Puppeteer Ralph Kipniss loves the “Pinocchio” story.
He’s performed it a thousand times, by his estimate. But at age 67 and down on his luck, he knows he’ll need to do more than wish upon a star if he hopes to keep his dream alive.
Kipniss says he needs at least $10,000 to reopen his Des Plaines-based National Marionette Company of Chicago, where he has staged elaborate puppet shows such as “Snow White,” “Aladdin” and that enchanting story about the little puppet whose nose grows whenever he tells a lie.
“I’ve invested every penny I can in this business,” he said. “We have to get some financial support. We have no money to work anymore.”
Kipniss says he can’t afford the $1,200 monthly rent and other expenses to operate his Puppet Parlor Theatre. It would be a real loss if it closes for good, said Marillyn Giedraitis, 62, who has performed with Kipniss and helped stage his shows.
“What upsets me is that this man is a Chicago treasure,” she said. “He’s an icon. There aren’t that many people who know how to do this.”
Kipniss moved to Des Plaines after an electrical fire in 2005 destroyed the original 75-seat parlor in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, his home for 17 years.
While he had a loyal following in the city, his puppet acts have struggled to find a new audience. He closed the theater in August after staging about 50 shows in two years and recently canceled performances of “Wizard of Oz” because he says he couldn’t afford $1,000 to rent scaffolding.
Kipniss says he has sought financial help from banks, local businesses and even the city of Des Plaines — so far without success. He also approached the Des Plaines Arts Council, but with a modest annual budget, the group says there was little it could do.
“He’s excellent and we’re pleased that Ralph moved to Des Plaines,” said Donna Catlett, the council’s treasurer and former president. “But we don’t have a big enough budget to fund any of our members.”
Des Plaines Ald. Laura Murphy said not that many people know about the theater.
“It’s just so unfortunate that they didn’t make themselves known sooner,” she said.
The ebbing of his artistic fortunes isn’t how Kipniss imagined he would lower the curtain on a puppetry career spanning nearly four decades.
Kipniss, who lives in Chicago’s Forest Glen neighborhood in a home he shares with two dogs and six cats, estimates he has staged at least 20,000 puppet shows, more than 1,000 of which have been at Chicago-area schools and park districts. In the 1970s and ’80s, he and his business partner Lou Ennis performed throughout the U.S. and up to six times a week in Chicago.
Their repertoire featured more than 50 programs with 4,000 costumed marionettes, each about 30 inches tall, that they sculpted from blocks of wood.
“If nothing else, Ralph, in a quiet sort of way, is passionate about marionettes,” said Dennis Wolkowicz, manager of Chicago’s Portage Theater, where Kipniss performed in April. “The audience liked it. I think everybody was surprised how you can really buy into these things.”
Ennis suffered a stroke around the time of the fire and died later in 2005. Kipniss says neither he nor the business has been the same since.
Ideally, Kipniss says he would like to lease a large enough space to hold a theater and a workshop where he could design new puppets and mentor those interested in learning the centuries-old craft.
Kipniss learned about puppetry from his grandfather and parents, Russian immigrants who staged puppet shows to earn money.
As a boy, he practiced with a marionette in front of a full length mirror. It took more than a decade, he said, to effectively control his hand-painted creations.
He doubts there are many children today willing to devote that kind of time to puppetry. And yet he holds out hope, just as Geppetto did that everything will turn out OK.
Without a star in sight, he said, “It has to.”
After digging around I found some contact information- if you have a few dollars please give and help save Ralph and his puppets.
Puppet Parlor Theatre
0 Des Plaines Masonic Center