The Little Flowers of St. Francis

François Martin standing before his painted screen in the Tantamount Theater (1978).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 didn’t realize that, that was 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 great 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.

Duck Soup. 1933. Directed by Leo McCarey | MoMA

The Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup” (1933).

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 or twenty five-minute drive, but fifty years ago when I was a child it seemed the longest car trip ever – a veritable eternity 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 and handweavers.

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, who was usually wearing a hand-woven coat 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. 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.

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 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 gong was sounded just before the screening and at the intermission. Just before the film began, François would stand in front of the gold and cream-colored velvet curtain and address the audience. 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 Folgers out of a can! 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.

The Tantamount Theater. Photo by Carey Crockett.

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 works of a generation of local artists. Nonchalantly, I’d reach for a cup of that good coffee, palm three sugar cubes, and saunter outside, beyond the spreading canopy of the live oaks to behold the wide awe and wonder of the night.

The centerpiece of the theater was the unforgettable fifteen-foot wide screen that François had painted, depicting their puppets posed in a colorful street scene: Angelica, Orlando, Pantalone, Polichinelle, and Harlequin, and the rest of the Commedia dell’arte usual suspects. This stunning painted screen was the sort of thing one usually only saw in a museum. Just as the lights dimmed, moments before the movie began, this painted screen would rise up into the rafters to reveal the projection screen itself, which was only about ten-feet wide.

François’ painted screen completely captured my imagination. The many times I sat in that theater, I studied this canvas 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 completely 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 August 3, 1905, was one of seven children born to John and Henrietta Geddis. He graduated from University High School in Oakland, California, in 1923, and was soon working as a scenic art assistant at a local repertory theater. He wanted to be an actor, so he moved to New York City, where he joined the Neighborhood Playhouse acting company on East 54th Street. He studied dance with the famous Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokine and performed with the Martha Graham and Charles Weidman dance companies. He appeared as a Persian prince in the 1927 production Broadway production of If, but the play closed after 27 performances. Undaunted, Ralph pursued his interests in theater and puppetry. Soon he was touring the country with Jean Gros’ Punch and Judy show, where he distinguished himself as a gifted puppeteer.

Jean Abel 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 was 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.

We don’t know when Ralph began working for Gros, which was likely in the late 1920s, but a few things are clear. 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.

Gros’ puppet company brought their production of Cinderella to western Pennsylvania in late November of 1930. The Warren Times Mirror reported, “The old beautiful fairytale of Cinderella, an absolutely unique production, given by this excellent company … headed by John Ralph Geddis, foremost manipulator of the hand puppet, will appear at the Y.W.C.A. on November 22, sponsored by that organization.”

A few months later, in 1931 Ralph would meet François.

*                      *                      *

François Joseph Martin was born on October 17, 1909, in Santa Barbara, California. In his 67th year, David Fuess interviewed him. The story 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 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 theatre offered François, who was painfully timid as a child, a vehicle to project himself and touch people’s hearts.”

If it had not been for the Santa Barbara earthquake on June 29, 1925, which collapsed the local church, François Martin, who had already spent time as a novice monk, would have become a priest. He never forgot the enormous boulders that tumbled down the steep slopes of the Santa Barbara 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 theatre. He loved how the churches he visited in Mexico City combined music and performance, and they were a wonderful chance for the poor to see great beauty.

Although he claimed he’d never been to France, 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.

While still in his teens, François 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 at Lobero Theater and Art Center in Santa Barbara. During the 1930s, he assisted Diego Rivera on the painting of a mural in Mexico. 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.

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 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 Mr. Punch’s Workshop in an abandoned Beacon Hill carpenter’s loft in Boston. 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.

In time, they became the darlings of the local intellectual and artistic community. The dramatic and comedic classics that they adapted into their sophisticated puppet plays held little appeal for children and limited appeal for adults. “We never made cute puppets,” François admitted.

Late one night while 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 production of Romeo and Juliet on Broadway. Ralph and François created a humorous skit in which the slightly inebriated Ethel Barrymore puppet attempted to recite Juliet’s soliloquy.

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 explained, “The marionette is a mechanical novelty; the movement is interesting but it can’t act.

Ethel Barrymore as Juliet puppet in the collection of Professor Bradford Clark. Photo by Tim Evanson.

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.”

During the seasons of 1931-1936 they designed, produced, and performed about twenty puppet plays. Among them were Alice in Wonderland; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Moliere’s The Would Be Gentlemen and The Doctor In Spite of Himself; three plays based on Hans Christian Andersen’s stories — The Little Mermaid, The Swans, The Nightingale – Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, adapted from the old version from Dickens’ time.

