The Lost Marionettes of Ralph Kipniss

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Ralph Kipniss, 1962 debuting “The Wizard of Oz” in Chicago

MICHIGAN CITY, Ind.—Every time master puppeteer Ralph Kipniss walks into the basement of his Michigan City home he is in a higher ground.

More than 300 of his hand carved marionettes and puppets are stored downstairs.

They are forever young.

The collection is from when Kipniss and his late partner Lou Ennis owned and operated the National Marionette Company of Chicago, 1922 W. Montrose (1982-2005) and the Puppet Parlor (1982-84), 5301 N. Damen.

In 2005 Kipniss lost the marionette company to fire and his business partner to a stroke.

Another 3,000 lost marionettes are stored in an otherwise empty Wicker Park home. Chicago actor-filmmaker Joseph R. Lewis recently discovered the magical puppets. Here is the Kickstarter campaign he started with business partner Lew Ojeda to help save the artwork.

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

You can’t help falling in love with the artwork of Kipniss and Ennis.

An Elvis Presley marionette is hanging from a rod, wrapped in plastic in the Indiana basement. Nearby are Michael Jackson and Ben Franklin. And President Bill Clinton in a dapper blue suit.

Ralph and President Clinton

Clinton was the last marionette Ennis made.

“He worked very very hard,” Kipniss says. “Because he wanted to get the face just right. He sculpted the face.

“I got a call from him and he said he was going to the Albany Park bank. He was going to put in $100,000 to add a performing arts center (on Montrose). He called 15 minutes later and said he fell down and hit his head.”

Ennis had a stroke on April 6, 2005 the day before his 78th birthday. Expansion plans for the theater were abandoned.

Their dreams were hanging by a thread.

“Our money was lost,” Kipniss says. “He was in and our of consciousness. They had to drill three holes in his head to let the blood out.  When they did that he was paralyzed on the left side of his body. I was with him all the time. It was very rough for me, too. They put him in Mercy Hospice. I slept there and ate there. I bathed him.

“We had been together 37 years.”

Lou Ennis in foreground, Ralph Kipniss backstage. (Courtesy of Ralph Kipniss.)

A month after the stroke, an electrical fire destroyed the theater and burned the scenery and many puppets. Kipniss was told not to tell Ennis about the fire.

Ennis kept a marionette of a clown with eyes closed by his bed.

“Lou could only communicate with one hand,” Kipniss says. “I once blurted out about the fire. His hand went down and the puppet’s head went down. One day I said, ‘I gotta get away.’ They called me at 5 the next morning and said he was gone. He died on the 27th of August, 2005.”

Kipniss, 73, keeps on pushing. During a visit earlier this week he is restoring a couple of burlesque marionettes on a dusty work table in the basement. Here is our playful Tuesday field trip:


Kipniss’s grandfather Jacob Ludgin founded the Royal Marionette Theater of Russia. He taught Kipniss how to make his first marionette when he was 13, living on the south side of Chicago. “It was an East Indian dancer,” he says. “He showed me how to carve out of balsa wood. My grandfather gave me a present of a carving set. I still have it. You do little scoops, tiny little edges. You carved into it and you planed it down. You took it from a four by four. First you had to line the eyes up then line the nose up, so you drew that in. And from that piece on you carved. Later it was all sculpting with plastic wood. Then it was rubber. Then back to wood again. Even cloth.”

It takes about three weeks to make a wood marionette. Kipniss says there are 17 individual parts to a marionette.

Ralph and Chicago World’s Fair burlesque dancer Sally Rand (center) with his assistant Nikki (not Shari) Lewis in the mid-1960s

He picks up his 30-year-old marionette Harlequin, which is a replica of the signature figure in his grandfather’s theater company. “There are joints in the legs that move,” he says as Harlequin dances around the floor of his living room.

Kipniss is a shy and gentle man. He looks like former President Obama advisor David Axelrod unplugged. After spending time with him you begin to see how his spirit transfers into his puppets.

“When he’s happy, sometimes he even likes to do a handstand,” and Kipniss flips Harlequin upside down. Kipniss smiles and explains, “Balance and weight make a marionette easy to operate. Here is his torso. Cloth arms because they work better. I think he has hinge joints.”

Kipniss lifts up Harlequin’s costume. “No, he had the old cardboard joints. We redid his legs about 10 years ago with nylon.”

This reminds me I need to schedule a physical.

The marionettes move in sometimes suggestive ways. “I was doing a strip tease artist at the Sabre Room (in south suburban Hickory Hills),” he says. “I was singing (Cole Porter’s) ‘Love for Sale’. Lou had the marionette on stage sitting at the dressing table. He starts taking off her clothes, A woman complained to the management. They called me down to talk to her, I said, ‘Madame, you are in a nightlclub.’ Would you like to see it again?

“We did a burlesque show called Le Petite Follies at our theater and the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. “I fell so in love with it. It was the magic of the puppets, to see these little things. The puppets were 24 to 28 inches tall. And to see these things coming on stage. And seeing these things come alive.

“Oh, it was fantastic.”

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