Ralph Lee, famous puppet maker and Village Halloween Parade founder, dies at 87

Posted On Wed, May 17, 2023 By

Posted On Wed, May 17, 2023 By In Art, People

Photo by Erin Kestenbaum exclusively for 6sqft. See more here.

Ralph Lee, a legendary New York City puppet maker who helped create the Village Halloween Parade, passed away last Friday in his Manhattan home at the age of 87. As reported by the New York Times, Lee’s death was confirmed by his wife Casey Compton, who stated that her husband’s health had declined over the past several months. While he was also an actor, writer, producer, and director, Lee was best known for his innovative puppet and mask designs, many of which were seen in shows by the Metropolitan Opera, the NYC Opera, and a wide variety of dance troupes and theater productions, including his own Mettawee River Theatre.

Born on July 9, 1935, Lee’s love for theater began at the age of seven in his hometown of Middlebury, Vermont where he would partake in local theater productions. It was during this time that he met a local Middlebury resident who taught him how to make hand puppets, and by the time he was 15, Lee could put on puppet shows all by himself, frequently performing at birthday parties and other events.

After graduating from Amherst College in 1957, Lee studied dance and theater in Europe on a Fullbright scholarship before moving to New York City and trying to get work as an actor. During his first year, he managed to get a role in a Broadway show, although he only had one line. He found himself intrigued by the creation of the show’s costumes and was inspired to create some on his own.

“I only had one line, but it was Broadway. I was really interested in the place where the costumes were made. I thought, “When this show closes, I’m going to go back here and see if they want anybody to make some things for them,” which is, indeed, what happened,” Lee told 6sqft in a 2015 interview.

Lee continued: “I made some masks for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ They were doing it in the park for the Public Theatre. I made the ass’s head for that. Then I started making little puppets and costumes for Shari Lewis’s Puppets; I made props for Lamb Chop.”

While he began to receive a lot of work making puppets, props, and masks, Lee still wanted to be an actor. He found work at an avant-garde theater company called The Open Theater, where he worked for five years while making masks and other props for companies at the same time.

Ralph Lee, Westbeth Artists Housing, Village Halloween Parade, puppet maker, mask maker
Photo by Erin Kestenbaum exclusively for 6sqft. See more here.

After being asked by the Theater for the New City for several years to out on some kind of Halloween event, Lee hosted the first Village Halloween Parade in 1974. The parade was conceived as a mile-long theater event that included live dance and various events, with people encouraged to join and walk in the parade as well.

Over the years, the parade has grown exponentially to become one of the country’s largest Halloween events. Lee stopped his involvement with the parade after its 12th year due to a change in its route that the artist felt “changed the whole character of the parade.”

Lee had been living in the Westbeth Artists Housing since 1970 when it was first converted into residences from the old Bell Telephone Laboratories building. The building was designed with artists in mind, providing affordable living accommodations while being surrounded by like-minded individuals.


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