Children’s Fairyland is home to the longest continuously operating puppet theater in America. Naturally, we have a lot of stories—and not just the ones we offer onstage. Here’s one about our current production, “The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep.”

The play, adapted from a Hans Christian Andersen story, was written by Forman Brown, one of the founders of the Turnabout Theatre in Los Angeles, which existed from 1941 to 1956. The Turnabout got its name from its unusual configuration: Equipped with old streetcar seats, it presented a marionette play at one end and during intermission invited audiences to turn the seats around and watch other live performances of vaudeville songs and gags at the other end. Adjacent seats were labeled with humorous names like “Hot ‘n Bothered” and “Salt ‘n Pepper.” Shows regularly sold out, and audiences included Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairbanks and even Albert Einstein. Hollywood celebrities signed their autographs on the wall.

The theater was created by a group called the Yale Puppeteers, made up of Brown, Harry Burnett (Brown’s cousin and the troupe’s marionette maker ) and Richard (Roddy) Brandon. It was the first full-time marionette theater in America and one of a handful of live stages in Los Angeles at the time.

Brown wrote all the songs and sketches for the troupe’s productions. (Years after the theater closed, Bette Midler sang one of Forman’s songs, “Mrs. Pettibone,” at a Los Angeles AIDS benefit.) Regular performers included Elsa Lanchester (famous for her roles in “Bride of Frankenstein,” Disney’s “Mary Poppins” and other movies) and Odetta (American singer, actress, guitarist, songwriter, civil rights activist and major influence on Harry Belafonte and Bob Dylan).

In addition to being one of the world leaders in puppet theater, Brown also wrote, under the pseudonym Richard Meeker, a 1933 novel called “Better Angels” about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality. This novel is regarded as the first American novel to present the gay experience in a healthy light.

 “The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep,” with original music by Forman Brown, is currently running at Children’s Fairyland’s puppet theater.

“The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep,” with original music by Forman Brown, is currently running at Children’s Fairyland’s puppet theater.

So how did Brown’s puppet show end up at Fairyland? Lewis Mahlmann, our puppet master for decades, was a friend of Brown’s, and he adapted two other Brown shows, “Thumbelina” and “The Mermaid,” for us. (Brown’s versions were intended for adult audiences.) Lewis kept Brown’s music, which is prominently featured. In our current production, two songs—a waltz and a love song—are high points in the production, and the piano playing you hear is that of Forman Brown himself, recorded in Los Angeles. When we premiered the show in 1983, Brown told us he was delighted that it was being performed at Fairyland.

In 1988, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle gave Burnett and Brown its first lifetime achievement awards. Many other awards were presented to them, including a certificate of commendation from the City of Los Angeles “for all the happiness they’ve brought Los Angeles.”

The Turnabout Theatre closed in 1956 after 4,535 performances, a victim of the growing preference for television. Brandon died in 1985, Burnett in 1993. Forman Brown died in 1996 of heart failure.

One of the theater’s biggest fans was science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who wrote: “If I were to have one wish at this time in my life, it would be to have someone put me in some sort of backward-turn-backward slipstream device and mail me off to 1946…to sing the magic word ‘Turnabout’ and see my old friends pull strings or hear Elsa.… For an evening like that, I think I would pay just about any price.”

Last week, when “The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep” opened at Fairyland, we asked a little girl what she thought of the show. Her answer was wordless: She grabbed a friend and started waltzing, clearly inspired by Brown’s music.

Forman Brown’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times included this quote from him: “Puppetry is infectious. There is so little of the make-believe world left anymore.”

Brown’s spirit lives on at Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, where his show continues through the holiday season.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. See our guidelines.

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