Forman Brown, Elsa Lanchester, and The Turnabout Theatre
Turnabout Theatre was a Hollywood hot spot of great importance to queer history. A. Loudermilk celebrates its founders, and its greatest star, Elsa Lanchester.
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Turnabout Theatre opened in 1941 and quickly proved itself to be an unusual Hollywood hot spot, its audiences remaining loyal until it closed in 1956. The queerest, dearest, and cleverest “satirical revue” of its time (and perhaps of any time), it was founded by songwriter Forman Brown, puppet-maker Harry Burnett, and manager Roddy Brandon. The three gay men were known as The Yale Puppeteers and lived together as a family for most of their seventy-year career. Turnabout Theatre was one end marionette show and the other end live acts, and its name referred to its reversible streetcar seats and how the audience would “turn about” between acts. The theatre’s star attraction was Elsa Lanchester in an eccentric cabaret mode.
Audiences for Turnabout included the downright legendary, such as John Barrymore, Ray Bradbury, Charlie Chaplin, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Hedda Hopper, Groucho Marx, Liberace, Aimee Semple McPherson, Louella Parsons, and Gloria Swanson, with many witnessing themselves parodied on stage in puppet form. Harry Burnett created other puppet-characters too, and Forman Brown wrote dialogue and songs for all of them, achieving elaborate miniature musical comedies for adults.
It is specifically Forman Brown’s alliance with Elsa Lanchester that I have been fascinated with for over two decades now, since finding their work collected on Lanchester’s albums Bawdy Cockney Songs volumes one and two, from the late 1950s, and on the very rare Turnabout album, not compiled until 1975. Brown wrote nearly sixty songs exclusively for Lanchester during their time together. Before addressing their alliance, however, I should explain why Brown and Lanchester individually are significant in the scheme of LGBTQ history.
Let’s start with Elsa Lanchester, who many know only as the iconic Bride in James Whales’ uniquely queer classic Bride of Frankenstein (1932). To name many other heterosexual women as defiant of hetero norms as Lanchester would be difficult. Her bohemian, socialist-minded parents, James Sullivan and Edith Lanchester, were notorious in Britain for choosing to live together and have children out of wedlock. Early on, the men in Edith’s family tried to end the arrangement by kidnapping her and committing her to an insane asylum, the cause of Edith’s ‘insanity’ alleged to be over-education. The ruling was rescinded, fortunately, and the case became known internationally as The Lanchester Kidnapping Case.
When their daughter Elsa Lanchester, who found it rather glamorous growing up a so-called bastard, married in 1929, she married Charles Laughton, the most revered British actor of his generation to alternate between theatre and Hollywood and who was also a homosexual ‘out’ within both industries if not to the public at large. Lanchester’s acceptance of her husband’s orientation was as total as her devotion to him and they remained together until his death from cancer in 1962. There is little to suggest that Lanchester took lovers. Over the years she only showed concern over Charles’s lovers if one seemed to be taking advantage of him somehow; or if she found out they’d made love on a piece of furniture of which she was particularly fond.
Lanchester, in her autobiography Herself, says that her whole life had led her to Turnabout. She’d opened a nightclub back in England during WWI called Cave of Harmony. Anticipating “midnight movies” by decades, this after-hours club featured one-act plays by famous writers that had not found a stage elsewhere. In between plays, Lanchester sang old music hall numbers she’d dug up like ‘Please Sell No More Drink to My Father’ that she would later perform at Turnabout.
Forman Brown’s career was equally rich. In college, Turnabout’s puppeteer Harry Burnett became Brown’s first love and first lover. Later, as their romance waned platonic, they met Roddy Brandon who would become Turnabout’s manager. Brown and Brandon entered into a romantic relationship that lasted fifty years, all of them spent living and working with Burnett who said in a documentary, “We were like one person, the three of us.”
The three started as The Yale Puppeteers in New York where the wondrously burly actress Marie Dressler, Hollywood’s top box office draw for two years in the early 1930s, helped them to establish their first audience of celebrities and top critics. Still, in an interview Dorothy Neumann — who joined their team during the Turnabout years in Hollywood — emphasises both the trio’s gayness, and their tightness as a family unit, as cornerstones in Turnabout’s unique appeal and success.