The more than 600 puppets used in their plays were all designed, sculpted, and costumed by François. As he put it, “you could carve an old story and do an improvisation.” Each one was an original creation, sometimes sculpted directly out of wood without so much as a preliminary sketch, and he 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 light entertainment, we wanted the humanity of the whole theater.”

I never saw one of Ralph and François’ puppet plays. By the time I discovered the Tantamount Theater, they had already retired form performing their legendary production of Alice in Wonderland. But my friend, Carey Crockett, a gifted artist and theatrical production designer, who is seven years older than I am, attended several performances of Alice in Wonderland at the Tantamount Theater in his childhood, including the last Alice performance, in 1970.

Carey remembered how his mother first took him to see one of Ralph and François’ puppet plays in the early 1960s, when he was around ten-years old. By this time Ralph and François had been performing the Alice show for three decades.

Ralph spent an hour answering young Carey’s questions about the puppets. “Ralph explained how the puppet’s head was made in two pieces. The wood dough was pressed inside each side of the plaster mold and allowed to dry for several days. The wood dough came ready-made in a can and was sold at Murphy’s and it was the consistency of paste. Then, the plaster mold was broken open and the two molded pieces inside were glued together, then sculpted and sanded, and then the face was carefully painted … They had amazingly expressive faces… Ralph allowed me to look at them up close and to handle them.” The puppet’s hands were carved out of a solid block of soft wood. Their distinctive and recognizable hands are a “signature” feature found on almost all of their puppets.

When Carey asked Ralph how much time it took to build one puppet, Ralph told him: “You take whatever time is necessary.”

For Alice in Wonderland, their puppets were painstakingly and faithfully copied from John Tenniel’s famous illustrations for the book that had been hand colored by Lewis Carroll. The eyes of the Cheshire Cat puppet would roll and a crazy mouse puppet periodically scurried 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. There were four separate Alice puppets, each of which performed a different function, from a tiny, finger-sized version to an Alice puppet that actually grew in size when she tasted the mushroom. The program was recommended for “adults and the wise child.”

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 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. The show demanded so much energy that by middle age, they no longer had the stamina to perform this particular puppet play.

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 old 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 1935, they restored an abandoned church meetinghouse on Chestnut Street in Russells Mills, outside Dartmouth, Massachusetts, near the Slocums River. There, they opened Mr. Punch’s Puppet Theater, and 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:

“One of the most popular programs in the repertoire of this unique puppet theater is, The Little Flowers of St. Francis…  B.K.H. [Bertrand K. Hart], the Sideshow columnist of the Providence Journal who plugged for this extraordinary summer theater of New England on and off, said the other day that, ‘at no time to do these figures falter into becoming puppets; they remain real; and the death of St. Francis was so poignant, the lady across the aisle cried unashamed tears.’ ” [Emphasis added]

Painting of (left to right) John Ralph Geddis, François Martin, and Catherine Huntington at Mr. Punch’s Workshop, Dartmouth, Massachusetts (1936). Artist unknown. Photo by Carey Crockett.

“In addition to the theater, the two men, John Ralph Geddis and François Martin, the masters above and below the little figures on the stage, have a puppet workshop where they create their ‘actors’ and also one of the largest collections of puppets probably in the world. B.K.H., who knows well the stage, reports that in the theater, which is a former church, ‘you will find an order of entertainment not to be found elsewhere in America, or, as far as I know, in the world.’”

“… One should inquire first, the days on which the performance is given, if one plans to see ‘little Brother Francis’ preaching to the ‘brother swallows’ that fly down in life-like reality from above the four by eight stage.”

Walter Wilkinson’s Puppets Through America (1938) mentions Mr. Punch’s Workshop in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, 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 [Moliere’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 the early 1930s, François and Ralph’s engineering and design skills first received national recognition when they executed an enormous Christmas holiday window display for Macy’s Department Store on Herald Square in New York City. In 1936, Macy’s hired them back to create another elaborate display. 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. “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.

Ralph and François were also master handweavers. Their fabric creations were as remarkable as their puppet plays. Miss Lucy Cabot, one of the local experts in the dyeing of yarn and textiles in Boston, had studied with the Indians of the Southwest, in efforts to recover some of their old formulas and techniques for natural dyeing. At the turn of the century, 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 these formulas and techniques with Ralph and François.

I heard a story that, after Ralph and François left the metropolitan theater scene, they moved to Maine to raise sheep for wool and live 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 shows. Ultimately, they sold the place and headed west.

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 historic San Marcos Pass north of Santa Barbara, California [a scenic and mountainous region with which François’ father, a professional stage coach driver, would have been intimately familiar]. 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.”

