A Remembrance of Forman Brown
by Larry Smith
In the mail this week I received the news Forman Brown had passed away on January 10. As one of the members of the Turnabout Theatre and before that the Yale Puppeteers, Forman made a formidable contribution to puppetry in America.
The Turnabout Theatre was founded in 1941 in Hollywood and ran until 1956. Created by the Yale puppeteers, Harry Burnett, Forman Brown, and Richard Brandon, as a vehicle for performing both puppet plays and revues for adults, the theatre quickly became a favourite among the glittering Hollywood set of the forties and fifties. The theatre was unique in that it had two stages, one on each end of the auditorium. The three cohorts installed old reversible trolley seats in the theatre. So after the puppet shows were presented, people were requested to reverse their seats in preparation for the second part of the evening, the Turnabout revue; therefore those who had front seats for the puppet show sat in the back for the revue and vice versa.
The Yale puppeteers already had an established following. In the nineteen twenties they had opened a theatre on Olvera Street in Los Angeles, which attracted stars such as Greta Garbo, Marie Dressler, Douglas Fairbanks, and even Albert Einstein. In opening their new theatre, many of the old patrons continued their love affair with this unique entertainment. When Elsa Lanchester joined the troupe on a permanent basis, the theatre attracted even more celebrities. As a record of the individuals who visited, one wall of the theatre was dedicated to autographs.
The songs and the sketches were all written by Forman Brown. Every week there would be something new to try, and a new show was always in the works. Forman penned over 50 songs for Elsa Lanchester alone, written for her unique style and acting ability. He was busy writing other material also. Forman broke ground with a novel entitled BETTER ANGEL, about a young man dealing with his homosexuality. The novel, written under the pseudonym Richard Meeker in 1933, is now considered the first American novel to present the "gay" experience in a healthy light. He also wrote material with Fredrick Hollander and Rudolph Friml. But it was with Turnabout where he developed the great majority of his material. With clever lyrics, catchy tunes and double entendres galore, audiences were treated regularly to his unique brand of humour.
The Yale puppeteers thrived for 15 years in the Turnabout Theatre on La Cienega until television and lack of parking forced them to close. 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. Recently however a documentary film about the theatre has generated new interest in Forman's material and the Turnabout Theatre. Bette Midler sang MRS. PETTIBONE, one of Forman's most requested numbers, at an AIDS benefit in L.A. recently, Andrea Marcovicchi uses his material in her cabaret act and Michael Feinstein regularly visited Forman to go through material.
A few years ago,I had the pleasure of spending a weekend with Forman Brown in what was called the Turnabout House. I flew down hoping to be able to create a theatre piece based on the his material.The first thing which impressed me was Forman's generousity of time. He dedicated the entire weekend to helping me sort through the scads of material. Though he was 93 at the time, he remembered every song he wrote, every incident at the Turnabout and entertained me for hours with anecdotes of Elsa and Charles, his friend Harry and his long time partner in life Richard Brandon. I asked if he had ever written a love song for Richard. He replied the closest he came was the following song; an appropriate lyric to remember Forman.
"If I have lost my golden ring
I do my best to trace it,
Knowing if it's not found again
I always can replace it.
If in the dark I have lost my way
I go back where I started,
Knowing I'll find it once again
Back where the roadways parted.
But if somehow I have lost my love,
And don't know how or when,
I only know that, high and low,
I must seek till it's found again.
There's many a golden ring to buy,
And many a road to choose:
I may lose my ring, or lose my way,
But love I must never lose;
No, love I must never lose!"