Lettie Schubert’s Obituary

Lettie C. Schubert, 77; Puppeteer and Mentor to Future Muppet Performers

By Valerie J. Nelson
Times Staff Writer

April 5, 2006

In the display window of a San Francisco portrait shop, a feather and a canine hand puppet became a tourist attraction in the 1960s. The playful wisp of a drama caused so many sightseeing buses to double-park that the city threatened to shut down the nightly shows.

The gloved hand that brought crowds and whimsy to Grant Street belonged to Lettie Connell Schubert, whose talent for organizing regional and national puppet festivals and teaching workshops made her a leading figure in American puppetry.

“She was a tremendous force and a major part of our history,” said Alan Cook, curator of the Conservatory of Puppetry Arts in Pasadena. “She was a really inspired performer and the best person at critiquing that I ever met.”

Schubert, who was diagnosed with cancer six months ago, died of liver failure March 21 at her home in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco, said her husband, Gage. She was 77.

When she wasn’t performing with her two favorite alter egos – a dog named George and a fairy called Twinkle – she was often mentoring up-and-coming performers.

Among those who benefited from her gentle critiques was a teenage Frank Oz, the future voice of Cookie Monster and Miss Piggy. Oz told The Times that Schubert was “one of the influential people” in his life.

“She had a marvelous attitude about her, the kind you could learn from in a very easy way,” said Oz, now a movie director who at 19 jumped from the Oakland-based puppet troupe Schubert directed to Jim Henson’s Muppets in New York. “She was great at bringing people along and also had a wonderful show of her own.”

More Muppet history was made at a 1961 festival she oversaw near Monterey, Calif. Henson met and hired another of Schubert’s puppeteers, Jerry Juhl, who eventually became head writer for the iconic troupe.

As a performer alone, Schubert would have made a huge impact, Cook said. “She was heavily influenced by Marcel Marceau, and she funneled that way of thinking into the puppet community. I have never seen anyone better at hand-puppet mime,” he said.

Her spirit of fun was also evident in her display-window routines, when she would startle passersby by making the puppet move at just the right moment.

“It was charming and unsettling,” said Lewis Mahlmann, a puppeteer who first met her in 1955.

During the 1950s and ’60s, Schubert worked with puppet master Ralph Chesse on “Brother Buzz,” a weekly San Francisco television show that used marionettes to teach children to be kind to animals. She also performed on other live TV shows in San Francisco, including “Willy and the Baron” and “The Looking Glass Lady.”

“Manual of Hand Puppet Manipulation,” a 20-page booklet Schubert self-published in 1974, is still considered one of the best guides to learning how to bring a glove puppet to life.

A third-generation San Franciscan, Schubert was born Frances Electa Orton Connell in 1929.

As a teenager, she worked in a mannequin factory before studying recreation at City College of San Francisco and puppetry at San Francisco State.

From 1954 to 1960, Schubert ran the Oakland recreation department’s Vagabond Puppet Theater, which performed in public parks and playgrounds. She also did hand-puppet shows at the White House department store in San Francisco.

Hired to perform at a portrait studio called Happy Things, Schubert brought her mime puppetry to the display window.

“Lettie was famous for shows that were warm and fuzzy, that could be sad and playfully poignant,” said her husband, who was managing the shop when he met her.

One lighthearted show made up of three small acts was called “Moods for Small Mimes.”

The Schuberts eventually took over the studio, which by then had become a “hip toy shop” that closed at 11:30 p.m. and served as a gathering place for creative people, including Carol Channing, who would sit in the shop’s swing and shriek song lyrics, Gage Schubert said.After a few years, they closed the store and opened Schubert’s Toy Square on Union Street.When the puppeteer moved to Mill Valley to raise her family in 1968, she turned away from performing. By then, Schubert had discovered a talent for mentoring and began pursuing other creative outlets, including making brooches and cloth figures that looked strikingly similar to puppets.

In addition to Gage, her husband of 45 years, Schubert is survived by a son, David, of Concord, Mass.; a daughter, Rebecca Smith, of Novato, Calif.; and two grandchildren.

A memorial gathering is planned for 3 to 9 p.m. June 11 at the Fort Mason Center on the San Francisco waterfront.