May Meeting Ralph Chesse, Early Children’s Television Pioneer & SF Renaissance Man Rediscovered in New Exhibition & Puppet Demo by Fred C. Reilly lll

Guild Meeting & Public Opening Program & Reception
Saturday, May 18, 1-4:30 p.m.
San Francisco Main Library,
Koret Auditorium, Lower Level,  
100 Larkin Street, SF

  • 1 pm SFBAPG meeting
  • 1:30 Tour of the Ralph Chesse exhibit
  • 2 pm Puppet Demo by Fred Reilly lll
  • 2:30 Break
  • 2:45 Bruce Chesse sharing highlights of Ralph’s work.
  • Reception to follow, ending at 4:30.  

Ralph Chesse, Early Children’s Television Pioneer

San Francisco Public Library hosts world premiere of Ralph Chessé: A San Francisco Century, including never-before-seen artworks and puppets from the children’s television show Brother Buzz
San Francisco Public Library hosts world premiere of Ralph Chessé: A San Francisco Century, including never-before-seen artworks and puppets from the children’s television show Brother Buzz

Born of Creole heritage in New Orleans in 1900, Chessé spent the bulk of his life as a working artist in San Francisco, contributing to and representing Bay Area culture. His work is prominently featured amongst the murals in Coit Tower placing him in the midst of Depression-era public works; he staged puppet shows at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island; and starting in the early 1950s, was the main creator of Brother Buzz, a long-running and beloved animal-themed educational children’s show still fondly remembered by Bay Area residents. All the while, Chessé made a wide variety of works, including paintings depicting the 1960s rock and roll scene. Ralph Chessé: A San Francisco Century offers an overview of the artist’s work, including rare puppets, paintings, woodcuts, photographs and documents that highlight his unique and under-recognized place in the City’s history. 

The exhibition opens with a snapshot of Chessé’s artistic range. This section features works dating back to the early 20th century, including the 1927 painting, The Black Madonna, which won the prestigious Anne Bremer Prize in the San Francisco Art Association’s Annual Art Exhibition in 1928, along with self-portraits, documents and family photographs, including a portrait by noted photographer Imogen Cunningham. 

Following is a section devoted to Chessé’s Coit Tower fresco and his activities during the WPA era. During this period, he served as the State Director of Puppetry for the State of California, and staged puppet shows for the Federal Theater Project, with some rare footage of his Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on Treasure Island during the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition.

Chessé’s puppets are a key part of his legacy, it is a form that he used to create theatrical experiences for adults and children.  The show includes puppets created for his productions of Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neil’s The Emperor Jones, which he staged numerous times, and works by Moliere. A selection of linocut posters, printed with an old-fashioned washing machine ringer, attest to the range of material and the San Francisco addresses where Chessé set up his stage, many of them now lost to history. As part of the exhibition, the SFPL produced a facsimile of a puppet theater based on the artist’s sketch.

Brother Buzz may be Chessé’s best-known achievement. The children’s show ran on KPIX from 1952 until 1966 with the Brother Buzz character serving as a guide through the animal kingdom. Chessé created new puppets weekly for the show, doing extensive research into his subjects. A video reel, compiled by the artist’s grandson, Matt Chessé, an Academy Award-nominated film editor, introduces the TV show to new audiences while bringing back fond memories to those whose Bay Area childhoods were enriched by the show. 

In the 1960s, Ralph Chessé was introduced to San Francisco’s youth culture—hippie and rock and roll—through his nephew, Peter Albin, the guitarist for Big Brother and the Holding company. While he was more stately in disposition, Chessé observed the cultural shift with interest.  The show includes a stylized painting of the band, including lead singer Janis Joplin, full of life and color. Chessé’s paintings engage a number of aesthetics and styles, attesting to his continued creativity and curiosity. 

Audio commentary from family members provides unique personal insight into the works in the exhibition. 

Fred C Riley III (Founder/Artistic Director) of Odd Savvy, Oakland CA to Give Demo at Event

Fred Reilly has graciously offered to give a puppet demonstration as part of the Ralph Chesse Exhibit, showing the versatility and expressiveness of a variety of puppet styles.

Jon Ludwig, Ping Chong, Janie Geiser, Yeng Feng, Josef Krofta, Larry Reed … These are just a few of the iconic directors that Fred worked with and learned from over many years in puppet theater. He has performed marionettes from 9 foot to 7 inches tall. He has performed rod, moving mouth, Czech black, tabletop, mask, and every combination thereof. He has performed shadow with press screen, overhead, and 30 foot wide cinematic. He has directed and written for the Center for Puppetry Arts and many others. He choreographed for Ping Chong and Company. He has taught movement and puppet theory. He voiced many puppets and has done voice over work for many companies. He has recorded and done sound design. He is so grateful for all he has been able to do and accomplish.

This year, Fred received a Henson Foundation Production Grant for The Ground. The Ground is a sonic/visual poem exploring the intersection of nature and technology through the journey of a lone tabula rasa.
Web: Odd Savvy

Come out and learn about 3 different styles of puppetry. Puppet artist Fred C Riley III will do a demonstration of shadow puppet, tabletop puppets and marionettes. He and Jessica Nguyen will perform a short excerpt from Fred’s upcoming production, “The Ground”. The will also demonstrate tabletop puppets from the same show. Then Fred will show a short piece from Larry Schmidt’s “Driveway Follies”. Come out and bring the family. This talk is intended for adults and older kids. It probably won’t hold the attention of the little ones. See you there!

Our Guild Library at the May 18th Meeting in SF

The Guild Library is a treasure trove of hundreds of books on puppetry. History of puppets, construction, stages, puppets in education, etc. It’s now easy to see what books are available by going to Or if at select Resources, then Library.

The Librarian will bring a selection of books to the May 18th meetings. You can select from the offerings or can request a book in advance.

To Request a Book: Peruse the online catalog then request books by emailing They will be brought to the next “in person” event. If you have a library book to return, please bring it to the May 18th meeting, or mail it back to Guild Librarian Lee Armstrong at 720 Ladera Dr., Sonoma, CA 95476.

Note: The Library is a free service, but borrowers need to have been members for 6 months. If not, and you’d like to borrow, you can leave a check with the librarian for the amount of the book. When you return the book, you get the check back.