Ralph Chesse C0224
Published by George Mason University Libraries
Ralph Chesse was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on January 6, 1900. He attended schools in New Orleans and Chicago including the Chicago Art Institute, but was primarily a self-taught painter. In 1924 he traveled to San Francisco where he met the puppeteer Blanding Sloan. It was after this meeting that Chesse began working as a puppeteer. In 1929 he opened his first puppet theatre, The Marionette Guild on Merchant Street. In 1934 Chesse was selected, with a mural design titled "Playground," as one of 26 artists by the Works Progress Administration to paint a wall fresco inside of Coit Tower. During this same year The Marionette Guild had to close due to lack of funds.
Chesse joined the Federal Theatre project in 1936 as Director of the Puppetry Unit. There he oversaw a crew of 17 people. Their first production was The Crock of Gold in 1936. Other early productions included The Mikado, Alice in Wonderland, A Marionette Variety Show, and Emperor Jones.
The Federal Theatre Project was a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided employment for large numbers of artists, writers, and performers during the Great Depression (1929-1939). The Federal Theatre began in 1935 and, until its end in 1939, flourished as the first and only federally sponsored and subsidized theater program in the United States. Directed by Hallie Flanagan (1880-1969), it was a way for theatrical professionals to gain employment during the Depression. Jobs were provided for many people, including actors, playwrights, scene designers, scene builders, seamstresses, lighting experts, ushers, box-office men, and stagehands.
In 1937 Chesse moved to Los Angeles to take over as State Director for California. This was a larger unit employing 50 people. He remained in Los Angeles until 1939 though was still in communication with activities in San Francisco. In Los Angeles productions included Rip Van Winkle, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and a Variety Show. On June 30th 1939 the puppetry unit received notice that the Federal Theatre Project had been terminated. Also in 1939 Chesse brought marionettes to the World's Fair held in San Francisco.
After work finished with the FTP Chesse moved his family back to San Francisco and had a long and successful career that included various jobs. At different points in his life Chesse made a living by teaching puppetry for adult education classes at San Francisco State College, producing a children's television program called The Wonderful World of Brother Buzz, making puppets for TV, theatre, and opera, and acting in plays and films. In 1984 he moved to Ashland, Oregon where he was an avid painter up until his death in 1991. He died of heart failure.
The Chesse papers contain materials such as photographs, watercolor set and costume design sketches, playscripts, and programs relating to Federal Theatre Project marionette productions in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some of these plays are Child of God, Crock of Gold, The Emperor Jones, Hansel and Gretel, Marionette Varieties, Rip Van Winkle, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night. The papers also include magazine articles from the 1970s that highlight Chesse's mural painting at the Coit Tower in San Francisco.
Organized alphabetically by title. Oversize materials are separated physically but integrated intellectually in this finding aid.
There are no access restrictions.
There are no restrictions on personal use. Permission to publish material from the Ralph Chesse papers must be obtained from the Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
The Works Progress Administration oral histories collection, the Federal Theatre Project collection, the Federal Theatre Project photograph collection, as well as numerous other personal papers.
Federal Theatre Project (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Federal Theatre Project (San Francisco, Calif.)
Federal Theatre Project (U.S.)
New Deal, 1933-1939.
Digitized photographs from this collection can be found in the Federal Theatre Project collection.
Ralph Chesse papers, C0224, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
Donated to Special Collections Research Center by Ralph Chesse on July 8, 1977; July 24, 1980; May 18, 1981.
Processed and EAD completed by Greta Kuriger Suiter in September 2012.