In 1933, nearly a decade prior to Turnabout, Forman Brown wrote his own story — his ‘sissy’ childhood, his romantic relationships with Burnett and then Brandon, and his pursuit of a musical career — as an autobiographical novel titled Better Angel. It is considered the first psychologically healthy novel about homosexuality to be published in the US. In other words, the first one in which the homosexual protagonist is not self-hating or, in the end, suicidal. Better Angel ends happily, on a forward-looking note.
Brown published Better Angel under the name Richard Meeker and it slipped into such complete obscurity that when Alyson Publications published it for a maturing gay culture in 1987, the edition’s introduction is resigned to never finding out who this Richard Meeker is, assuming the name false and the author dead. Thanks to the 1992 documentary Turnabout: The Story of the Yale Puppeteers (dir. Dan Bessie), featuring surviving members Brown and Burnett, who were at that time in their nineties, we know officially who Meeker is. In one of many touching moments in the documentary, Brown reads from his first fan letter, which is more or less a love letter from Roddy, dated 1933: “But what really matters, Dearest, is that you are being given a chance of a sort which makes our love worthy and bright. What a lot it is going to mean to some fellows like ourselves less fortunate than I am who need assurances of the beauty and worthiness your book will bring to them.” He wishes Forman did not have to publish the book in secret but hopes it will help bring about “the day when we will need no longer fear or flinch from those who do not understand, who have never felt the longing as I did myself until I met you, my better angel.”
This is the love on which the Turnabout Theatre was built, a love as powerful and enduring and unusual for its time as the love shared by Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton. No wonder Forman and Lanchester were so synchronized artistically. It was Charles himself who once told Elsa how she and Forman together made a true “artistic marriage of talents.” Lanchester never even asked to be paid for her performances, not once during the ten-plus years with Turnabout, and though she says in her autobiography that all the songs Brown wrote for her “automatically became” her songs, she was not speaking of copyrights and royalties. She made them hers.
Perhaps my own affinity for their songs, as a writer specializing in persona poems, has much to do with the literary skills Brown brings to his lyrics, the individual voices and dramatic situations he constructs, the gender-crossing he achieves with such insight, as much as the theatrical nuances, the controlled wit, in Lanchester’s interpretation of those lyrics. New Yorker described her as “a specialists’ specialist in the mischievous art of seemingly inadvertent comedy,” praising her for “taking her listeners out of a close, tidy world and into a disquieting place filled with sharp winds and unsteady laughter.”
Since it was important for Lanchester not to appear “like an actress,” she preferred for her first songs on any given evening at Turnabout to allow her to become the street urchin, or drive-in waitress, a cleaning lady bemoaning newfangled vacuums, an exhibitionistic bachelorette with a peephole in her gazebo, a wife frustrated because her husband’s clock is not big enough, or just a smart ordinary woman who never goes walking out without her hat pin (“the law won’t let you carry more than that!”) lest she be sexually assaulted.
Only one rule applied, according to Lanchester’s introduction to the Forman Brown lyrics collection A Gamut of Girls, “The ladies in our songs all had to like their lives in some way and be successful in the end.” This is true of their most revered song “Catalogue Woman” about a spinster whose father marries her off to a farmer through a catalogue advertisement. It ends:
If sometimes at Sewing Circle ladies congregate
and whisper things in back of the portières,
I manage to get in a light where I can agitate
the diamonds that are hanging in my ears.
Catalogue woman. That’s how they know me
out in Missouri and Oklahomy.
There’s lots worse things a gal can be
than a catalogue woman.
Lanchester says she shared with Forman Brown and the Turnabout family, which also included a variety of performers like the avant-garde clown Lotte Goslar and renowned folk singer Odetta, a fascination with making commentary on their own era. Simultaneously they sought to “entertain an audience with the same relish the talented amateur gets out of entertaining his friends at a party.” Their shows were never filmed for posterity, tragically, but Elsa Lanchester’s albums are available on CD and MP3. I am honored to cast spotlight anew on this incomparably queer cast of talents.
As the Turnabout theme song, with tongue firmly in cheek, promises us in exchange for our attention: “You will have a higher IQ and the whole wide world will like you! Turnabout! Turnabout! Turnabout!”