National Art Treasure Discovered in Otherwise Empty Chicago Building

COLLECTION OF THOUSANDS OF MARIONETTES found after being abandoned for over 5 years

By ‘Legendary’ Lew Ojeda

During the summer of 2013,  award-winning local producer/director Joseph R. Lewis made a discovery significant to art history.   A neighbor of his had mentioned some old boxes filled with “dolls” housed in a dilapidated building.

Ralph Kipniss

Ralph Kipniss

What he found were several rooms overflowing with a variety of free-standing hand-painted scenery, staging equipment, props, and a considerable number of antique wooden chests. Stuffed inside the chests were, in fact, not dolls but finely detailed, elaborately costumed, exquisitely hand-carved marionettes. With his team at The Underground Multiplex, he decided to pursue the mystery of these marionettes.

Whatever Happened to Geppetto?

The search eventually led to Ralph Kipniss, the company founder and master puppeteer whose story is fascinating and tragic. Kipniss is the

Ralph Kipniss (l) and Lou Ennis (r) were partners for over 30 years

Ralph Kipniss (l) and Lou Ennis (r) were partners for over 30 years

last surviving member of a family of puppeteers stretching back to Czarist Russia.  His career spans a half-century, influenced by legendary puppetry masters Burr Tillstrom and Tony Sarg.  While still in high school, Ralph was working at Chicago’s historic Kungsholm Grand Miniature Opera.

Ralph met Lou Ennis in 1968 and formed their own marionette theater company. During his heyday, Kipniss and the marionettes appeared on the road with such show business legends as Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante, Jim Nabors, The Mandrell Sisters and Dolly Parton. His artistry was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles.

Despite the billing with show business legends, the cost of maintaining a travelling marionette theater was immense. Imagine The Warner Brothers Studios deciding to gather all lighting, equipment, sets, cast, crew and take it on the road for 30 different stops yearly, and you’ll get

Ralph Kipniss with marionettes (Attribution: Daily Herald)

Ralph Kipniss with marionettes (Attribution: Daily Herald)

an idea of the scope of this task. Kipniss and Ennis had to pull in ticket sales of $20,000-$30,000 weekly to stay in the black. The financial stress, made worse by the lack of adequate government arts funding, eventually forced the pair to end the massive touring and open a theater on Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood.

With their new theater–dubbed The Puppet Parlor–came more issues: the leap in technology of computers further pushed the false notion of marionettes as an “antiquated” art form meant only for small children. The rift between marionette puppetry and all subsequent forms of multimedia seemed to widen.   In addition, the value of arts education in America plummeted.   Despite mounting pressures, Ralph and Lou were determined to keep entertaining audiences.

 The Tragedies

They trekked on until 2005 when a series of tragedies struck. In April, Lou fell and suffered a stroke. Ralph was by his bedside constantly, but still had to conduct his marionette shows. While shaken from his

Damage from The Puppet Parlor Theatre fire

Damage from The Puppet Parlor Theatre fire

partner’s dire illness, Ralph received word one night that The Puppet Parlor was on fire. The theater, along with many puppets, scenery and backdrops, was fatally damaged by smoke and water. A month later, Lou died.

Heart-broken and bankrupt, Ralph was forced to abandon the remainder of his life’s work— a collection including thousands of hand carved wooden marionettes made over his fifty year career with his partner Lou—in an otherwise empty building in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.

Where it stands now

We’re committed to having Ralph Kipniss regain possession of his life’s work. He’s eager to delight audiences once again with the masterpieces he’s created over a span of 50 years.  The Underground Multiplex willRalphKipnissLater continue to monitor the progress providing more on the life of this Chicago genius, the apprenticeship training, the vital importance  of marionette puppetry and the fight for greater funding of the arts.

If you’d like to contribute to our Kickstarter campaign to rescue the Lost Marionettes of Ralph Kipniss, click here or the Kickstarter link above. Please be sure to share this story with everyone you know. No creative genius should ever be without his life’s work.  Thank you!

3 responses to “National Art Treasure Discovered in Otherwise Empty Chicago Building

  1. Pingback: Weekly Puppetry News Round-Up: Billion Dollar Edition | PuppetVision Blog

  2. Pingback: Chicago’s Dave Hoekstra Nominated for Prestigious Journalism Award for Covering Story First Presented by TUGM | The Underground Multiplex

  3. there are a few details left out of or article. Ralph Kipniss was on his way to the Wheaton Grande Theatre the night of the fire. He had made a deal with a friend to store some of his marionettes in the basement of his home. The friend end up dying and now you have the details prior to your article. The Puppet Parlour moved from Chicago to DesPlaines with the help of members from Hesperia Masonic Lodge. Many times Ralph would hold payment to performers claiming a check needed to clear first. Only problem was that after it cleared he would forget to pay employees. And mistaking take a friend out to lunch at a restaurant. Struggling with the landlord in Desplaines. Ralph was moved from the upstairs theatre to a storefront. And from there was expected to produce shows. He then later moved from Chicago and is currently living in Michigan City, Ind.

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