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Famous Unrelated (as far as we know) Burnetts

Compiled by E. Sue Terhune
(est3739@comcast.net)

 

HARRY BURNETT

World Famous Puppeteer

The story of the Yale Puppeteers is told in Forman Brown's book Punch's Progress (1936). This partnership began in 1923 at the University of Michigan, continuing at Yale University.  In 1932 the company performed for a brief season in their own puppet theatre in Manhattan's east forties. In 1933 they did a puppet sequence in the film "I Am Suzanne". In 1936-1938 they performed in repertory at the Barbizon-Plaza Hotel and the Cosmopolitan Club in New York. On July 10, 1941, they opened their permanent Turnabout Theatre in Los Angeles, where their marionettes performed satirical adult musicals until 1960. The Turnabout Theatre featured a marionette stage at one end and a live stage at the other. The seats were salvaged from old street cars. During the intermission following the marionette performance, the seatbacks were flipped for the audience to watch the live review at the other end. Forman Brown was the writer for the company and Harry Burnett the designer. In the nineteen twenties their theatre on Olvera Street in Los Angeles, attracted stars such as Greta Garbo, Marie Dressler, Douglas Fairbanks, and even Albert Einstein. The building where the theatre was located still stands and is now an antique store. The celebrity wall where Hollywood stars and other notables signed their names, apparently is still there covered over by drywall.


Harry Burnett, Forman Brown, and Richard Brandon (lt. to rt.)

Inspiration for the Turnabout Theater  goes back to Harry Burnett's days at the University of Michigan in the twenties when he discovered puppet theater. This he developed more fully as a graduate student at Yale University. Soon he, Brandon and Brown were touring the country with their puppet troupe and became known as The Yale Puppeteers. Landing in Los Angeles in 1929, the trio helped open Olvera Street with their Teatro Torito. Moving on to New York theater and additional touring, the puppeteers returned to Los Angeles in 1941 to open Turnabout  Theatre at 716 North La Cienega Boulevard. Following its close in 1956 they performed briefly in San Francisco and San Diego and then retired to Turnabout House, their Hollywood residence. From  this base they remained active for many years in various projects and gave performances for their friends.
 

Turnabout Theater
Harry Burnett and is puppets

Burnett frequently designed portrait puppets for leading actors and other public figures, who would then visit the theater with their friends to see themselves in marionette form.
 

Gary Cooper with Burnett's Puppet
Turnabout Theater - Elsa Lanchester

From 1941 to 1951, Elsa Lanchester, whose character creations delighted Los Angeles audiences  for ten years, performed a sort of music hall/cabaret act as part of the show at the Turnabout Theater in Hollywood. Songs written for her by Forman Brown include "Catalogue Woman", "It's Nice to See You're Back" and "When a Lady Has a Piazza".  For a number of years the Turnabouters also produced "Tommy Turnabout's Circus", a program for children, first at Farmers Market and later at Turnabout Theatre.

Many awards were presented to them, including a giant telegram on their 50th anniversary by the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry and a Certificate of Commendation by the City of Los Angeles "For all the happiness they've brought Los Angeles". Both Harry Burnett and Forman Brown are alive in their 90's.

SOURCES:

Turnabout Theater Virtual Tour:  http://dbase1.lapl.org/turnabout/default.htm
A Remembrance of Forman Brown by Larry Smith:  http://www.sagecraft.com/puppetry/bios/FormanBrown.html

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