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‘Life on a String’ Los Angeles Public Library’s signature legacy collection

The story of the Yale Puppeteers and their Turnabout Theatre was quintessentially a part of LA’s story, its people, and its legacy

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The Turnabout Theatre in 1942 from the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library

LOS ANGELES – The voice was almost giddy, “they kept everything!” That ‘everything’ is the Los Angeles Public Library’s famed ‘Yale Puppeteers and Turnabout Theatre collection’ and the voice belonged to the library’s Christina Rice, senior librarian for its amazing photo collections. The story of the Yale Puppeteers and The Turnabout Theatre covers nearly 70 years of a unique personal and professional relationship and the incredible 15 year tenure of a landmark LA theatre.

Driving by 716 North La Cienega Boulevard in today’s modern day West Hollywood, one would hardly notice the non-descript off white building with a black iron gate in the centre leading to an inner courtyard.

Handmade model of The Turnabout Theatre from the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library

But from 1941 until 1956, the Hollywood elite, dignitaries from every field of endeavor as well as the general public would flow through that gate after stepping out of limousines, taxi cabs, and private cars into that inner courtyard.

They were congregating to attend a unique theatrical performance comprised of magical puppeteering on one stage after which there was an intermission where they’d make their way back into the courtyard for refreshments and then they would return. However, they would flip the seatbacks of repurposed former streetcar seats to face the second stage at the opposite end of the theatre for a musical revue and hence the reason for the venue’s unique name- The Turnabout Theatre.

From the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library

The theatre and its three founders alongside a cast and crew which considered themselves family, won international acclaim with their beloved productions, music, comedy, and atmosphere created in that very special venue.

The story though had its beginnings in the 1920’s when Harry Burnett and Forman Brown, Brandon would form an enduring partnership in college, first at the University of Michigan and then later at Yale University where the duo were joined Richard ‘Roddy’ and the moniker of ‘The Yale Puppeteers’ was born.

In an interview with the Blade, John F. Szabo, City Librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library remarked that the story of the Yale Puppeteers and their Turnabout Theatre was quintessentially a part of LA’s story, its people, and its legacy. “The collection reflects LA’s place central to entertainment and film, it marks the history in the city that was hidden or not known- but it also is very much a part of LA’s LGBTQ history and legacy,” Szabo said.

Forman Brown and Richard ‘Roddy’ Brandon were lovers and partners during a time when being openly gay simply wasn’t possible and in fact exposure could have serious ramifications including imprisonment as homosexuality was illegal. It wasn’t that the three men necessarily hid their orientation, it was more that knowledge of it was not generally known outside of certain circles of those who knew them well. Harry Burnett was himself also gay.

That legacy Szabo felt is the essence of LA and is a valued part of the library’s ongoing efforts to share with the public in the current exhibition ‘Life on a string, the Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Theatre’ currently housed at the Central Library, Getty Gallery.

Szabo said that he is thrilled with the hard work that Christina Rice, senior librarian the photo collection and her staff were able to execute in the creation of the exhibition curating an impressive array of artifacts that tell the story.

The library acquired the collection in 1998, two years after the death of Forman Brown, when the executor of his estate and longtime friend Michael Bridges donated it.

Rice told the Blade that curating the collection for display was a thrill. ‘The coronavirus pandemic stopped their ability to present the exhibition for the public in-person so instead Rice said that the library did a limited virtual presentation with audio tours on the library’s website. Now people can visit the library to see this unique entertainment treasure for themselves.

The Turnabout Theatre collection is extensive Szabo acknowledged, but it is also unique owing to its diversity of artifacts. “From the whimsical nature of the puppets to the amazing photographs, posters, and other memorabilia, this exhibit is museum quality,” he said.

In addition to the exhibition, the Library is also showcasing Forman Brown’s efforts as a published author. Szabo said that the uniqueness of his personal background as a part of the Yale Puppeteers coupled with his inability to be open about his sexual orientation forced him to use a pseudonym for his first book, ‘Better Angel’ an autobiographical novel that chronicled Brown’s awakening as a gay man.

First published in 1933 by the Greenburg Press, Brown, writing as Richard Meeker found a modest audience Szabo wrote in the new forward of the LAPL’s republished 2020 version. The book gives a rich sense of contextual reference to the author and his times Szabo related. Interestingly enough, the book had been rediscovered by Alyson Publications in the late 1980’s and after a search to find ‘Richard Meeker’ despite the fact that the book was in the public domain and permission was not needed, Alyson published it.

In his forward, Szabo described an amusing anecdotal story that after Alyson had put the book out in the marketplace, Forman Brown patronized a local book shop to get a copy and was told by the clerk that he’d enjoy the book as it was well written. Brown responded with “I’m sure I will, I wrote it.”

