×

Turnabout: The Story of the Yale Puppeteers

Reviewed on vidcassette, May 5, 1993. (In San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Intl. Film Festival.) Running time: 60 min.

Reviewed on vidcassette, May 5, 1993. (In San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Intl. Film Festival.) Running time: 60 min.

With: Harry Burnett and His Marionnettes, Forman Brown, Elsa Lanchester, Lotte Goslar, Odetta, Dorothy Neumann.

Turnabout” is a charming slice of antiquated American theater life. Beyond some possible fest plays, its natural shelf life lies in educational/nostalgia broadcast programming.

Filmmaker Dan Bessie chronicles the life and times of his uncle Harry Burnett , cousin Forman Brown, and Brown’s lifelong partner Roddy Brandon (who died before shooting began).

The trio toured and performed for some 70 years as the Yale Puppeteers, crafting marionettes gently parodying celebrities of the time — everyone from Harold Lloyd & Aimee Semple MacPherson to Hitler, FDR and Albert Einstein, who pronounced his likeness “Good, but not fat enough.”

Called to Hollywood for a film gig, the trio ran their Turnabout Theater there from 1941 to 1956. Elsa Lanchester was a co-headliner for several years, and folksinger Odetta got her start under Burnett’s wing.

The surviving 92-year-olds Burnett and Brown (who plays several of his charmingly antique revue tunes) are gentlemanly company.

Director Bessie is clearly interested in their history as gay men. But having “come out” only in their old age, the twosome are rather reticent about their private lives. (Brown, however, in 1933 wrote a pseudonymous gay novel, which has recently been republished.)

This mix of celebrity anecdotes and archival photos/footage reveals a nearly forgotten corner of the showbiz world that’s quite disarming. Tech quality is up to PBS-worthy grade, which is just where it needs to be.

Turnabout: The Story of the Yale Puppeteers

(Docu -- 16m -- Color/B&W)

  • Production: A Shire Films production. Produced, directed, written by Dan Bessie.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W, 16mm), Matt Burgess, Victor Nelli, Robb LaRussa, Edvardas Yurchis; editing, Helen Garvy; sound, Susumu Tokunow, Richard Strickland; songs, Forman Brown.
  • With:
  • Music By: