Lobero Theater and Art Center in Santa Barbara. He studied voice acting and stage craft with Irving Pichel in San Francsico, and Charles Meredith and Harry Brainerd.
In the late 1920s, François assisted Diego Rivera on the painting of a mural in Mexico, which may be where he perfected the scene painting technique that he would later employ in his drop curtain and puppet stage proscenium.
As a fine artist, François’ specialty was still-life paintings of flowers. While studying acting, painting, music, and voice at the Corcoran Gallery School of Art, in Washington, DC, he developed an interest in the design and fabrication of puppets. He later performed with the Joy Street Theater Players in Boston, Massachusetts.
François was searching for a medium in which he could combine all of his talents when, by accident, he met Ralph at a party in Boston, in 1931. Their shared interest in puppetry and theater led to the formation of a partnership. They fell in love and the two bohemian eccentrics worked and lived together in a committed and symbiotic relationship for the rest of their lives.
François and Ralph chose to work with puppets from the standpoint of producer, director, scenic artist, costumer, playwright, stage manager, actor, and financier, all of which responsibilities these two young entrepreneurs assumed when they pooled their combined skills and talents into the theater. Though it is unlikely they ever discussed it, they shared in common a personal belief that Never Worked and Never Will were words to live by.
Ralph was a gifted engineer and performer. François was a talented sculptor, painter, and actor. In 1931, in the middle of the Great Depression, they opened a subscription puppet theater called Mr. Punch’s Workshop, in an abandoned carpenter’s loft on Beacon Hill’s Joy Street in Boston. In that first theater, Ralph and François began their lifelong collaboration.
At first, work was so slow that they accepted a job painting the local library in order to make enough to pay their taxes. “In 1931, you could very easily live off five dollars a week” Ralph remembered. During the worst months, he and François survived on dinners of canned tomatoes.
* * *
Miss Catharine Sargent Huntington (1887-1987) was an American actress, producer, and director, active in New England’s Little Theatre movement, beginning the early 1920s. She retired at the age of 86, after a remarkable career of more than six decades.
Her people arrived in New England in the early 1700s. She was the granddaughter of Frederick Huntinton, the first Protestant Episcopal Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York. She lived to be 99 years old – her lifetime spanning the presidencies from Grover Cleveland to Ronald Reagan.
Huntington graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College in Cambridge, in 1911. From 1915-1918, she taught English and theater at Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut. During the First World War, she left her job to serve as the Radcliffe College representative to the American troops in France. After the war, she continued her acting career on the French Riviera.
Huntington co-founded the Boston Stage Society in 1922 and directed plays there. She worked as a coach at the Allied Arts Center, where African-American artists wrote and performed original plays. She also worked with the Brattle Theater, the Peabody Playhouse, and the Tributary Theater.
A financially independent Beacon Hill aristocrat, a lesbian, and an activist, Huntington had a “serene devotion to important causes.” In 1927, she was arrested for demonstrating against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. She was also a pioneer in the arena of gay rights.
In Karen Christel Krahulik’s Provincetown: From Pilgrim Landing to Gay Resort (2007), the actor and painter Murray M. Wax (1929-2015) remembered the postwar era in Provincetown, Massachusetts. On one occasion the local police, “approached him and some fellow gay men and lesbians, who had congregated spontaneously near Town Hall for a brief conversation, and demanded that they ‘move along.’ ‘This is not Nazi Germany,’ he complained to his boss, the well-known and influential Provincetown theater director Catherine Huntington, ‘and I demand a formal apology.’ Huntington secured that apology and in so doing help set in motion process of re-dress, or systems of protection, for gay men and lesbians who had been harassed.”
In 1940, Huntington, her partner, Virginia Thoms, and Prescott Townsend, founded the Provincetown Playhouse on the Wharf, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where, over three decades, she brought forty-one of Eugene O’Neill’s plays to the stage. This theater is frequently confused with the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street in New York City, which was home to the Provincetown Players.
Huntington received numerous awards, including the Rodgers and Hammerstein Award, in 1965, for her work in American theater in Boston. Her last stage appearance was in 1969, in the Provincetown Playhouse in Tennessee Williams Camino Real, performing opposite the then unknown Richard Gere, in one of his first roles. On her 97th birthday, the Massachusetts legislature recognized her for her contributions to American theater.
Her friend Gail Cohen remembered that, at the time of her death in 1987, “Huntington had no wealth,” having donated all her money to theatrical enterprises. “Even her property at Forty Acres was donated so that the land would be safe from development.” And so it is: her childhood home – occupied by her forebears since 1752 – is now The Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum. Situated at the top of Mount Warner, on banks of the Connecticut River in North Hadley, Massachusetts, it is surrounded by over 350 acres of protected farmland and forest.
Miss Huntington was described by a contemporary as an attractive middle-aged woman with “a fine, fluty voice.” She worked with Ralph and François at Mr. Punch’s Workshop in Boston, in the early 1930s and may have been instrumental in its formation. Born in 1887, she was a generation older than Ralph and François and she was rich, and well-connected in both the theater and society worlds of Boston.
Huntington’s contribution to Ralph and François’ collective careers is significant. She is the first in a series of older, wealthier women artists who became Ralph and François’ benefactors – a recurring theme in their story.
Joy Street in Boston is only seven blocks long, terminating at the southern end at Beacon Street and the Boston Common, and reaching its northern boundary at Cambridge Street. In the 1750s, Beacon Hill’s Belknap Street (now Joy Street) was a burgeoning black community. The African Meeting House at 46 Joy Street was built in 1806 and it is the oldest standing black church in America. The Abolitionist Movement united black and white families, making the Beacon Hill neighborhood one the staunchest centers of the anti-slavery movement in Antebellum America.
When Ralph and François opened Mr. Punch’s Workshop in 1931, Joy Street was both a gay neighborhood and a bohemian neighborhood. As Dorothy Parker once said, “Heterosexuality isn’t normal, it’s just common.”
Some of the earliest defenses of homosexuality in the English language were written by Allen Irvin Bernstein (1913-2008). He wrote poetry about cruising for men in Boston Common, at the south end of Joy Street. In his essay titled “Millions of Queers,” he wrote, “Boston’s fake Bohemia of the latter 1920’s, the Joy Street gang, was definitely queer.”
Prescott Townsend (1894-1973), one of Catharine Huntington’s best friends, was a member of the Joy Street Gang. Townsend, a Boston Brahman, was a descendant of Myles Standish and the great, great-grandson of the American founding father Roger Sherman. A graduate of Harvard University, he was gay, and he was a lifelong gay rights activist.
Townsend operated speakeasies, restaurants, and theaters on Joy Street and lived at 36 Joy Street. Before meeting Ralph, François worked with the Joy Street Theater Players. In 1938, Catharine Huntington would open the New England Repertory Theater on Joy Street – it was a very happening neighborhood before the war.
In a matter of months, through Huntington’s connections, Ralph and François became the darlings of the New England intellectual and artistic community. “We were the first group of company puppets ever engaged by Harvard’s department of music [in 1932]” remembered Ralph.