Both Rice and Szabo told the Blade that they were deeply pleased that the exhibit is able to bring the story of the Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Theatre to life with the visual presentations of the artifacts, especially the puppets themselves, and the plethora of show bills, newspaper adverts, photographs, and memorabilia and now have the public see it for themselves.

Rice, in addition to her curatorial and librarian duties, is a published author who wrote a book that chronicles the collection.

Published by Photo Friends of the Los Angeles Public Library Publications, the 170 page book in rich detail with photos and text gives an overview to the collection and the uniqueness of the story of the men and the family that was the Turnabout Theatre.

Fittingly, Rice ends her book with a poem written by Forman Brown titled ‘Walls, II, Puppeteer.’

The vastness and completeness of the collection marks a time and a moment in LA’s entertainment history.

For more information please visit the Library’s website here: [Link]

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Finalist for TIME’s ‘Kid of the Year’ is 11-year-old Texas Trans activist

“It makes me sad that some politicians use Trans kids like me to get votes from people who hate me just because I exist”

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Kai Shappley protesting at Texas Capitol in Austin last April (Photo Credit: Equality Texas)

AUSTIN – The petite fourth grader calmly sat at the witness table in her pretty yellow dress, reading her notes from her iPhone and without a hint of nervousness she began testifying before the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs.

“I love ballet, math, science, and geology,” she told the committee by way of introduction. “I spend my free time with my cats, chickens, FaceTiming my friends, and dreaming of when I finally get to meet Dolly Parton. I do not like spending my free time asking adults to make good choices.”

“It makes me sad that some politicians use Trans kids like me to get votes from people who hate me just because I exist,” she went on. “God made me. God loves me for who I am. And God does not make mistakes.”

For 11-year-old Kai Shappley of Austin, facing down the Senators gathered, many of whom literally wanted to legislate her and other Trans youth out of existence, was an exercise she’s intimate familiar with as in her short life she has become an experienced advocate in Trans youth issues in Texas.

In fact it is her experience that has landed her in the prestigious position of being a finalist for TIME magazine’s Kid of the Year. In an interview with TIME’s Madeleine Carlisle, Shappley says she felt furious. Lawmakers were avoiding her gaze, she said, glancing at their watches, scrolling on their phones or doodling on papers. When the opportunity came to ask her questions, no one spoke up.

“Seriously? None of y’all want to know more about me?” she quipped.

Video of Shappley’s testimony quickly went viral. It wasn’t the first time she’s garnered attention. The now-5th grader has been publicly telling her story and calling for Trans equality for years.

She’s traveled the country with her mother, speaking at rallies for LGBTQ+ rights. She’s worked with the ACLU on pro-Trans projects. She’s met with national lawmakers to urge them to pass the Equality Act, which would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

But April was the first time she’d ever testified on her own. Her reasoning was simple. “I wanted to show them that all these lies people have been spreading [about Trans kids] are not true,” she says.

In an email, fellow Texas Trans youth activist and Gender Cool Project advocate Landon Richie noted:

“Last year, we saw an unprecedented, nationwide, legislative assault on trans youths’ access to sports, gender affirming care, and unfettered existence in public life, with Texas accounting for the highest number of anti-Trans bills filed in any state legislative session, ever. And, just this week — on top of states like Arizona, Alabama, South Dakota, Kentucky, and more beginning to file harmful bills targeting Trans youth — HB 25, a Texas bill that prohibits trans and gender expansive youth from playing on the school sports teams that align with their gender identity, went into effect,” Richie said.

“Kai’s nomination is a reminder of the impact of these egregious bills and the stakes of this fight; she, at just eleven years old, has been forced by the so-called “leaders” of our state to debate her very existence and right to dignity and respect, year, after year, after year. And she is not alone. Trans youth across the country — and the world — deserve not to be pawns in a political chess game, nor fearful that who they are will be constant ground for discourse: they deserve to be celebrated, to be adored, to be cared for — they deserve childhoods where they are free to just be kids,” he added.

“Shappley is a force of nature,” TIME reported. “At only 11 years old, the Trans rights activist has built a following online; children and adults have written to her saying she’s inspired them to come out.”

“It makes me want to keep on going, knowing that there are so many people who rely on me,” she told TIME .

She was only 5 when she first watched her mother, Kimberly, testify against anti-Trans legislation in Texas, and the two soon began appearing together. By 2020, Kai decided she was ready to go solo.

She also spoke at the funeral of Trans journalist and activist Monica Roberts, who’d been a mentor to her.

“Mom was like, ‘I’ll go up there with you,’” Kai Shappley told TIME. “But I said, ‘I think I’m strong enough to talk for myself now.’”

