Harry Burnett, 92; Turnabout Theatre Founder, Puppeteer
Harry Burnett, one of the three legendary Yale Puppeteers and co-founder of their Turnabout Theatre, which was a Hollywood institution for 15 years, has died. He was 92.
Burnett, who had been in failing health for two years, died Thursday at the Orchard Gables retirement home in Hollywood.
The Yale Puppeteers, so the old story goes, started at the University of Michigan in 1920 when Burnett (nicknamed “Woozie” because of his wiry hair) and his surviving cousin and partner, Forman Brown, were students. Burnett started making puppets and marionettes, and the two created plays during their school vacations.
Burnett transferred to Yale--adopting that name--where he recruited a third partner, Richard (Roddy) Brandon, who died in 1985.
The trio toured the country with their growing marionette troupe during the 1920s, driving a truck they dubbed Camille “because she died so beautifully.” Burnett designed the puppets, Brown wrote the satirical songs, Brandon handled the business arrangements, and they all pulled the strings.
In 1929, they settled in Hollywood, performing first in a club in Beachwood Canyon, where their audience included silent film stars Theda Bara and Colleen Moore and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
When Olvera Street was refurbished in 1930, they moved to an 80-seat theater there called El Teatro Torito and charged $1 a ticket.
“We entertained Charles Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore,” Burnett recalled for The Times in 1965. “We presented a special show for Dr. Albert Einstein when he visited the street while teaching at Caltech.”
One reason the trio remained popular with the Hollywood crowd was that many of Burnett’s puppets caricatured stars.
“We did it with tongue in cheek, poking fun at them,” he said, “and they always took it good-naturedly.”
The puppeteers toured in the East for a couple of years and delighted Broadway audiences with such spoofs as “Mister Noah” and “The Pie-Eyed Piper.”
Hollywood beckoned again, this time inviting them to create puppets for the Fox Studio film “I Am Suzanne” and later “Who the Gods Would Destroy.”
On July 10, 1941, the three puppeteers realized their dream of opening their own stage, the Turnabout Theatre, at 716 N. La Cienega Blvd. Equipped with seats from the old Pacific Electric streetcars, the theater presented a marionette play at one end, then invited audiences musically to “turnabout, turnabout” to watch Elsa Lanchester, Burnett and other live performers do vaudeville songs and gags at the other end.
If you were in the first row for the puppet show, you were in the last row for the live theater, “turnabout” being fair play. Instead of numbers, the reversible trolley seats had names, such as “Cream,” “Sugar,” “Fine,” “Dandy,” “Fat,” “Sassy,” “Hot” and “Bothered.”
Actors flocked to the little theater, which never had more than 180 seats, and left their autographs on the walls. Tourists followed, as eager to see the Turnabout Theatre as the La Brea Tar Pits or the movie studios.
It was the first full-time marionette theater in America and one of the handful of live stages operating in Los Angeles during its day.
Times theater critic emeritus Sylvie Drake described the playhouse 30 years after its demise as “a joyous beacon for theater lovers and one of the very few local stages producing mime, puppet shows and original musical theater in that unremarkable stretch of the ‘40s and ‘50s.”
Brown continued as the writer, turning out satiric plays with such titles as “Gullible’s Travels” and “Caesar Julius.” Burnett remained the creator of the puppets, turning out witty likenesses of such topical notables as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, the Marx Brothers, Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes.
Audiences dwindled during the 1950s, however, turned off by lack of parking on La Cienega and turning on their new television sets at home. Closing the theater in 1956, the puppeteers moved briefly to San Francisco and San Diego. They finally returned to Hollywood where all three lived in a big two-story house dubbed Turnabout House and produced occasional shows for friends.
Burnett’s studio behind Turnabout House was always open to students. In 1965, he took over Claremont’s Marionette Theater, where he helped children, senior citizens and the handicapped learn to make puppets.
“Puppetry is infectious,” he told The Times then. “There is so little of the make-believe world left anymore.”
In 1988, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle gave Burnett and Brown its first lifetime achievement awards.
Burnett’s nephew, Dan Bessie, recorded the history of Burnett’s puppets and the trio’s theater in the documentary film “Turnabout.”
In addition to Brown and Bessie, Burnett is survived by six other nieces and nephews.
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