Soon, Mr. Punch’s Workshop moved to 71 Chestnut Street in Boston, less than half a mile from Joy Street. The November 16, 1933 issue of the Boston Globe reported:
“A particularly interesting and original form of entertainment, which probably will not be news for members of the Beacon Hill set who, for about three years have been flocking to it is, Mr. Punch’s Workshop, and their work is Mr. Punch’s puppets. This amazingly busy place has been giving 12 successful shows a winter for the past three years, easily filling their small theater, which seats 100, for every performance during the two weeks time given to each play. The workshop and theater is at 71 Chestnut St., Boston, (between the Charles Street and the River) … The workshop is conducted on the membership basis and tickets for all 12 plays to be given this season, beginning this evening, may be obtained for member and one guest at the very nominal price $4.50, by application to the studio … The entire theater may be reserved for only $25. This may also be done for charity or special benefit performances, or for children’s parties.”
The article goes on to list the names of the forty four season ticket holders who had purchased subscriptions to the twelve plays presented by Mr. punches workshop in 1933. Thirteen of the forty-four subscribers are unmarried women, indicated by the prefix “Miss” before their names.
Between 1931-1936, Ralph and François, working with Huntington, designed, produced, and performed about twenty puppet plays. Among them were Alice in Wonderland; Rip Van Winkle; Uncle Tom’s Cabin; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Molière’s The Would Be Gentlemen and The Doctor In Spite of Himself, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis; and three plays based on Hans Christian Andersen’s stories — The Mermaid, The Swans, and The Nightingale.
On these shows, the duties of stage manager were performed by Huntington. However, it is likely her contribution encompassed considerably more than stage mangement.
Director Edwin Burr Pettet, who co-founded the New England Repertory Theater with Huntington in 1938, offered some insight into what it was like to work with Huntington.
“She could make the improbable materialize with no visible effort. It was she who arranged for our Boston Theater on Joy Street; she who located the the Wharf Theater in Provincetown.
“Catharine rarely talk of herself. Of her enormous energy, she spared little for reminiscence and anecdote. She had done much in theater before I met her, and wants to do still more after our active association came to an end.
“She never disagreed with me. I was the director and to dispute my decision seems never to have occurred to her. Yet how often have I awakened to the next morning, my opinion changed, only dimly conscious that Catharine had, in passing, said something like this the day before.”
Years later, François would say that he and Ralph preferred Paul Leyssac’s translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s works. The Little Flowers of Saint Francis was adapted from the old version from Dickens’ time. Some of the classics were performed in abridged versions – “just the good parts,” as François put it.
The Boston Public Library is one of the most puppet-friendly libraries in the United States. The Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, located in on the third floor of the Research Library, opens to the Koussevitzky Room. For many years, William Addison Dwiggins’ famous marionette theater and hand-made marionettes were permanently exhibited there. (The collection is now in storage and library intends to remount it after some extensive library renovations.)
The only known copies of Ralph and François’ most enduring puppet play scripts are housed in this Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, in the collection called “The Catharine Sargent Huntington Papers,” including The Swans (1930), The Little Flowers of St. Francis (1932), Alice in Wonderland (1933), Pierre Patelin (1932), The Mermaid, (1932) The Doctor in Spite of Himself, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Tempter, or The Sailor’s Return. Each one of these scripts is approximately fifty-sixty pages in length. The Boston Library also has twenty-five pages of, “Notes, dramatic interludes, costume sketches, etc., for Mr. Punch’s Workshop, puppet theatre (1931-1936).”
It is noteworthy that the script for The Swans is dated 1930, when Ralph was still touring with Gros and had yet to meet François. It’s possible that Ralph was already collaborating with Miss Huntington, when he and François met. (Or perhaps it’s just a typo.)
The existence of “The Catharine Sargent Huntington Papers” and the the Koussevitzky Room, in which the Dwiggins’ marionettes are exhibited at the Boston Public Library are likely due to the efforts of a librarian named Priscilla MacFadden (1901-1996), who had stage managed for Ralph and François’ at Mr. Punch’s Workshop in Boston, in the early 1930s.
Ralph and François probably parted on good terms with Huntington, as was her style. By 1938, she had moved on to found the New England Repertory Theater on Joy Street in Boston.
* * *
The dramatic and comedic classics – the sophisticated puppet plays that were the mainstay of Ralph and François repertoire for decades to come, held little appeal for children and limited appeal for adults.
“We never made cute puppets,” François admitted.
Late one night, after hours of searching the Internet, to my considerable surprise, I stumbled upon a photograph of one of François and Ralph’s puppets on display at a 2019 exhibit of puppets at the Cleveland Public Library. The puppet, on loan from a private collector, was captioned Ethel Barrymore as Juliet.
Ms. Barrymore had performed the part of Juliet in a famous 1922 Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet. In the early 1930s, Ralph and François created a humorous burlesque in which the slightly inebriated Ethel Barrymore puppet attempted to recite Juliet’s soliloquy.
The Barrymore siblings were famous for their drinking. The Ethel Barrymore puppet, her eyes visibly bloodshot, came onstage holding a small wooden wine glass that slipped between the thumb and forefinger of the standard Geddis-Martin carved wooden hand, allowing the puppet to drop the glass to the floor, on cue.
During the 1940s and 50s, the Yale Puppeteers worked at the Turnabout Theater in Hollywood, California. They were renowned for their famous Noel Coward-flavored songs and skits for marionettes and they may have inspired some of Ralph and François’ celebrity cabaret puppet routines.
By 1934, Ralph and François had made celebrity hand puppets and marionettes in the likenesses of Queen Victoria, comedienne Beatrice Lillie, playwright George Bernard Shaw, entertainer Maurice Chevalier, actress Jane Cowl, and actress Josephine Baker.
Ralph argued that he and François were not puppeteers, but rather, actors with puppets. In Allen H. Eaton’s Handicrafts of New England (1949), the author says that they were, “both actors and craftsmen, whom we shall see at work on all the varied handicrafts of their diminutive theater, making their own characters and equipment by hand and bringing to life again the best traditions of an art and a craft which flourished in ancient Greece and in Europe centuries ago. These two young men turned from careers on the so-called legitimate stage to produce plays with puppets, ‘which,’ they say, ‘are convincing symbols of actors capable of expressing the full scale of emotions with the power to move an audience to laughter or to tears.’” [Emphasis added.]
Ralph and François created more than 600 puppets for their plays. They hand-stitched each puppet’s costume, often using fabric taken from dresses donated by Boston society women they’d, no doubt, met through Miss Huntington and Miss Cabot.
“Sometimes you could carve an old story and do an improvisation,” François recalled. Each puppet was an original creation, sometimes sculpted directly out of wood without so much as a preliminary sketch. François carefully hand-painted each of the puppet’s faces. “To go into puppets, you go into the whole world,” said François. “The object was to create one face that would become different kinds [of expressions] by just slightly turning it … The puppet was totally an actor. We wanted solid theater, not like entertainment, we wanted the humanity of the whole theater, the purity, the whole round.”
Bradford Clark is a professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at Bowling Green State University. He works as consultant at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, the largest puppetry center in the United States and one of the few puppet museums on the planet.
