Turnabout: The Story of the Yale Puppeteers

24 May at 9.30pm

Documentary, 60m, 1993
Language: English

Director, script and production: Dan Bessie Editor: Helen Garvy Producer: Shire Films Songs: Forman Brown With: Elsa Lanchester, Forman Brown, Harry Burnett, Lotte Goslar, Odetta and as the marionettes: Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo, Albert Einstein, Martha Graham, Helen Hayes, Adolph Hitler, Hedda Hopper, The Marx Brothers, Benito Mussolini, Eleanor Rosevelt, and a host of others…

After the film, the documentary's director Dan Bessie will answer the questions from the audience.

“I was hooked. No, that's not strong enough. I fell completely in love with the theater, the way it was built, the way it was written, and the grand way in which it was acted… how special were those nights and how dear those performers… If I were to have one wish at this time in my life, it would be to have someone put me in some sort of backward-turn-backward slipsteam device and mail me off to 1946… to sing the magic word ‘Turnabout’ and see my old friends pull strings or hear Elsa… For an evening like that, I think I would pay just about any price… My only regret is that you don’t have my memories…!"

Ray Bradbury, 19th April 1980, foreword - “Small Wonder: the Story of the
Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Theatre”

“It´s about puppets. You may think you won’t like it, but you will”.

Clifton Fadiman

“Turnabout” recalls the life and art of lyricist Forman Brown, puppeteer Harry Burnett, their partner Roddy Brandon, the Yale Puppeteers and of their fabulous Turnabout Theater, a world famous Hollywood institution between 1941 and 1956.

More than a documentary about three gay men and their 50 year career as entertainers, “Turnabout” is a celebration of diversity and doing your own thing during a time when most gays were still in the closet.

They are entertainers, 92 years old, and gay. Turnabout is the warm, loving and remarkable story of Harry Burnett, Forman Brown, and Brown’s lover Roddy Brandon, who barnstormed America for 70 years with their unique puppets and satirical songs. This wonderfully nostalgic film journeys back to their Hollywood cabaret theater, where their puppets and stars like Elsa Lanchester and Odetta entertained everyone from Greta Garbo to Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein and Bette Davis. Turnabout also reveals Forman Brown as the author of one of America's first serious gay novels, Better Angel (written under the pseudonym of Richard Meeker). An award-winning documentary combining meticulous research, frank interviews and lively songs, Turnabout is a joyful, entertaining hour for anyone interested in puppetry, theater, relationships, or little known aspects of the gay experience. Of special interest to teachers, puppeteers, university students, anyone in the arts.


“Growing up with the homophobic jokes so prevalent during my youth, I also came to learn, from my mother, that her brother Harry and his partners Forman and Roddy were gay. Mostly confined to a nether-world of sniggers, innuendo and sometimes outright hostility, they were, for the most part, tolerated because they were entertainers. Entertainers were, of course, "sensitive," and "artistic." So being gay was "OK." And something that was hardly ever talked about. Frankly, I hated that situation, and had always looked forward to a day when I might help rectify it.
As I got to know my uncle Harry and his partners better during my middle years, and as I learned more about their personal lives and their background as puppeteers, I recognized a unique opportunity the possibility of showcasing these remarkable men. Not simply as members of my family. Not simply because I liked and admired them. But because of the enormously valuable contribution they had made to America's cultural life, and as outstanding examples of what "family" can mean. For the loyalty and togetherness Harry, Roddy, and Forman exhibited, both as entertainers and as individuals, serves as one more link in the long struggle we have to recognize the deep humanity and immense possibilities inherent in every human being. Turnabout is my effort to help bring that day close”

Dan Bessie - Director

"A heartwarming tale...”
San Francisco Examiner

"...a charming slice of American theater life...”

Dan Bessie belongs to a very charismatic American family. His father, Alvah Bessie, was a blacklisted member of the Hollywood Ten; his uncle was Leo Burnett, the brains behind “Tony the Tiger” and the “Marlboro Man”; a trio of gay puppeteers; the world’s leading birdwatcher; sixties hippies; a Dutch stowaway who served in an all-black regiment during the American Civil War, a mother of unusual compassion and understanding, and a convicted murderer… and these are only same examples.. beyond this documentary, he wrote the acclaimed book “Rare Birds” about the memories of his family.

Dan Bessie began his career in 1956 in animation at MGM studios, working on “Tom & Jerry”. Later staff and freelance assignments saw him contributing to TV cartoon series such as "Spiderman", "Lineus the Lionhearted" and "Mr. McGoo". Moving on to educational films, he wrote, produced and, or, directed more than 125 titles, including several award winners. In 1973 he co-produced "Executive Action" (starring Burt Lancaster), a dramatic feature dealing with the assassination of JFK. From 1979 until 1995 he was a partner in Shire Films of Santa Cruz, California, wrting and directing the feature "Hard Traveling" (New World Pictures, 1986), and "Turnabout: The Story of the Yale Puppeteers" (PBS, 1993), along with "Peter and the Wolf", "The Ugly Duckling" and "Beware the Jabberwock (all starring Ray Bolger), which appeared on CBS, HBO, Showtime and the Disney Channel. After 40 years as a writer, producer and director of both live and animated films – including prestigious award winners – his first book, the family memoir Rare Birds, critically acclaimed by The NY Times, Publishers Weekly, etc., was published by the University Press of Kentucky. After teaching screenwriting and creative writing in California for 20 years, he authored his film career memoir, “Reeling Through Hollywood” (Blue Lupin Press), detailing is 40 years in film. Now living in France, with his wife Jeanne Johnson, also a writer, he continues to write, and to edit and illustrate books for others.

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