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Library Exhibit Honors the Prolific Output of an SF Artist and Puppeteer

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Man in glasses and bowtie holds puppet controls above small bee puppet
Ralph Chessé with his Brother Buzz puppet, year unknown. (Courtesy of the Chessé family)

As a library evangelist, it’s rather embarrassing for me to discover an area of San Francisco’s main branch that I have not visited before. Yet I have a feeling I’m not the only one who’s missed this particular corner of the building. Just inside the Larkin Street doors, down the first stairs on the right, is the 1,500-square-foot Jewett Gallery, offering rotating special exhibitions.

For the next three months, that exhibition is well worth seeking out. Ralph Chessé: A San Francisco Century is a delightful and unexpected local history lesson on the prolific output of an artist, actor, puppeteer and creator of the long-running KPIX television show, The Wonderful World of Brother Buzz.

Born in 1900 in New Orleans, Chessé moved to California in the 1920s to pursue the arts, plural. The library’s show, curated by Glen Helfand, contains evidence of this multi-hyphenate life: paintings, drawings, prints, marionettes and video documentation of performances. On top of that are family photographs, a reproduction of Chessé’s Coit Tower mural and a 1966 article that calls the Chessé family “a full-fledged theatrical dynasty.”

Black text on off-white paper advertising marionette performances
‘Emperor Jones’ linocut print by Ralph Chessé, year unknown. (Courtesy of the Chessé family)

It’s a lot, to be sure — Chessé lived to the age of 91. But the challenge of concisely presenting his long career is aided by snippets of QR-code-activated audio from Bruce and Matt Chessé, his son and grandson. Here we get a more personal understanding of Chessé’s racial identity, which was mixed race, a fact that went unacknowledged during his life in San Francisco. The show posits that his two favorite roles, Hamlet and Emperor Jones, were his artistic way of exploring his Black and white heritage.

In a spread of black-and-white photographs capturing Chessé in different costumes and roles, detailing his height (5’ 4 ½”), weight (125 lbs) and membership in the Screen Actors Guild, we get a first hint at his versatility. With a switch of posture and overcoat, he slips between serious detective and shrugging goof. He ponders, he listens, he stands distinguished with a long beard.

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Entranced from an early age by Shakespeare (picture a 13-year-old chasing down audiences to recite monologues from The Merchant of Venice), Chessé didn’t have the height to win stage roles. And so he transferred his love for the Bard into marionette productions. The exhibition takes care to note that these stagings were “true theater, not shows for kids.”

Black and white photo of man in glasses drawing lines on a canvas
Ralph Chessé drawing, year unknown. (Courtesy of the Chessé family)

A display of linocut posters, designed by Chessé and printed by his wife Jo on a laundry-wringer, shows both his sense of graphic design (punchy, lively) and the breadth of his theatrical material, which included Hamlet, Hansel and Gretel and H.M.S. Pinafore.

Such ephemera shows Chessé moving his operations across the city, from the Yerba Buena Gardens neighborhood (long before it was Yerba Buena Gardens) to the bohemian hotbed that surrounded 628 Montgomery St. (aka the Monkey Block), before that building was demolished to make way for the Transamerica Pyramid.

Two bee puppets dressed in clothes on a rocky set
A still from the set of ‘Brother Buzz’ showing Brother Buzz and Busy Bee, year unknown. (Courtesy of the Chessé family)

These often hand-printed advertisements are also evidence of Chessé’s serious hustle. While he may have painted a mural in Coit Tower (children at play, strangely unsmiling in protest of the city’s response to the 1934 longshoremen’s strike) and served, in the ’30s, as the director of puppetry for the state of California for the Federal Theater Project, during WWII he worked in a Bay Area shipyard. As his son Bruce says in an audio clip, “He did not have a steady income until he was 56 years old.”

That was when the Latham Foundation for the Promotion of Humane Education approached Chessé about a children’s television show to encourage kindness to animals. The Wonderful World of Brother Buzz was on the air from 1953 to 1969, and saw Chessé creating a new animal marionette each week to illustrate those lessons. Just a few of these presumably hundreds of characters are on display in the Jewett Gallery, including dapper Brother Buzz (he wears a top hat) and a bat wearing a sharp tan suit.

It’s yet another tantalizing display of a smidgen of Chessé’s output (you can catch clips of the show the Latham Foundation’s website) in a show that might send you home Googling things like “unsmiling Coit Tower” and “City of Paris department store” — parts of San Francisco history graced by the seemingly inexhaustible talent of Ralph Chessé.


Ralph Chessé: A San Francisco Century’ is on view at the San Francisco Public Library’s Jewett Gallery (100 Larkin St., Lower Level) through Aug. 18, 2024.

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