“There really aren’t many references to them in print,” says Clark. “Yet I consider their work to be as beautiful as almost anything produced in the American puppet theater. What was unusual about Ralph and François was their insistence upon an adult, sophisticated, and very European orientation in much of their work (something Ralph established early in his career.) I can’t think of any other American puppet company doing plays by Molière for adult audiences.
“They championed hand puppetry over string puppetry. Early publicity for Ralph’s performances emphasize how unusual it was to have someone perform primarily with hand puppets, and proclaim him as the master. The subtle artistry of Francoise sculpted puppet heads is really unique. I personally think his puppet heads were much more sensitive than most. He was a trained artist and capable of conveying subtle character detail. His puppets had both positive and negative character traits with personalities expressed through their carved expressions, but they were always individuals.”
Clark apprenticed with François in the 1970s. “François used Japan Colors, a highly saturated paste paint – and rubbed it directly into the puppet’s head,” he told me. “I’ve never been able to reproduce the technique – it created that unique smooth and slightly shiny surface.”
By the time I discovered the Tantamount Theater, Ralph and François had already retired from performing their legendary production of Alice in Wonderland. I never saw any of their puppet plays. But my friend, Carey Crockett, a gifted artist and theatrical production designer, who is seven years older than I am, remembered how his mother had taken him to see one of Ralph and François’ puppet plays in the early 1960s, when he was around ten-years old. He attended several performances of Alice in Wonderland at the Tantamount Theater in his childhood, including the last Alice performance, in 1968, by which time Ralph and François had been performing the show for nearly three decades. The program was recommended for “adults and the wise child.”
After the performance, Ralph spent the better part of an hour answering young Carey’s questions about the puppets. He told the inquisitive boy, “We can build anything – overnight!”
When Carey earnestly asked Ralph how much time it actually took to build one puppet, Ralph told him: “You take as much time is necessary.”
Ralph was an accomplished storyteller. He patiently explained how François would model the puppet’s head out of clay. Then he’d pour two negative plaster molds over the clay model. He’d press a pancake of plastic wood putty inside each of the two hardened halves of the plaster molds and bind them together. These were cured by being submerged in water for several days. “The wood dough came ready-made in a can and was sold at Murphy’s Lumber and Hardware in Carmel Valley. It was the consistency of paste,” Carey remembered.
The plaster mold was removed from the water and broken open and the two molded positive pieces were glued together, sanded, built-up, and then François carefully painted the face.
“They had amazingly expressive faces. Ralph allowed me to look at them up close and to handle them,” Carey told me. ” A gift I have grown to appreciate more over the years.”
“The marionette is a mechanical novelty;” Ralph once told a reporter. “The movement is interesting but it can’t act. On the other hand, the [stick and rod] puppet with its limitations is an exciting theater medium,” in which the performer “has to create by his own power, the expression of his hand and arm, all the qualities of the solid person.”
“A good puppeteer creates the illusion that the puppet can do anything,” puppeteer Bruce Schwartz explained. “But the puppet can only do what it’s built to do. So, the illusion that a puppet can do anything is created through its being able to do what it was specifically built to do extremely well.”
For Alice in Wonderland, Ralph and François’ puppets were painstakingly and faithfully based upon the original John Tenniel watercolor sketches they’d found in a book in the Harvard Library. The eyes of the Cheshire Cat puppet would roll and a crazy mouse puppet would periodically scurry across the four by eight-foot stage. Ralph and François worked on a walkway under the rim of the stage, thrusting their arms up into the puppet’s bodies and using fingers to guide the moving parts.
Some fifty-four puppets were used in their production of Alice in Wonderland and Ralph and François played every character. Each costume was sewn by hand, with attention to the most minute detail. There were four separate Alice puppets, each of which performed a different function, from a tiny, finger-sized version, to a much larger Alice puppet with its head mounted on a long dowel, so that she literally grew in size after she tasted the mushroom.
François usually used the plaster mold process to make a puppet’s head, but Ralph preferred to carve the faces of animals and all of their puppet’s hands and specialty parts out of solid of blocks of soft wood. These distinctive and recognizable carved wooden hands are a “signature” feature found on almost all of their puppets.
Bradford Clark worked as François’ apprentice in the late 1970s. He remembered François, who was a great storyteller, sharing a tale, perhaps apocryphal, that someone once asked the famous choreographer Martha Graham where she got her characteristic way of holding the hands. Graham told them it was from the way Ralph carved the puppet’s hands. One has to wonder if Ralph’s “signature” puppet hands were, in fact, influenced by Graham, or by one of the many forms of traditional Asian dances in which hand placement is very exacting.
Alice in Wonderland became their favorite comedic production, requiring, as always, a high-level of perfect timing and athletic endurance. Ralph and François played all twenty-eight characters. The Red Queen puppet (whose face bore a resemblance to François) weighed fifteen-pounds, making for a very physical performance that required “strong-arm acting.” They would come out in front of the stage after the performance to take their bows, dripping with sweat. Alice demanded so much energy that by middle age, they didn’t have the stamina to perform this particular puppet play.
As David Fuess put it, “the symbiotic relationship, in which each would bring out the other’s best, created perfect rhythm in their performances.”
“Ralph and I were magical together,” François would say in later years.
Roz Zenidas, who worked with Ralph and François on their production of Alice in Wonderland at the Tantamount Theater, remembered that, by the early 1960s, Ralph and François were growing older and the performances were taking their toll. “What amazed me most, was how fast they moved and how quickly they changed puppets, all the while giving the most incredible voices to their caricatures. They had memorized the book many years before and Alice seemed to be an extension of their reality. We did a two-hour and fifteen-minute performance with a fifteen-minute intermission. I remember how strong they were. We performed on a small area on a platform … there was a curtain in front of us over six-feet tall – and you had to keep your arms up almost the entire time, while acting and keeping the life in these puppets.”
In 1937, they bought an old mill near the Slocums River and made it their home. They restored an abandoned white country church meetinghouse in Russells Mills, outside Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and opened Mr. Punch’s Puppet Theater. There, they established a summer theater. Throughout the year, they gave puppet plays in various parts of New England, at museums, circuses, universities, amusement parks, churches, country fairs, and at summer performances on Boston Common.
Even to one familiar with the finest stick-and-rod puppet theater, the reviews of Ralph and François performances are rather impressive. The Fitchburg Sentinel (Massachusetts) published a notice in the August 6, 1938, edition, praising their program:
Walter Wilkinson’s Puppets Through America (1938) mentions Mr. Punch’s Workshop on Chestnut Street in Boston, noting that “… these hand-puppets look remarkably good, and serious hand-puppet theatres are so much more rare than marionettes. Mr. Punch’s Workshop is run by three people : “ . . . the trio includes Miss Catherine Huntington, a Boston woman who acted and directed for four years on the Boston stage and in society plays [and] … two Californians, John Ralph Geddis and François Martin, both artists and actors of long experience … Mr. Geddis has had about ten years’ experience in all divisions of the theatre, including acting and costuming. Mr. Martin, a painter primarily, is also a skilled actor … One season’s list of plays suggests that its ambitions are very far removed from Punch and Judy: Alice in Wonderland, Bourgeois Gentilhomme [Molière’s The Would-Be Gentleman], The Little Mermaid, Oedipus, Fiesta Mexicana, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, Little Flowers of Saint Francis, The Two Bears, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pierre Patelin, and Cinderella.”
