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Chicago, "Puppeteer" City

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Did the word puppeteer originate in Chicago? The evidence suggests that it did, although it's never easy to close the book on any etymological investigation.

In the July issue of Chicago magazine, Graham Meyer compiled a fascinating list of "The Top 40 Chicago Words -- Our Contributions to the English Language". One word that did not make it onto his list was puppeteer. But by a coincidence, around the same time that this issue of Chicago hit newsstands, I happened to mention the word's local origins in a short piece I wrote for the Chicago Reader's "Best of Chicago" issue ("Best Puppeteer: Michael Montenegro").

Here's a bit more of the background on the origins of the word puppeteer.

The earliest use of the word cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is an April 18, 1915, article in the Chicago Sunday Tribune. In a "News of Society" column, a writer going by the pseudonym "Mme. X" discussed the artistic pursuits of various Chicago society ladies, including a "puppeteer" named Mrs. Seymour Edgerton (that would be Harriet Edgerton, if Mme. X had bothered to include her first name). "Besides having to work the limbs, head, and body in a lifelike way, each puppeteer has to learn the part perfectly," Mme. X wrote. Here is the section of the article discussing Edgerton and her puppets.

Edgerton is not usually credited as the person who coined the word puppeteer, however. The most likely candidate is Ellen Van Volkenburg, the wife of English theatrical entrepreneur Maurice Brown. In 1912, the couple launched the Chicago Little Theatre, a groundbreaking and influential company that performed in a 93-seat room on the fourth floor of the Fine Arts Building. Edgerton was a member of the Little Theatre company, and she worked on its puppet shows with Van Volkenburg.

After the Chicago Little Theatre folded in 1917, Theatre Arts Magazine called the company's five-year run "the most important chapter yet written in the history of the art theatre movement in this country." (I wrote about the history of the Little Theatre in a Playbill article last year. You can read the story here.)

Beyond introducing local audiences to plays on Chicago stages by Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw and August Strindberg, the Little Theatre also presented marionette shows -- a precursor of the puppet theater performed in Chicago today by Redmoon, Theatre Zarko, Blair Thomas & Company and others.

In his 1992 book Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet: Puppetry as a Theatrical Art, Steve Tillis writes that Van Volkenburg coined the word puppeteer. His source is Louise Martin, another member of the Little Theatre troupe.

"The word itself was coined early this century by the founder of the Chicago Little Theatre Marionettes, Ellen Van Volkenburg," Tillis writes. "Louise Martin tells us that 'they did not know what to call the manipulator-actor back in that day,' and that Van Volkenburg, with some misgivings, hit on the word puppeteer following from the term for a mule-driver, a muleteer."

The earliest appearance of the word puppeteer in the New York Times was in the May 23, 1920, article, "Puppeteering as a Fine Art," which covers Van Volkenburg and other puppeteers of the time. (Read the article here.)

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In the November 1920 issue of Theatre magazine, Linda Rose McCabe discussed Van Volkenburg's puppets in the article "The Marionette Revival." "In the Chicago Little Theatre, three years ago, Mrs. Browne gave America its first professional marionette performance," McCabe wrote. "Discarding Old-World models, she constructed, costumed and trained her own marionettes, which have little in common with traditional puppets, for they are neither grotesque nor humorous, being of the exquisite magic of elfland."

Helen Haiman Joseph's 1920 A Book of Marionettes includes an extensive description of Chicago's early puppeteers.

"At first the originators of the Chicago marionettes travelled far into Italy and Germany, seeking models for their project," Joseph writes. "Finally in Solln near Munich they discovered Marie Janssen and her sister, whose delicate and fantastic puppet plays most nearly approached their own ideals. They brought back to Chicago a queer little model purchased in Munich from the man who had made Papa Schmidt's Puppen. But ... the little German puppet seemed graceless under these skies.

"And so, Ellen Van Volkenburg (Mrs. Maurice Browne) and Mrs. Seymour Edgerton proceeded to construct their own marionettes. Miss Katherine Wheeler, a young English sculptor, modelled the faces, each a clear-cut mask to fit the character, but left purposely rough in finish. Miss Wheeler felt that the broken surfaces carried the facial expression farther. The puppets were fourteen inches high, carved in wood. The intricate mechanism devised by Harriet Edgerton rendered the figures extremely pliable. Her mermaids, with their serpentine jointing, displayed an uncanny sinuousness. Miss Lillian Owen was Mistress of the Needle, devising the filmy costumes, and Mrs. Browne with fine technique and keen dramatic sense took upon herself the task of training and inspiring the puppeteers as well as creating the poetic ensemble.

"The Chicago puppets are neither grotesque nor humorous and they have little in common with the puppet of tradition. Theirs is an element of exquisite magical fairy-land, with dainty beings moving about in it, who can express beauty, tragedy and tenderness. Their repertoire consists for the most part of fantasies written or adapted by members of the group."

Their puppet plays included The Deluded Dragon, Columbine, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Little Mermaid and, most ambitious of all, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"I don't think I ever have seen such delicate beauty as was achieved at the end of the Midsummer," Van Volkenburg wrote in a letter (quoted by Joseph). "I say it in all simplicity because I have a curious, Irish feeling that the little dolls took matters into their own hands and for once allowed us a glimpse into their own secret world. The audience, whether of adults or of children, never failed to respond with a sudden hush and the poor, tired girls who had been working in great heat over the colored lights for two hours never failed to get their reward."

Van Volkeburg also described what it took to put on this puppet show: "We rehearsed six hours a day for about seven weeks to prepare the play. Six girls worked the puppets; there were about thirty of them, so you can see how many characters each girl had to create and how many dolls she had to work (my puppeteers spoke for each puppet they handled). ... None who have not worked with puppets can understand the nervous strain of these performances."

When the Little Theatre fell on hard times and folded in 1917, the Chicago Tribune quoted Van Volkenburg saying: "We are going to pack our puppets, our marionettes, and go east."

Of course, it's possible that another document from an earlier time will surface with the word puppeteer. Perhaps Van Volkenburg or the other people at the Little Theatre actually heard the word from somewhere else. But so far, the evidence points to word being coined at the Chicago Little Theatre around 1915.