Have you ever heard of the musical “The Puppetmaster’s Regime”? Most likely, you haven’t. In fact, most die-hard theatre lovers are often unfamiliar with this little production. It was a 1934 stage musical written by anonymous authors of the music, lyrics, and book. It starred upcoming performers such as Timmy “cutie-pie” Wright, Sally Wilkes, Henry Gregory, as well as many others. At the time, it was the most expensive show to date. It was said to be the biggest, most spectacular stage show to San Francisco and back.
From the testament of Tyler Warwick (1901-1983)
“I went to see the show about a week after I turned thirty-three. The ticket was a gift from my sister, who knew how much I loved the theatre. I remember the signs, they were huge and rather gaudy. Oh, and the playbill–it was just a single red dot with a doll-like face on it. It seemed a bit melancholy for what I assumed was to be a musical-comedy, but I didn’t pay much attention. I was going to see a Broadway show.”
From the testament of Georgina Long (1911-1984)
“The cast was made completely of ‘new’ people. Young children and adults alike who were longing to get back on stage after Vaudeville became old news–it was quite charming really. But I did take a bit of notice to that odd little playbill…all the playwrights and lyricists and everyone were all unnamed, and that design…it was a little red drop with a peculiar little face in it. Not even a title, just that little red dot. I had come to New York with my parents on an impromptu vacation after my grandmother had died…a Broadway musical seemed just like what we needed. (…)”
From the testament of Carl Hannigan (1920-1993)
“I do recall most of the first act. Then again, who could forget? The story was a little hard to follow at first. There was a little boy who lived in a puppet shop, or maybe he lived down the street–no, no, he worked in the puppet shop, but he was homeless, so they provided him with a home there. The kid’s name was Mori..Mortim…something weird…oh yes, it was Morietum…no, Morietur. Morietur, yes.
Anyways, Morietur’s employer was this old man named Mr. Obcisor. I remember his name because his character was unimaginably unsettling–bouncing all around and getting angry and the little boy, all while keeping this nasal, gigglish voice. Anyhow, the production opened to Morietur and the odd fellow getting into an argument over the boy not doing his work, then two of them sang this peculiar number about puppets…it wasn’t a normal song…or at least, the musicality wasn’t normal. The lyrics were very enchanting, and the music did this odd flowing thing about the room…instruments would get very quiet without losing any power to it; maybe it was just the acoustics–I’m most likely explaining it all wrong. Oh well. But…in time, we got used to it, and the show progressed…”
From the testament of Gabriel Johnston (1919-1976)
“This youngster, Mori- Morietur, something like that, was quite insecure about his stay in the puppet shop–very paranoid that his boss would throw him out. I was an aspiring lyricist at the time, and I’d done the lyrics to a few original community theater projects, so I was fascinated with the wording in these songs. I scribbled down a few lyrics after I’d went home. Unless I’m remembering wrong, the little puppet-shop-boy and Mr. Obi-something had a introductory duet, and then Morietur went off and had a short lament in a different, much more somber tune:
If I stay, and do everything right I can live in the day, and steer (stay?) clear of the night
Out there in the night, in the dark, there’s a world of why’s (lies?)…
I can hear them whisper…
And sometimes I can see their eyes…
The ‘eyes’ comment confused me for a moment, but then I assumed that he was meaning the stars. It seemed as though the number was unnecessarily tragic and poorly situated within the show, but it was a minor quibble.
Now, Morietur had a girl friend named Trahunt and a boy friend named Adolebit. After interrupting the final note in his lament, they all gushed about how much they loved puppets…but they couldn’t afford one from Morietur’s guardian’s shop. and so they transitioned into this vibrant little song about joining forced to raise money so they could afford to build their own puppet. After this, the three all headed for school, and the story took a sharp turn in a different direction.