In 1928, Tony Sarg (1880-1942), the famous German-American marionetteist and illustrator, designed (and his protege, Bil Baird built) the first 125-foot animal-shaped helium-filled balloon for Macy’s department store in New York City. Three years later, likely on Sarg’s recommendation, Macy’s hired François and Ralph to execute an enormous Christmas holiday window display for Macy’s flagship Store on Herald Square in New York City, for which they received national recognition.
In 1936, Macy’s hired them back to create another elaborate 100-foot long window display that put their design and engineering skills to the test. Ralph and François spent the entire year constructing eighty-five moving characters, all of which were mechanized by a complex system of motors and pulleys. They’d go up to the top of the Empire State Building so they could look down on Thirty-Fourth Street and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The parade would stop in front on the store windows and their amazing display would begin to move and come to life, as tens of thousands cheered. Macy’s hired them again for the 1937 and 1938 Christmas windows displays. “Our standards will never change,” said Ralph. “We try to inject a human quality in everything we do.”
In October of 1940, they presented their stick-and-rod puppet play, No Strings Attached, as part of the Community Art Project Lecture series at the Museum of Art in Providence, Rhode Island. They produced a series of family-friendly puppet plays in Boston Common, including, Aladdin, Rumpelstiltskin, Pinocchio, Ali Baba, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk. They performed their Alice in Wonderland and Punch and Judy puppet plays in Boston’s largest department store. Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, opened their 1942-43 season. By this time, the Second World War and fuel rationing had curtailed their cross-country performance tours so they staged performances in New England for returning soldiers.
* * *
Ralph and François were master handweavers. Their fabric creations were as remarkable as their puppets. Miss Lucy Sewall Cabot (1891-1944) one of the local experts in the dyeing of yarn and textiles in nearby Brookline, Massachusetts. She had studied with the Indians of the Southwest, in efforts to recover some of their old formulas and techniques for natural dyeing.
In the early 1900s, Miss Cabot and the members of The Society of Blue and White Needlework of Deerfield, Massachusetts, found themselves unable to find the colors of thread and yarn that they desired. So, they began experimenting with these natural vegetable-dyeing techniques, developing their own palette of dyes. Miss Cabot shared their research and mentored Ralph and François in textile dying techniques.
Miss Lucy S. Cabot never married. She, and a number of her relatives, were subscription patrons of Ralph and François’ Mr. Punch’s Playhouse in Boston in the 1930s. At this time, Cabot’s sister-in-law, Julia Abbott Shewell (1887-1954) worked as the business manager of Mr. Punch’s Playhouse.
Kristin Ramsden worked at the Tantamount Theater box office in the early 1970s. In her teenage years, she was one of Ralph’s weaving students, and she inherited his loom and bobbin-winder after his death. (The bobbin-winder now resides at the Carmel Valley Manor retirement community.)
She remembered Ralph reminiscing about how he and François had raised sheep for wool in New England and lived sustainably off the land. During the long winters, they designed and fabricated their puppets. In the summers, they packed their show into the back of a station wagon and drove across the country presenting puppet plays.
The August 1967 issue of The Classmate (the magazine of the officers wives club of Monterey’s Naval Postgraduate School) reported, “’Our other projects actually keep the theater going,’ says the versatile Ralph, who built one loom and remodeled another one, on which he works yards of exquisite linen, filament nylon, cotton and wool. François, an apprentice artist in his youth, designs colors for the materials. The two then mix their own dye, dye the thread and hang it to dry in the Tantamount’s backyard … Another Tantamount craft is the refinishing of antiques in the well equipped shop.”
Ralph and François’ hand-loomed textiles were displayed at the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art in October 1946. Ralph’s articulate and scholarly article, Clothes and the Handweaver, published in the May 1948 issue of Craft Horizons magazine, included a photograph of their handmade fabric. In the same issue, near the back, in a column titled Personals, it states:
“John Ralph Geddis … and François Martin recently moved their Theater of Puppets, weave-shop, and painting studio from Dartmouth, Massachusetts, to their new location on the historic San Marcos Pass north of Santa Barbara, California. Their fabrics, paintings, metalwork, and puppets have just finished a first showing in the Santa Barbara Art Museum and are currently on exhibit in the Pasadena Art Institute.”
The San Marcos Pass in southern California’s Santa Ynez Mountains, with its rugged 2,225-foot summit – now California State Route 154 – is where François’ Irish-American father, a professional stagecoach driver whom François described as “a very rough man,” once plied his trade.
The Santa Barbara artist and educator William Dole remembered, “The first gallery experience that I had was an exhibition in 1952 in Santa Barbara at the Geddis-Martin Studios. [They] were primarily puppeteers, and they had a kind of cultural center for a number of years in Santa Barbara, which included, along with their marvelous puppet shows, exhibitions from time to time of artists’ works, chamber music concerts, poetry readings, various kinds of cultural events.”
In 1953, Ralph and François collaborated with fellow Santa Barbara resident, children’s author and illustrator Don Freeman on Freeman’s original Christmas puppet play, Scandal in Scarecrow Row, with music by Richard Ames. The Santa Barbara News-Press reported: “They did it because Don Freeman wanted to … Geddis and Martin say there is no stage like a puppet stage to satisfy an artist. It gives him everything in the palm of his hand – stage design, direction, costuming, acting. It brings the wholeness of the theater down to comprehensible proportions…”
“Their stage, which they can fold up, pack into a station wagon, and take touring (as maybe they will this play) is a show in itself,” the Santa Barbara News-Press continued. “They made it after the manner of the English two-penny toy theaters in the last century, with boxes on either side occupied by handsomely haberdasheried men and women, blueblooded too, and, Aurora riding clouds across the top of the proscenium.
“Geddis and Martin use hand puppets, because, as François says, they allow for ‘quick intense communication from the players below to the puppets above.’ And never doubt it. The ‘players below’ feel every moment of the show. They act, in their tight packed area invisible to the audience, every thought, swell, word, emotion, movement carried out at arms length by the fascinating little figures they operate … For Scandal in Scarecrow Row, [they] developed a kind of hand puppet partly inspired by ancient Javanese prototypes – puppets controlled from underneath by strings as well as the hand.
“Not content with authoring Scarecrow, Don Freeman has designed and directed the production, working hand-in-glove with Geddis and Martin who are engineering and executing the puppet personalities.”
In 1957, Ralph and François registered their original puppet play, Others Babes – Other Woods, with the Library of Congress. This script, likely an adaptation of the traditional English children’s tale and popular pantomime subject, Babes in the Woods, is the only one of their plays found in the collection of the Library of Congress.
* * *
Jeanne D’Orge was born in England in 1880. She moved to Carmel, California, where she became involved in the Forest Theater Guild. Ralph performed at the outdoor Forest Theater in the 1920s and it is possible he and Jeanne met at that time.