In 1957, Ralph and François registered a copyright for 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. That’s where she met her second husband, Carl Cherry, who set the lights for the 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, when Ralph and François’ five-year lease on the scenic San Marcos Pass property was not renewed, Jeanne D’Orge persuaded them to come up to Carmel as artists-in-residence at the Carl Cherry Foundation. 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. In 1956, they cashed in their combined savings and bought Frank De Amaral’s horse barn and stable, on the site of the old Vanderbilt Estate ranch in the pastoral Carmel Valley.

They conceived the Tantamount Theatre 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 live 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.”

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.

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.

For Ralph and François, puppetry was serious business. They’d researched the fact that Shakespeare’s plays were once performed in this medium, back in 17th-century England. “We stick faithfully to the original classics,” said Ralph. “This is no Disneyland presentation.”

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.”

Jeanne D’Orge lounging on her patio, in the early 1960s. The Tantamount Theater is visible in the background. Photo by Carey Crockett.

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 were drawing the largest crowds. At this time in history, the Tantamount was the only game in town – the only revival movie theater on the Monterey Peninsula.

François and Ralph were knowledgeable and enthusiastic cinephiles and they shared their love of movies with everyone who attended their screenings. They introduced local audiences to such 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 39 Steps, as well as the comedies of Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin, and the MGM musicals.

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.” They built her a one-room studio next to the theater and cared for her until her death in 1964. I read an account by someone who remembered seeing her on the streets of Carmel, wearing a big pink hat, flowing Chinese robes, and paint-splattered tennis shoes. 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.

In 1971, Ralph became ill. There followed a series of visits to the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. He developed a speech impediment and no longer had the energy to perform. On the night before he died in 1974, 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.

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 …”

“François sat in the gallery of the Tantamount Theatre, in Carmel Valley as he sipped brandy and recalled the past.” David Fuess wrote in his 1975 article, Reflections of a Puppeteer. “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 Moliere and the century when puppetry was really considered to be serious theatre and a major source of cultural and cerebral communication … 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.’”

The Tantamount Theater presented its last live theatrical performance in August 1978. It was a student production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s madrigal fable, The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore, a choral work with instrumental interludes, directed by François. The roles of ten dancers, which were previously performed by Ralph and François’ magnificent stick-and-rod puppets, were now played by students from the nearby Hidden Valley Music Summer Seminar.

*                      *                      *

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 dawn, on Thursday, October 5, 1978, a fire burned the Tantamount Theater to the ground – only one wall of the theater and the small adjacent living quarters remained.

It was a local tragedy. Every single one of the nearly 800 hand-made puppets in the theater – the product of four decades of inspired creation and perhaps the greatest collection of its kind in the world – were lost in the blaze. Remarkably, seven of their puppets, including two extremely rare 16th-century Japanese puppets, happened to be next door and survived the fire.

François’ trove of treasured paintings and portraits and the priceless painted screen, were reduced to ashes. He spent a week settling accounts with the insurance agents. With the assistance of an apprentice puppeteer named Brad Clark, François faced the daunting task of sifting through the burned timbers, ashes, and debris. Today, Professor Bradford Clark serves as Curator of Collections for the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s the largest puppetry center in the United States and one of the few puppet museums on the planet.

A month later, 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), directed by François. This show, which originally was scheduled to be performed at the Tantamount Theater, was François’ final puppet performance.

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. 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.

François, now 70-years old, was in failing health. Although it was not discussed, it was apparent that he could no longer participate in the operation of the theater, and that his performing days were over. The local political climate had changed since Ralph and François first built their theater. Valiant efforts were made to rebuild the Tantamount Theater, but it never happened.

Alone in the world and feeling sick, François moved to Monterey Pines, a skilled nursing residence in Monterey. Mark Thompson, a gay man who had volunteered at the Tantamount Theater in his youth, fondly remembered Ralph and François as valued mentors and role models.

“Be true to yourself, the two wise queers of the Tantamount Theatre taught me,” he wrote in his thoughtful memoir Gay Body (1998). The chapter about them is 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.”

Mark 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. It was an engraving of Puck, the mischievous sprite of English folklore, who had also served as the Tantamount’s beckoning emblem. ‘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.

*                      *                      *

François Martin stands before the burned wall of the Tantamount Theater, after the fire (1979).

The newspapers reported that it was determined that the fire at the Tantamount Theater had been started by a mouse chewing the wire of a lamp backstage, causing a short-circuit. This explanation was sufficient for 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 whole collection of 800 puppets – the product of their lifetime’s work – had been carefully inventoried, boxed and crated, and was ready to be shipped that very week to their final destination, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, when the Tantamount Theater burned down. Some say that François started the fire because he couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye to the old friends whose faces he had lovingly painted with his own hands.

*                      *                      *

The Tantamount Theater is just a memory. I’ll never forget the feeling of exhilaration when the lights dimmed, the painted screen 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.

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Categories: Uncategorized.