(After several attempts to begin again) Now…they had this really nasty teacher or headmistress named Madame Reperio, or something like that. They had a reprise of the song from before and she overheard them, and at first her remarks about the children’s fantasies were somewhat comical…but then the light fixed on her and she sang this heartbreaking little song. What the song was about was up for interpretation. It was somewhat about love, but it had all these strange puppet metaphors. The only lyric that’s stayed with me is ‘Stroll through the wood-cracks, show them your pains/The hole in your throat and the strings in your veins’
Then, she just went on this little breakdown–I assumed it was a poorly-conceived character trait. She started singing off key and went to beat one of the kids. The curtain fell, and there was a scuffle heard onstage. People whispered to each other, but a rising new orchestra piece silenced us. The curtain rose again, and we were right outside the puppet shop.”
From the testament of Louis Roberts (1905-1967)
“Morietur and his friends went into the town and sang a song about selling…dolls, I think it was. Because the little girl made dolls in her spare time, and she had to sell them. I remember those strange background characters. The company was so absolutely monotonous…they all wore some form of dark clothing, and each of them were very, very tall. I can remember how they all had their faces covered up by hair or hats or veils…none of them spoke. None of them even sang during the course of the show. They just walked in perfectly straight lines, as if they weren’t even part of the production. Anyways, this strange song about buying dolls…it had absolutely no life. But for some reason, these children were putting their all into it. I could see the pain in their faces as they hit those high notes. And something else…as the lyrics went on…they seemed to…get…a little…it is so hard to explain. They all looked like they were…hurting a little. They looked so pale and nervous all of a sudden. Coming from a stage family, I convinced myself it was only stage-fright, but it still made me just a tiny bit anxious.”
From the testament of Carrie Laurie (1921-1995)
“The kids all got their money from this strange man in cloak who sang a simple little tune…I still remember the lyrics:
Despite the fall of rain, little kiddies,
Everyone needs a little song-
Wooden dolls give you pain, little kiddies,
Go on, little kiddies, run along…
His character was never really explained. But I remember how truly gripping the melody was…so haunting, it got you right there in the gut. Even the little kid actors seemed a bit unsettled by the new turn of the show. They all kept stuttering over their lines as they spoke and sang, and then a light bulb over the stage went out. Everyone kind of gasped and one man I think even laughed. The noise it made really spooked the little girl, little miss whatshername. All the names were so very strange. All I know is that light bulb had gone out, an the actors were stumbling across the stage…and the whole thing looked like a terrible flop.
When the children reentered the puppet shop, they presented Mr. Obcisor with the puppet pieces they’d acquired when the audience wasn’t looking, singing a braggedy sort of chant, ‘we done/we done/diddy-diddy done-done did it!’. It was obnoxious, but thankfully brief. After that, the light fixed on Morietur, and he began another tune. The song was a dud, and all I remember was that he flubbed the last line. The lyric had something to do with ‘the final stroke of light’, or some sort of long-winded moon-based metaphor. All I know is that he forgot the words, and all that could be heard in that theater was the sounds of car horns outside the building. The boy…he didn’t seemed shocked or embarrassed or nothing, but his posture improved out of the blue, and the orchestra stopped. He projected half of the word ‘sorry”, then suddenly he burst forth in wordless vocalization. The music resumed, and the other characters began to join him.”
From the testament of Marcus Edger (1918-1968)
“…So After that bulb went out, the whole set started falling apart. We, the audience, tried our best to ignore it. But it was near impossible. I saw two sets of very angry attendees get up and leave. The set piece for the puppet shop screeched its way onto the stage, and we could see in the far back the paper sky background falling down. The lights went dim in what we assumed was an attempt to hide the malfunctioning set pieces. The kids, with the help of an oddly monotonous Mr. Obcisor, constructed the puppet…and this strange song played. To this day I don’t know what they were saying. It sounded vaguely like Latin, but I went on to study Latin in college the next year, and found that guess to come out flat. I remember how it enchanted me, though. It enchanted all of us. We all began to feel this…thing…course through us. I remember a few people around us who were humming in an attempt to rid themselves of the sound, and I could hear people in the front rows crying out in what sounded like pain.