Jeanne met her second husband, Carl Cherry, at the Forest Theater – he set the lights for their productions. Neighbors remember Carl Cherry as a most unattractive man. Some said he was just plain ugly, while others said that he looked like an elf. Jeanne and Carl married in 1930. They lived in poverty during the early years of the Great Depression, subsisting on cans of sardines, hard-boiled eggs, coffee, and whatever food their neighbors could share. Then, in 1936, Carl invented the blind rivet (called a pop rivet today), that significantly sped up the assembly of aircraft. The rivets sold for three-cents apiece, making him tens of millions of dollars during the Second World War.
Jeanne and Carl, an unusual couple to begin with, made the unusual decision to continue to live as poor people in their two-story Victorian on the corner of Guadalupe and Fourth Streets in Carmel, and put their considerable wealth into a foundation.
Carl died of spinal cancer in 1947. In his memory, Jeanne founded the Carl Cherry Foundation for the Arts, to “further the culture of America by sponsoring experimental fine arts, sciences and education,” sponsoring performances by world-class lecturers and performers.
In early 1952, Ralph and François’ five-year lease on the Santa Barbara theater was not renewed. Jeanne D’Orge, who had likely booked Ralph and François’ performances at the Carl Cherry Foundation in previous years, persuaded them to come up to Carmel as artists-in-residence. In December of that year, they presented two free Christmas programs at Carmel’s Golden Bough Playhouse, featuring Actors with Puppets.
Ralph and François were looking for a place to settle down. For decades, they’d each saved fifty-dollars a week from their modest income as professional puppeteers. They’d both spent their boyhoods in California. In time, they fell in love with the Monterey Peninsula, making it their home in 1954. Two years later, they cashed in their combined savings and bought Frank De Amaral’s stable and horse barn on the site of the old Vanderbilt Estate ranch in the pastoral Carmel Valley. The old De Amaral barn, where the Carmel Valley Fire Department volunteers used to have their meetings, became the Tantamount Theater.
They conceived the Tantamount Theater as a center for all of the arts – puppets, dance, music, theater, and poetry. They broke ground on a remote spot near a cluster of old oak trees. Ralph and François worked together in their free time, often at night, building the entire place themselves. It took the two of them the better part of four years to renovate the thirty-year old barn into a 144-seat puppet theater. When the extensive remodel was complete, the building, as Salinas Californian newspaper staff writer Ward Bushee put it, “… grew elegantly out of a majestic hillside, amidst clusters of trees that sat like a stage above Carmel Valley.”
They had applied for a federal grant to establish the Tantamount Theater as a center for teaching and displaying the art of puppeteering, but they were turned down. “They were into the atom that year,” François’ remembered.
Undaunted, they proceeded. No expense or detail was spared. When it was finished, they’d spent more than $250,000. They built their residence next door, so for all practical purposes, the theater was their living room. François’ portraits and landscape paintings hung on the walls of the theater and the place was full of their antique furniture. Valuing their privacy, they designed their living quarters with few windows, but many skylights.
They called it the Tantamount Theater because it was to be “the pinnacle of excellence in puppetry.” They opened on June 24, 1960, with a performance of one of their favorite puppet plays, an adaptation of Molière’s five-act comedic hit of 1670, The Would-be Gentleman. In June 1961, puppeteers from all over the world gathered at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California, for the 22nd Annual American Puppetry Festival and participants were bused to see puppet plays at the nearby Tantamount Theater.
Alan Cook (1932-2019), an accomplished puppeteer who saw a number of Ralph and François’ puppet plays, once said that he felt Ralph and François’ work was a little “static” and “precious.” But for Ralph and François, puppetry was serious business. They knew that, back in 17th-century England, Shakespeare’s plays were once performed in this medium. The puppet theater proscenium was based upon a Victorian – Edwardian British toy theater sheet.
“We stick faithfully to the original classics,” said Ralph. “This is no Disneyland presentation.” Their objective was to establish a repertory puppet company for adult audiences, in spite of the ongoing challenge of finding enough interested and committed participants who were willing to undergo the tedious training.
“You need a strong back a and strong mind to manage hand puppets,” said François.
At first, the audiences were small but appreciative. François and Ralph presented the sophisticated puppet plays from their repertoire of classic comedies and dramas. Soon, the local newspapers would include the following notification: “Seats are usually $1.50 and it might be wise to call … and ask if there is a sellout, because there usually is.”
In time, they broadened their fare, adding dance recitals, poetry readings, monologists, and the occasional screening of one of the classic films they loved so well. They even staged plays without puppets – in 1962 Ralph starred in a production of Edward Albee’s The Zoo. However, it was soon apparent that the motion picture presentations drew the largest crowds. Before the advent of home video, the Tantamount Theater was the only game in town – the only revival movie theater on the Monterey Peninsula.
During the week, François and Ralph set the type and printed handbills on their tiny old-fashioned hand press. Every Monday they delivered about 350 copies to library’s, stores, schools and galleries throughout the county.
Kit Parker grew up Carmel Valley. For half a century, he has operated Kit Parker Films. In the days before the DVD, it was the largest independent film distributor of vintage silent and talking picture classics in the United States.
In the 21st-centruy, Parker is is busy locating, licensing, and restoring “orphan films” – lost movies that have been out of sight for decades. His catalog has expanded to include more than two hundred rare feature films and as many television episodes.
He said that Ralph and François fostered his interest in classic movies. “I have to say, I owe it to them. François and Ralph gave me my first job as a projectionist at the Tantamount Theater.”
For years, Parker told me, he had a couple of Ralph and François’ white demitasse coffee cups in his kitchen at home. “I was sorry when the last one broke,” he confessed.
Carey Crockett remembered, “The experience of seeing a film at the Tantamount Theater was a cross between going to an exotic Turkish coffeehouse and an evening spent in a cozy private screening room…” François and Ralph were knowledgeable and enthusiastic cinephiles who shared their love of movies with everyone who attended their screenings. They introduced local audiences to such seldom-seen classics as Dinner at Eight, La Belle et la Bête, La Strada, Rules of the Game, Shane, Tortilla Flat, Camille, Les Enfants du Paradis, The Seventh Seal, The Bank Dick, The 39 Steps, James Whale’s Frankenstein, Hitchcock’s Rebecca, as well as the comedies of Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin, and the MGM musicals. One of François’ personal favorites was the Mexican feature film, Yanco (1961).
* * *
Jeanne, their patron from the Carl Cherry Foundation, was an eccentric painter and writer. She was a generation older than Ralph and François. They negotiated an arrangement in which she became their “resident eccentric benefactor.” Occasionally, you could spot her in the audience at the Tantamount Theater, a rotund elderly lady with a spit curl, in an outfit made from François and Ralph’s distinctive hand-woven and hand-dyed fabric. They built her a one-room studio next to the theater. Ralph even installed a bell so she could ring if she needed help. They cared for her until just before her death in 1964.
In 1968, Ralph became ill and no longer had the energy to perform. There followed a series of visits to the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. When Ralph returned home, he was so sad, François set up some of their puppets in the art gallery to cheer him up. During intermission at the Tantamount, you’d find Ralph sitting in the gallery, enjoying the familiar company of his old friends, the puppets.
