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Bid underway to save puppeteer's legacy

Published: Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013 11:15 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO – An effort is on to preserve thousands of old string-operated puppets recently discovered in an otherwise empty Chicago home.

The collection of more than 3,000 marionettes – one of the largest collections of its kind in the country – is the legacy of puppeteer Ralph Kipniss, 73, who used the wooden figures to entertain generations of children in the city, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

“This is a remarkable discovery,” Lisa Stone, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, said of the find. “This collection has great potential to revive the magic of marionette theater and the general wonderment of the genre.”

A campaign has been launched through the Kickstarter website to raise $25,000 for the effort, the newspaper reported. The goal is get to the puppets into temporary storage and then, eventually, into various theaters permanently.

A co-founder of the Elephant and Worm Educational Theatre Co., Joseph R. Lewis, has played a central role in the discovery of the puppets in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood and in starting the online request for funds.

Over the summer, a Wicker Park neighbor of the 30-year-old Lewis told him about the “strange” objects in the nearby home. When Lewis eventually gained access to the house, he was awed by room after room “just stuffed with this stuff.”

“Not only are they hard to come by, there are not many people who even know how to make them,” he said.

Kipniss does.

In a recent interview at his Michigan City, Ind., home, he told the Sun-Times he has made between 3,000 and 4,000 puppets in all. When he was 13, his grandfather Jacob Ludgin taught him how to carve puppets.

“When you build a puppet, there is an attachment of your soul to that puppet,” Kipniss said.

He owned and ran The National Marionette Co. of Chicago until 2005, when his business partner, Lou Ennis, had a fatal stroke and a fire destroyed the building. A few years later, Kipniss moved to Indiana.

Among the puppets he was forced to abandon and which were recently rediscovered are replicas of Aladdin and characters from Bluebeard. Kipniss salvaged some puppets and has them at his Indiana home, including Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton and Bill Clinton dolls.

If the thousands of puppets stranded in the Chicago house can be salvaged and saved, Kipniss said he’d be grateful.

“I’d be so thankful that my lifetime work wasn’t destroyed or sold,” he said.

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