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Career of master puppeteer Kipniss hangs by a thread



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Updated: November 28, 2013 6:27AM

It does not take long for Ralph Kipniss to answer the door of his modest home near downtown Michigan City, Ind.

He is waiting for an audience. He misses the sound of laughter.

In his right hand he holds a 30-year-old marionette named Harlequin. It is special, unlike the other 300 hand-carved puppets in the home he shares with his friend and assistant Marilyn Giedraitis. Harlequin is a replica of the signature figure of his grandfather’s Royal European Marionette Theater in Russia. His grandfather Jacob Ludgin taught him how to carve puppets when he was 13, living near 18th and Avers in Chicago.

But these 300 marionettes are just part of his treasure. There are 3,000 others, which were recently found in an otherwise empty Wicker Park home. The collection is one of the largest in the country and represents the legacy of a master puppeteer who entertained generations of Chicagoans. Kipniss owned and operated The National Marionette Company of Chicago in Ravenswood until 2005, when his business partner, Lou Ennis, suffered a fatal stroke and the building was destroyed by fire.

The future of those 3,000 marionettes seemed uncertain.

And that is where Joseph R. Lewis came in.

During the summer, a Wicker Park neighbor of Lewis told him about thousands of “strange, wooden dolls” in a vacant Wicker Park house.

Lewis, 30, is co-founder of the Elephant and Worm Educational Theatre Company, whose TV show was nominated for a 2013 Midwest Regional Emmy for Outstanding Achievement for Youth Programming. “When I heard about wooden dolls with strings, I knew it was real special,” Lewis says. “Not only are they hard to come by, there are not many people who even know how to make them.

“Things like this don’t exist anywhere in America on this scale,” Lewis said. “It took decades to accumulate.”

Lisa Stone, curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, says: “This is a remarkable discovery. This collection has great potential to revive the magic of marionette theater and the general wonderment of the genre. Like so many other creative endeavors in this city, it could easily have been lost.”

Lewis spent the last few months trying to gain access to the otherwise empty building.

“I had interest in what was there so I could use it with my theater,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if they were about to hit the Dumpster, which I was uncomfortable with. There were rooms just stuffed with this stuff. It takes over two of the three floors entirely.”

Last month, after talking with the building’s landlord, Lewis succeeded in opening the door to a colorful past.

There are replicas of Aladdin, Santa Claus and characters from Bluebeard. They represent more than 50 shows, from “The Magic Flute” (opera) to “The Wizard of Oz.”

“I’ve made between 3,000 and 4,000 puppets,” Kipniss says during a conversation in his living room. “When you build a puppet, there is an attachment of your soul to that puppet. There’s a mysticism. In the old days they said we were charlatans.”

A velvet curtain falls across his thought.

“I miss the ones in Chicago very much,” he says.

Lewis and his partner Lew Ojeda have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,000 to rescue the marionettes and props, locate temporary storage and then find a permanent Chicago theater space for Kipniss. The campaign runs through Nov. 13.

Lewis said some of the Kickstarter funds will go toward reimbursing the building landlord, Mitch Hutton. “He deserves recompense for the immense cost of storing such a vast collection of precious art,” Lewis said.

“The rescue and preservation of these marvelous marionettes will enlarge and enhance Chicago’s history of theater, performance and inspired making,” says the Art Institute’s Stone.


The young artist has become a lifeline for the master puppeteer.

After his theater closed in 2005, Kipniss lost his way. “By 2008 his health fell out from under him. He had an extended hospital stay. His house got foreclosed on,” Lewis says.

Kipniss moved to Michigan City in the fall of 2008.

“Ralph was in no position to pay the landlord or actually move [the puppets],” Lewis says.

Chicagoans might remember the 55-seat marionette Puppet Parlor Theater that Kipniss ran in the 1980s. During the 1990s, his Country Cavalcade danced through suburban shopping malls. The country cabaret featured 36 country star marionettes in a 30-minute revue. The show was hosted by Cowboy Bill, a hound dog, and Miss Lilly Lou, a sexy poodle.

“We built Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton,” Kipniss says, holding the Parton doll. “A costume has to have something to shape to.” He smiles. Parton personally OK’d the rights to “Sing For the Common Man” for the cavalcade.

Kipniss was able to salvage some puppets. Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and Mary Todd Lincoln hang like icicles from the basement ceiling in Michigan City. There is a 15-piece puppet orchestra that would “play” the overture to shows. A Bill Clinton marionette with frosty white hair was the last puppet Ennis made. His death ended their 37-year partnership. Kipniss still speaks of Ennis in the present tense.

“What separates Ralph from other folks who do marionette theater and puppetry anywhere in America is that he wanted the full immersive theater set up,” Lewis says. “Ultimately, that was why he was unable to sustain it. But he wants to. He is concerned that he would die before he has a chance to set up a place where kids can forever come to see puppets and to teach people to do what he does.”


Kipniss was not a typical South Sider. During his early 20s, he was a ballet dancer with the Lyric Opera. His father Harry was a violin player. Mother Ida was a puppeteer and opera singer who made her own opera and puppet costumes. Kipniss keeps her 1920s Singer sewing machine near his workshop in the basement of his Michigan City home.

“I was called puppet head. People didn’t like people that were a little different than they were.”

Kipniss began his puppet career as a senior in high school while working at the Kungsholm Grand Miniature Opera at Ontario and Michigan in Chicago. He mentored under Burr Tillstrom of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” fame.

“Ralph and I were cut from the same cloth,” says Lewis, who was born in Peoria, Ill., and got a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Emerson College in Boston. “We have love of the imagination. It seemed so fated that it was me that found out about the puppets.”

By talking to friends in the Wicker Park neighborhood, Lewis learned that Pulaski Park Fieldhouse hosted marionette shows in 2008. The Pulaski Park discovery led Lewis to Kipniss through Internet research.

Kipniss did not live in the Wicker Park house with his marionettes. He used the house for storage because of its proximity to the field house. “I got very, very sick in 2008,” he says. “They suspected I had cancer, but I didn’t. After the fieldhouse, [the puppets] were put away. I did not know where they went.”

Lewis says, “He’s tried starting up storefront theaters in Indiana. The audience is not there for that kind of work, and the immensity of putting up a marionette theater is huge. It is way more than a guy in his 70s can handle.”

Lewis is confident the Kickstarter campaign will make its goal. “If we don’t, we will struggle on,” he says. “But Ralph may lose his life’s work forever. To fail would be a tragedy.”

What would Kipniss do if he were able to retrieve his 3,000 marionettes from Chicago?

“I’d hug all of them. I’d be so thankful that my lifetime work wasn’t destroyed or sold.” His voice breaks and he continues, “I’ve played for thousands and thousands of children. I’m possibly going to get them back? I didn’t think anybody cared. My heart feels alive.”

Kipniss turns around and hugs Lewis.

Laughter begins to fill the room.


Twitter: @cstdhoekstra

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