Puppeteer Bruce Schwartz, who first met François when he was still a teenager, wrote in 1974, “His puppets were on display: a small sampling from over six hundred, all of unique and exquisite beauty. The hands carved of wood, the faces so expressive, bucolic, droll – never cute … His philosophies concerning puppets are incredible in their sensitivity and perception. He calls them ‘symbols of actors,’ commenting on human actors’ shortcomings through ego and ‘seduction.’ ‘So much puppetry is crude and vulgar,’ he said when Bil Baird’s name came up.”
François and Ralph didn’t care for Bil Baird, a popular marionettist in New York City, who is well-known for the “The Lonely Goatherd” marionette scene in the movie, The Sound of Music. They felt Baird’s puppets were “too slick and too commercial.” (This is the same Bil Baird who had built the first giant balloon for Macy’s back in 1928.)
Near the end of his life, Ralph was in the hospital for months, in a coma. One night, as François sat beside his hospital bed, the television was on and the host introduced the puppeteer Bil Baird. At the utterance of Baird’s name, Ralph arose from the depths of his coma opened his eyes and exclaimed, “There’s that awful Bil Baird!!”
Near the end, Ralph developed a speech impediment. On September 23, 1974, the night before he died, Ralph miraculously recovered his speech and recited Lewis Carroll’s poem from Alice in Wonderland — “The Walrus and Carpenter” — remembering every word.
The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
According to Ralph’s wishes, there was no funeral service. His ashes were strewn upon the sea.
Now alone in the world, François did his best to continue to run the theater with a handful of stalwart volunteers and a hired projectionist. Occasionally, he would exhibit their remarkable, hand-made stick-and-rod puppets, but he was reluctant to perform any of the puppet plays without his partner. “Tragedy –” he said, “you can’t describe it. It just happens to you. It tears the heart … It is intense … I’m still getting over it.”
Lying in bed on a stormy night, François was frightened by the thunder and lightning. Ralph would say, “If it’s gonna’ hit you, it’s gonna hit you – you might as well relax and enjoy it!” Now, there was no one to calm his panic with comforting words.
David Fuess wrote in his 1975 article, Reflections of a Puppeteer. “François sat in the gallery of the Tantamount Theatre, in Carmel Valley as he sipped brandy and recalled the past. His short, soft, curly hair, which is a limbo color between white and grey, reflected a slightly blue tinge from the light entering the open door. His words came alive as he packed and shaped the air with his hands to illustrate his story. The memories were not abstract, but related almost as if he were vividly reliving the moments somewhere in his mind’s eye. ‘Our puppet shows were not for children’ he emphasized, ‘we were trying to capture the tragedy and comedy of Molière and the 17th-century when puppetry was really the first theater.’
“The puppets were so real, I can’t tell you how real they were. You put your own vitality into them. When you put the puppet on your arm there is an electrical connection. You could sense that the whole thing was going through you, and yet you would be apart.’”
One of François’ friends, Norbert Kammer, told me of a wildfire in the mid-1970s, on the Los Laureles Grade had threatened the Tantamount Theater. He and a number of François’ friends had driven out to the Tantamount, loaded the crated puppets into their automobiles, and evacuated them to the basement of the Monterey Museum, where they remained until the fire was contained. This incident precipitated some discussion about finding a safe and permanent home for the puppets, such as the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.”
After a film showing, Francois often invited friends to sit around the table in the living area and sip brandy,” Bradford Clark recalled. “After Ralph died, I think some people did tend to treat Francois like an elderly parent who couldn’t take care of himself.”
In early 1976, the puppeteer Bruce Schwartz visited François. Schwartz remembered that François had two young men living with him, ostensibly to care for him. Schwartz remembered, “I had a bad feeling about these guys. They were very aggressive in their control of François … That was our last visit.”
François suffered two heart attacks and two strokes. The second stroke, in October 1976, left him with a slight slur in his speech for the rest of his life. But the very next day, he was up and working, hanging a new exhibit in the gallery with his “one strong arm.”
By January 1977, he had regained the use of his left arm and the muscles on the left side of his face. He wrote in a letter to Bruce Schwartz, “I am still running the Tantamount by myself – no impresario, except a projectionist and parking attendant and volunteers. Very recently I couldn’t do my usual work pulling the curtain, opening the velours, but now I’m strong enough for the backstage, cleaning the theater inside and out. Even to make my introduction ‘speech:’ October November December, I wasn’t able to be seen. I lost my speaking voice but again I after good work on my own therapy, I can talk again.”
On his right forearm, François had a tattoo of a Mesoamerican hieroglyph from a 15th-century ceramic stamp of Ozomatli, the spider monkey, who is associated with music, dance, and clowning.
François began giving away the few remaining handmade puppets to friends – most of whom have since passed away. He sent one of the Punch puppets to his old friend, Priscilla MacFadden who had stage managed for he and Ralph back at Mr. Punch’s Workshop in Boston, half a century before. A few of Ralph and François’ puppets may now be in private collections.
Bradford Clark still has their Ethel Barrymore as Juliet puppet. He also has three of Ralph’s marionettes: Josephine Baker, the clown, and the Burmese Dancer, all of which were probably built 90 years ago, before he met François. Clark also has two very simple Punch and Judy hand puppets that Ralph made in his childhood in California.
The Tantamount Theater presented its last live theatrical puppet performance in August 1978 – its first puppet play in a decade. It was a student production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s madrigal fable, The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore, a choral work performed by singers from the nearby Hidden Valley Theater and directed by François.
* * *
The Carmel Valley is a very dry place. There is little rainfall and water scarcity abounds. One morning, I was sitting at the counter of the Krazy Kat Café, eating breakfast and reading the Monterey Peninsula Herald. That’s where I saw the news. Before sunrise, on Thursday, October 5, 1978, a fire burned the Tantamount Theater to the ground – only one wall of the theater, the covered patio entrance, and the small adjacent living quarters remained.
It was a local tragedy. The more than six-hundred hand-made puppets in the theater – the product of four decades of inspired creation and one the greatest collection of its kind in the world – were lost in the blaze.
The Carmel Valley Fire Department was on the scene minutes after they received the call. Firefighters responded with four engines, rolling out 1,700 feet of hose to the nearest hydrant on Middle Canyon Road. With the assistance of some twenty-five volunteers, they had the blaze under control in half an hour.
At this time, Bradford Clark had been studying with François for several years. He was staying in the adjoining studio while he was working on a production at Hartnell College, in nearby Salinas. He happened to have brought a few of Ralph and François’ puppets into the studio for closer examination. Ralph had thoughtfully separated the theater and their living quarters with a wall of sheet rock, which protected their home and the attached studio from everything but smoke damage. And so, a handful of their puppets, including four rare Japanese puppet heads, survived the fire.
This event was pivotal for the 20-year old Bradford Clark, affecting the trajectory of his professional life.
“I’ve always felt that responsibility – I still do – and I’m sure my need to help preserve puppets and puppeteers’ legacies is a direct result of that fire,” he confessed.
