Serendipity is defined as the act of finding something valuable or delightful when you are not looking for it. Last week I heard the story of a serendipitous event that shaped Children’s Fairyland—and inspired millions of children and adults.

The story was told at a beautiful memorial event at the park to honor the life of Lewis Roy Mahlmann, who for over 40 years was responsible for bringing literature and art to life through his remarkable puppet shows at Fairyland’s Storybook Puppet Theater. A crowd of more than 100 ­­­people aged 9 to 90 were there to celebrate Lewis and the magic of puppetry.

Born and raised in Chicago, Lewis settled in the San Francisco Bay Area after a stint in the Navy. He was already an accomplished singer, dancer and actor when, in the early 1950s, he wandered into a hobby shop off Union Square in San Francisco. There he found a book called Marionettes: A Hobby for Everyone.

Written in 1948 by Mabel and Les Beaton, it is known by puppeteers as “The Beaton Bible;” its followers in the 1950s and 1960s were called “Beaton babies.” The book is not a philosophical discussion of the art form, as previous puppet books were, but a very structured “how-to” that covers the whole spectrum of the art: from making papier-mache heads and moveable mouths to creating costume patterns; from planning the theater and lighting to staging underwater scenes and even making props look authentic. The book was apparently a revelation to Lewis, who lifted the one script in the book—“Beauty and the Beast”—to launch his remarkable career.

Lewis pulled together his artistic friends, who named their group the Lilliputian Players, and presented the show in 1952 in Marin County at a festival that raised money for underprivileged children. Lewis built the marionettes and the sets, directed the show, and provided the voices of the beast and the prince. There were six performances; the puppets are no longer in existence.  Lewis was not paid for the performances, but he was rewarded nonetheless: He’d found his future in an art form that has been around since the dawn of civilization.

Lewis’ predecessor at Fairyland’s puppet theater, from 1958 through 1961, was Tony Urbano, himself a “Beaton baby” who went on to create fantastic puppets for the “Men in Black” movies and other commercial productions. It was Tony who took on a young apprentice named Frank Oznowicz. As Frank Oz, the able student went on to work with Jim Henson’s Muppets (where his characters included Miss Piggy) and with filmmaker George Lucas (Oz created and voiced Yoda for the Star Wars movies).

In 1967, Lewis came to Children’s Fairyland as its master puppeteer. He traveled the world in search of puppet tales he could bring home to the park. He was a charter member of the San Francisco Bay Area Puppet Guild and twice president of the Puppeteers of America. Not long before he died, our beloved puppet master of 45 years was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the Oakland Heritage Alliance for his commitment to preserving the art, craft and performance of puppetry.

Lewis eventually created his own version of “Beauty and the Beast,” drawing heavily on the 1946 film by Jean Cocteau and using classical-music accompaniment. The production was performed five times at Fairyland, to great acclaim. We still have the original audio—with Lewis again playing the prince and the beast—and we’ll continue to revive it.

The “Beaton Bible” was out of print for years, but the Puppeteers of America reprinted it about 10 years ago as The Complete Book of Marionettes. The original book ends with this:

“We are, day by day, becoming more aware of the marionette history that is being made all around us … in schools, in hospitals, in children’s playrooms, in summer camps, in department stores, at fairs, night clubs, and theaters. From the fumbling efforts of the kindergarten pupil to the slick, sophisticated patter of the night-club puppeteer, they are all contributing bit by bit to the chapter on marionettes that will be entitled ‘America.’”

The “Beaton Bible” was published two years before America’s first storybook theme park—Fairyland—opened, so you can’t fault the authors for leaving out “storybook theme parks” as a key venue for puppetry.

Little would they know that their book would inspire the person responsible for keeping the country’s longest continuously running puppet theater alive and thriving.

At the end of Lewis’s memorial ceremony, there was a procession to the Puppet Theater, and lighted candles were placed on the seats where millions of children and grown-ups have enjoyed shows over the decades.

Lewis’s beautiful spirit—as well as the spirit behind the little red book—lives on in a little place called Fairyland.

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