Testifying before the Texas Senate:

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Sports

NCAA adopts new policy on Trans athletes

Requires documentation of testosterone levels amid a fervor of recently transitioned swimmers breaking records in women’s athletics

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Graphic courtesy of the NCAA

INDIANAPOLIS- The National Collegiate Athletic Association has announced it has adopted new procedures on competition of transgender athletes, creating a “sport-by-sport” approach that also requires documentation of testosterone levels across the board amid a fervor of recently transitioned swimmers breaking records in women’s athletics.

The NCAA said in a statement its board of governors voted on Wednesday in support of the “sport-by-sport” approach, which the organization says “preserves opportunity for transgender student-athletes while balancing fairness, inclusion and safety for all who compete.”

Although the policy defers to the national governing bodies for individual sports, it also requires transgender athletes to document sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections. The new policy, which consistent with rules for the U.S. Olympics, is effective 2022, although implementation is set to begin with the 2023-24 academic year, the organization says.

John DeGioia, chair of the NCAA board and Georgetown president, said in a statement the organization is “steadfast in our support of transgender student-athletes and the fostering of fairness across college sports.”

“It is important that NCAA member schools, conferences and college athletes compete in an inclusive, fair, safe and respectful environment and can move forward with a clear understanding of the new policy,” DeGioia said.

More specifically, starting with the 2022-23 academic year, transgender athletes will need to document sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections, the organizational. These athletes, according to the NCAA, are also required to document testosterone levels four weeks before championship selections.

In terms of jurisdiction, the national governing bodies for individual sports are charged determines policies, which would be under ongoing review and recommendation by the NCAA, the organizational says. If there is no policy for a sport, that sport’s international federation policy or previously established International Olympics Committee policy criteria would be followed.

The NCAA adopts the policy amid controversy over University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas smashing records in women’s swimming. Thomas, which once competed as a man, smashed two national records and in the 1,650-yard freestyle placed 38 seconds ahead of closest competition. The new NCAA policy appears effectively to sideline Thomas, who has recently transitioned and unable to show consistent levels of testosterone.

Prior to the NCAA announcement, a coalition of 16 LGBTQ groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and Athlete Ally, this week sent to a letter to the collegiate organization, urging the organizations strengthen non-discrimination protections as opposed to weakening them. The new policy, however, appears to head in other direction, which the LGBTQ groups rejected in the letter.

“While decentralizing the NCAA and giving power to conferences and schools has its benefits, we are concerned that leaving the enforcement of non-discrimination protections to schools will create a patchwork of protections rather than a comprehensive policy that would protect all athletes, no matter where they play,” the letter says. “This would be similar to the patchwork of non-discrimination policies in states, where marginalized groups in some states or cities are protected while others are left behind by localities that opt not to enact inclusive policies.”

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with the Human Rights Campaign seeking on the new policy as established by the NCAA.

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Television

June Jambalaya, lightly seasoned newcomer thickens mix of RPDR14

Jambalaya’s drag name came about when a dance instructor asked for her birth month and the last thing she ate

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“Some are born into drag greatness, some achieve drag greatness, and some have drag greatness thrust upon ‘em.”

LOS ANGELES – That iconic line, from the 1602 Shakespeare play “RuPaul’s Twelfth Night,” is as true today as when it was first spoken on the stage of London’s Globe Theatre. Back then, the female roles were played by men.

Times may have changed, but the song remains the same: Those with male plumbing who plumb the depths of what it takes to play a woman find themselves doing so through dynasty, scrappy determination, destiny, or a road they have to hoe on their own.

Season 14 “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant June Jambalaya found herself in the iconic workroom and runway in a very roundabout way, indeed.

“I have been in the performing arts my entire life, going to performing arts school, and I moved out to LA to get my degree in fine arts” said the 29-year-old Jacksonville, Florida native, who spoke with the Blade just prior to the Season 14 premiere episode, in which she’s introduced alongside half of the cast.

Jambalaya, whose drag name came about when a dance instructor asked for her birth month and the last thing she ate, stayed in LA after graduation but found things, “didn’t go as planned, you know, just auditioning but still working my job. I worked as a visual manager for a luxury department store, so it [drag] gravitated to me because actually, I was choreographing for a co-worker. It gave me an opportunity to use my degree and use my talents—because I felt kind of frustrated with auditioning and the world of performing. I didn’t fit the stereotypical body that a male backup dancer or performer should have and so it drew me to drag because this was an art form where you got to make your own rules and really pick your narrative, which made me even more intrigued to do it for myself.”

While doing choreography for local LA drag queens Jambalaya noted, “They encouraged me to try it [drag], and I entered a nightly competition at Revolver and won and then I did a 10-week competition at Revolver and won. So all the stars just kind of aligned. It just felt like I was doing something right with all of the talents and gifts I felt like I had.”

BLADE: What sort of style were you drawing from in those early performances?  