François’ trove of treasured paintings and portraits, and the priceless drop curtain, were reduced to ashes. He spent a week settling accounts with the insurance agents, making the unpleasant discovery that he was under-insured. With Bradford Clark’s assistance, François faced the daunting task of sifting through the burned timbers, ashes, and debris.
“We actually found the melted temple gong after the fire.” Clark reminisced. “And we found some of the puppets in the ruins, but most were charcoal. So we collected the burned and charred puppets and put them in a box. It was left outside, probably because they smelled. One day the box disappeared.” It was returned by a young man who said he had found it discarded by the side of the road. François and his friends later conducted a funeral service for these charred puppets under the live oaks. Their remains are likely still buried on the property.
Friends came to the Tantamount Theater to help François sort through the ashes and debris. Norbert Kammer told me that he still has a charred marionette head and a burned puppet hand that he found in the rubble, forty years ago.
Bradford Clark explained. “After the fire, I stayed with François for a couple of months. And then other people stayed with him and helped out. He was never really alone during that time, but he was indeed lonely for Ralph.”
Though François maintained his sense of humor throughout the ordeal, he was treated by a local physician for shock.
The theater auditorium had burned down in the fire, but the large covered patio at the building’s entrance and the adjoining residential quarters remained standing. Miraculously, his library of books was untouched. After a little repainting, François continued living in the residential quarters for several years. He even adopted several dachshunds, whom he openly adored, and lavished them with attention as if they were his own children.
A month after the fire, on November 19, 1978, there was a performance to benefit the Tantamount Theater Rebuilding Fund held at the Hidden Valley Music Seminars Theater in the Carmel Valley Village. It was the puppet play The Tempter (or The Sailor’s Return), featuring François’ puppeteer friend Marque Bradford and directed by François. This show, which originally was scheduled to be performed at the Tantamount Theater, was François’ last. The five puppets from The Tempter (or The Sailor’s Return) survived the fire and now believed to reside in the collection of the Northwest Puppet Center in Seattle, Washington.
All the stored props and scenery from decades of puppet plays, as well as the puppets themselves, were lost in the fire. But some of the plaster puppet head molds survived. (Puppeteers never throw anything away: ironically, some plaster molds for the characters they had made for the Macy’s Christmas window displays in the 1930s survived the fire.)
Under François’ supervision, Marque Bradford used a number of these plaster molds to remake some of the puppet heads for a special limited edition of puppets. The whereabouts of these puppets are unknown.
François screened classic films at the Hidden Valley Music Seminars Theater every Sunday that winter, as part of the fund-raising effort. Tickets were $2.50. Though the theater burned to the ground and the loss was nearly complete, the property was assessed at only a little over $40,000. But he needed half a million dollars to rebuild the theater and even with the insurance money, he was still hundreds of thousands of dollars short of his goal.
Although it was not discussed, it was apparent that François could no longer participate in the operation of the theater and that his performing days were over. Ralph was always the more outgoing of the two. Unaccustomed to making decisions without him, François thereafter suffered a lack of purpose from which he never really recovered.
Ralph and Francois’ friend Max Sonné, was a puppeteer and weaver who lived in Carmel. When he died in September of 1978, François invited Max’s son René, to stay with him in Carmel Valley. A month later, the Tantamount Theater burned down.
René Sonné was a bright, energetic, fast-talking 32-year old independent film producer. He convinced François that, with his promotional experience and Hollywood connections to such stars as Orson Welles, Liza Minnelli, and Vincent Price, he could raise the $500,000 needed to rebuild the Tantamount. Acting under the title of theater manager, Sonné formed a non-profit corporation and by August of 1979, Sonné had raised $100,000.
Sonné retained the services of Melvin R. Steiner, a young attorney with offices in Carmel, to help persuade the planning commission to approve a permit to rebuild the theater. But Steiner turned out to be both incompetent and unscrupulous. Some of François and Ralph’s antique furniture – and even some of their hand-made puppets – wound up in the Steiner’s garage. Friends suspected Steiner was a crook. And they were right. But François wasn’t the only client from whom Steiner was stealing. In 1988, Steiner pleaded guilty to the felonies of “grand theft and perjury arising out of the misappropriation of a client’s funds,” and went to prison.
There’s an old adage that says, you can’t move in next to the airport and then complain about the noise.
There were no zoning laws or neighbors when Ralph and François built the Tantamount Theater in the late 1950s. For nineteen years it had operated as a “legal non-conforming use in a residential neighborhood.”
As the years went by, people who were well-aware of the theater’s existence, built their new homes closer and closer to the Tantamount and the periodic traffic and noise on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights never seemed to bother them. In fact, before the fire, many neighbors had volunteered at the Tantamount Theater.
It was not until after the fire that a group of surrounding neighbors, united to oppose reconstruction of the theater. Had the fire not occurred, the neighbors would have had no legal basis to contest the theater.
François was unprepared for the resistance that awaited him at the planning commission hearing September 1979. He was a gifted storyteller and public speaker, but without Ralph by his side, he made the inauspicious decision to let René Sonné do all the talking.
Some of the neighbors were put off by Sonné’s bedside manner. In their eyes, it appeared that some unknown, big city non-profit organization, and not their old friend and neighbor François Martin, was behind the reconstruction plan. Some neighbors misjudged Sonné’s motives, suspecting he secretly intended to turn the Tantamount into a large commercial, money-making venture with more days and longer hours of operation.
Acquiescing to the neighbors’ expressed concerns, the commission approved the use permit to rebuild, but only with the following overly-burdensome caveats:
- That it be no larger than its original 3,210 square foot dimensions.
- That it be operated no more than three days per week.
- That an additional 15 days be allowed during each year for occasional performances.
- That twenty-four legal parking spaces be constructed, one for every six audience members.
Exasperated, Sonné took the commissioners to task, insisting that restricting the theater to only three nights per week would make them ineligible for California Arts Council grants, effectively killing the reconstruction effort. “Do they not respect a 70-year-old man and his contribution to the community?” he fumed. “They are approving condominiums left and right in the valley!”
Nick Kraushaar, the attorney who represented the disgruntled neighbors, noted that the commissioners could not regulate what manner of shows the theater staged, only the frequency of the performances. “The use permit would not prohibit porno movies!” he taunted.
Try as he might, Sonné could not persuade the commissioners. Steve Hellman reported in the Carmel Pine Cone, “After the meeting, Commissioner Sam Farr questioned why anyone would choose to sink their time and money into rebuilding the Tantamount. Martin never pretended to make a profit from his casual operation, often opening his doors to only a dozen ticket buyers.”
“The neighborhood has outgrown the theater,” concluded Farr. “I wish there were other land available in the valley to relocate it. But I know there isn’t. You just don’t win in a situation like this. But for a disaster the whole issue wouldn’t be on trial today.”
Valiant efforts were made to rebuild the Tantamount Theater, but it never happened.
“I’m not sure how long the burned theater ruins just sat there – it couldn’t have helped François’ mood. I remember seeing the equipment out there when they finally bulldozed it down.” Clark recalled.
“I have had to sell the Tantamount property,” François wrote to Bruce Schwartz, in September 1982. “As much I wanted to rebuild, my M.D. speaks I must retire: no work, no lifting, no mowing the grass of three acres, nothing backstage like pulling curtains, janitorial items, etc.”
With his theater manager, René Sonné, and Sonné’s girlfriend, François left Carmel Valley and moved down the coast to Seaward, a stone castle overlooking the Pacific Ocean, on the west side of the Pacific Coast Highway, in the Carmel Highlands. The owner of this 1911 Greene and Greene mansion, Daniel Lewis James, was a very wealthy retired screenwriter and author. He had once worked as an assistant director on Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. This, and his membership in the Communist Party, later brought him to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in the 1950s, he was blacklisted.
Seaward (which is listed on navigation maps of the coastline) was James’ private museum, filled with hundreds of rare original photographs and paintings, illuminated manuscripts, thousands of books, and first edition sets of practically every important 20th-century author – all signed and inscribed personally by the author. François enjoyed the opulent setting and James’ collection of treasures. “It couldn’t be more beautiful,” he wrote to Bruce Schwartz, “on the shores of the seas, around the house – ancient sequoias and cypresses.”
François, now in his seventies, was in increasingly failing health. In 1985, he moved to Monterey Pines Skilled Nursing Center on scenic Skyline Drive in the forested, fog-crested hills above Monterey. His beautiful speaking voice could be heard reading the daily announcements over the public address system.
“Though he never seemed especially happy to be there, in many ways, I think it gave him some purpose that he had been missing since Ralph died. As a volunteer assistant at Monterey Pines he helped feed other residents. The people there seemed to adore him and treat him with kindness and respect,” Clark remembered. “For François, the hardest part of living in a nursing facility was adjusting to the lack of privacy.”
* * *
Mark Thompson, a gay man and a respected author who had volunteered at the Tantamount Theater in his teenage years, fondly remembered Ralph and François as valued mentors and role models.
“Be true to yourself, the two wise queers of the Tantamount Theater taught me,” he wrote in his thoughtful memoir Gay Body (1998). In a chapter called We, Two Brothers Clinging, Thompson recalls how Ralph and François imparted important, “lessons about life and how to live it: without apology and always with gusto.”
Thompson wrote of visiting François in the nursing home near the end of his life. “The few possessions that had survived the flames were arranged on a bedside table and shelf. Drawings, postcards, and old theater notices were tacked to the wall, a plucky rebuff to the cold sterility of the place. While François’s speech now rambled, his eyes still sparkled with the love that had once been so instrumental in guiding me on, in giving me hope. Our queer bond remained unbroken.
“When I stood up to take my leave, François reached out, clasped my hand, and put something in it. It was a small wooden object about the size of a playing card. Upon closer inspection I could see that it was a type block from an old hand-operated press, the very one, in fact, he had printed the theater’s elegant bills of fare on.”
The type block featured the image of Polichinelle – Punch – “who had also served as the Tantamount’s beckoning emblem.” Thompson remembered. ‘Take this now, I want you to have it,’ François tenderly said. ‘It is one of the last things to be saved from the fire.’”
On Saturday, February 25, 1995, during a period of unusually intense rainfall and flooding in the Carmel Valley, François died peacefully in his sleep. He was 85-years old. What became of the box of personal papers and photos he kept next his bed or his unfinished handwritten autobiographical manuscript, remains a mystery.
* * *
The newspapers reported that the fire at the Tantamount Theater was started by a mouse that had chewed through a wire of a lamp backstage, causing a short-circuit. This explanation was sufficient for the inspectors and the insurance company. But through the decades, the story of the Tantamount Theater fire has entered the realm of legend.
One myth that has become firmly entrenched in local folklore, is that the entire collection of “more than 800 puppets” had been carefully inventoried, boxed and crated, and were ready to be shipped the very next day to their final destination, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC – when the Tantamount Theater burned down.
Bradford Clark was sleeping in the adjoining studio next to François’ quarters on the night of the fire. He told me that he’d heard some of the rumors about the cause of the blaze. Some people said that “no electric fire could be that huge.” Others believed there was a motive for arson, since some of the neighbors opposed the rebuilding of the Tantamount Theater, though no evidence was ever found to support this claim.
The inspectors concluded that the fire had started as a slow burn that consumed all the oxygen in the theater. When François was awakened by the sound of something falling backstage, he opened the door to investigate and, in doing so, let in a rush of air that caused the fire to explode.
Bradford Clark told me, “I was asleep in the studio when I saw something that looked like a fireball shoot by my studio window – a real explosion. That’s what woke me up. François was utterly shocked and horrified – he burst in and told me the theater was on fire! I ran to the gallery door and felt that it was hot. I grabbed a hose trying to get close enough to the puppet boxes backstage to wet them down, but by that point, the fire was so advanced, a little garden hose didn’t make a difference. By the time I ran around the corner with the hose, the whole place was consumed in flames. We were lucky to get out without succumbing to the smoke.”
When I asked Clark about the story about the puppets going to the Smithsonian, he explained, “I believe I had previously tried to contact the Smithsonian about donating the puppets, but they couldn’t accept them. François’ situation is sadly typical. No one wants to throw away a puppet collection, especially those of a professional company, but no one has room to store them. These are the kinds of stories to break my heart. François gave me their big two-man Punch and Judy theater. I was able to mount the seven-foot long header for an exhibit at the public library in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2019 – the first time it had been seen in over 40 years!
“In the autumn of 1978, I had methodically unpacked, photographed, and then repacked the puppets over a period of time, but except for a brief exhibition in the Tantamount Theater gallery, they had been stacked in their crates for years, even before Ralph had passed away.”
* * *
The Tantamount Theater is just a memory. I’ll never forget the feeling of exhilaration when the lights dimmed, the drop curtain flew up into the rafters, and the opening credits flickered.
Seated in the front row of the Tantamount Theater, in those years before I became a teenager, I first saw Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and Gone With the Wind, Chaplin’s City Lights and Modern Times, and the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, and A Night At the Opera. The Tantamount Theater changed my life by introducing me to the world of classic cinema.
Through their decades together, François and Ralph were so engaged in what they were doing, they never thought of it as work. They were pursuing their artistic passions, allowing the boundaries between work and play to remain forever permeable.
I found a photograph of François taken in 1978, just months before the Tantamount Theater fire. The 68-year old artist stands before the magnificent screen he painted in the auditorium of the Tantamount Theater, unaware of his fate.
His button-down shirt hangs untucked over his creased, cream-colored slacks; the two top two buttons of the shirt are open. His empty hands appear gracefully posed, a metal bracelet encircles each wrist, and a large polished stone is set in the ring on the finger his left hand. He sports the hairstyle that so many men wore in the 1970s: parted on the side, cropped above the collar line, and fluffed-out with a blow-dryer around the ears. François stares directly into the lens, Sphinx-like and poised, as if there’s a secret he can’t quite bring himself to divulge.
It is the portrait of an artist who never worked and never will.
This essay was written with the help of research contributions from Professor Bradford Clark. I am grateful for his invaluable assistance.