JUNE JAMBALAYA: When I first started drag, my references were from the Latrice Royales and the Roxy Andrews. I looked at the queens before me that really put on high-energy, like high old school drag numbers and performances. But the more I got to experience who June was, her brand and you know my own artistry I started to really pull from my love for the modern woman and thinking about like, my mom and my sister and my aunts and how I was always inspired by women, especially minority women, because they were the strongest, most fearless, most stylish women that I got to encounter so I really drew a lot of those references into my drag. And then I also, you know, I call myself The Real Housewife of Drag because of my love for the franchise and how real women just sit there fully dressed and living their fantasy on television. That’s sort of what this is for me.

BLADE: You’re serious about the way you use fashion. Does that clash with camp elements of drag? 

JUNE: Yes I’m funny, but I don’t consider myself a comedy queen. I think it’s performance with looks, um, because I revealed myself in a Christopher John Rogers couture gown and then I added a train and airbrushed my name on there to make it, you know, it was fashion but then I made it camp and, you know, urban by airbrushing it—having my nails, have my name hang off… So I’m wearing these designer pieces that you typically don’t see from someone; I’m a size 14, 16 and you haven’t really seen a big girl pull out these type of designers this way and I think that’s interesting. So my camp comes in my love for the visual… You’ll see me inside a waterfall performing a song for a video. That’s where I think my camp comes through, in my visual artistic side. But with my fashion, I really do try to show that plus-sized women and full-figure people love and respect fashion and there is room for us there, too.

BLADE: What is an LA club experience with you like, as opposed to what we’re going to see on television?

June Jambalaya courtesy of RuPaul’s Drag race

JUNE: I have always picked things that felt good to me, but I’m learning that I still have to pick numbers that people are going to enjoy. But when you come to a June Jambalaya performance, you want high energy. You know I’m gonna have backup dancers. So like me and my girls, we rehearse these numbers for weeks on end before the show. One of my biggest inspirations is Beyoncé. I’ve been to more concerts than I’d like to admit.

BLADE: Oh, there’s no shame in that.

JUNE: (laughs) Seeing those shows, all the way down to the costumes and the choreography, all that time and effort that went into it—so I try my best, with the resources I have, to give people that live tour show experience.

BLADE: Your life will be different from the moment the show starts airing. What is the waiting experience like, and have you been given any helpful advice from other queens?

JUNE: So recently, I posted a Christmas video that took three months to film—and it’s different now, because of the [Season 14] announcement, and people know the show is coming. So I get to hear from people from Brazil and Belize message me and tell me how much they enjoyed my video, and people who don’t even celebrate Christmas, that these visuals and these packages of my art are reaching all over the world—it’s blowing my mind to think about this time last year. I had maybe 2,000 followers and I just had dream and I was making videos and taking photos like crazy, and now it’s [the buzz leading up to the show] unfolding before my eyes.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have conversations with Gigi Goode, Kandy Muse, and LaLa Ri. They have all been so extremely supportive. I think Gigi Goode gave me some of the best advice. She came to my “Showgirls” performance and she was like, “Do everything, every opportunity that comes to you. You’re going to be tired but this is going to be the ride of your life—and everything you’ve dreamt of, you can literally do right now. So whatever is in your head, let it out.”

BLADE: What advice would you give to those who are just starting out with their drag, and is having a formal background like yours helpful?

JUNE: I think it [education] definitely helped me, but I haven’t been doing drag that long. I started April 2019… But I think when you find something you’re passionate about you will do the work to further educate yourself on it, and I really do believe I did that. So my advice to anyone embarking on something or doing something they’re passionate about is, pull from people who are doing it really, really well. I think one of the best things that I did, I watched Roxy Andrews. I studied with Aquaria [as I was preparing my audition tape]. I saw what the best of the best were doing, to prepare myself to meet that level of excellence. When you’re in this high-pressure drag situation, and mind you, this was just a hobby for me. I had a full-time job. So I went from a part-time baby queen to now doing it full-time, 18-hour days. So it showed me there’s still so much to be done, to be in drag all day, to go from doing an acting challenge to getting ready for a runway. It’s so physically demanding, to be a full-time drag queen.

BLADE: So are you in better shape now than you were before?

JUNE: Well, we filmed it a while ago. I was in really good shape. Then I took a break and ate some food, enjoyed the holidays. Now it’s kicking back in. You know, press [to do] and outfits need to fit (laughs).

BLADE: What do you hope to achieve, as a result of being on the show?

JUNE: I’ve never been to Fashion Week. I would love to experience that or walk and be a part of it, or be part of a beauty brand or something of that nature. But when it comes down to artistry, we have a whole Vegas residency with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” now. I would love the opportunity for that—or the Werq the World Tour, to actually; Imagine if I got to take all of my visuals and put it on the stage… that’s an artist’s dream.

Follow June Jambalaya on Instagram/TikTok/Twitter: @junejambalaya.

To stay up-to-date on all things #DragRace Season 14, follow along on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok at @rupaulsdragrace.

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