The actors themselves sounded as though they were about to pass out at any moment. They were doing this odd sort of ballet and they were tripping all over themselves, and a few more lights started flashing and breaking. We all sat and waited for the song to end, when…when…I’m sorry. (pause) I’m so sorry…I can’t…”
From the testament of George Frank (1899-1999)
“…The lights were going on and off at random, and we were all praying the damn song would end soon. It had this force going with it…it was sucking us in. We could feel it. The little kids and the puppet man were dancing all around when…well, you see…(pause)…I really thought I could do it. I thought I could do it…I was right there in the fifth row, so I saw…but I can’t…”
From the testament of Carolyn Mark (1901-1949)
“…The lighting was completely out of control. It was a mess. And that song…it was awful. But something about it…it was powerful. It had a force. I watched intently as the dancers began to skip around and…and…we…I thought they were…the lights…”
The actual events of the final scene of Act I of “The Puppetmaster’s Regime” has been up for debate for many years. Not many people are willing to speak out about what happened on stage during those final moments. Many believe that there is no actual record of an interview with somebody who was willing the tell the story…this is not true, as one testament survives from a Billy Prescott, who was only six at the time of the show. At such a young age, one might assume he was less affected by what he recalls happening:
“…I was just a kid, so I don’t remember much. All I can vaguely recall is that song…it was giving me a headache. I turned to my father to ask him if we could leave, when suddenly I saw the stage illuminate with this bright red light. The music stopped as one instrument after another died out, and swear I heard pounding underneath the stage. Everyone was questioning what was happening…even the actors. I remember that teacher lady being pushed through the door of the shop…and then everyone else came flying in from offstage, toppling on top of each other like rag dolls. There were people there who didn’t fit the design scheme of the production–stagehands and technical workers, I assume now. I remember the little girl screamed at the audience, then ran behind the shopkeeper while other actors continued singing. A few people started crying right there on the stage when suddenly this…curtain…came forward.
It’s hard to describe what it looked like. It was a clear plastic wall, and it came down from above. Several years later I saw “Carrie: The Musical” on Broadway during one of its few runs…that thing that came down on the promgoers when Carrie was using laser lights to kill everyone? It was just like that. A bunch of set pieces from earlier scenes came down on the sides of the stage, trapping all of the actors in the center. Then chaos erupted.
The actors stopped singing, and were pounding on the plastic wall. Then, for some reason, they began to back away. As if some unseen assailants were coming towards them, they fled to the back of the stage–all except the little boy. The little boy who hadn’t stopped singing. Then, amid all that screaming and crying and shooting, the curtain flew out, and everything was in silence.
Due to that odd abruptness, the audience thought it was just a horrible ending to a terrible musical. We were about to get up when suddenly the curtain opened up again, revealing the stationary plastic wall upon which was a single light fixed on the little boy, Morietur. He had clawed his way through the plastic wall…we could see the blood on his hands…but…(pause)…the way he looked was…(…)
There were strings attached to every part of his body. We could all see his stomach…or lack of, anyway. It was like somebody had put a huge ice cream scooper in his belly. He was sobbing all over the stage, twitching and swinging around. It was a sight so unnatural looking, so painful and twisted and wrong…even now, I can’t seem to wrap my head around how, but…(pause)…and so…and so everyone looked at him, not knowing what to do…and then he spoke…
“Help me…please…help me…” was all I could make out, and then he vomited and suddenly collapsed. The plastic wall lifted, and lights all came on. We saw the rest of them.
They were all dead. Every one of them looked exactly like the little boy. Everyone had those strings attached…and we watched as all of them, even the little boy…as their strings were pulled on. Their lifeless bodies rose on cue, and they bowed.”
However, we cannot be certain that this a credible account…but unfortunately, it’s all we have to work with. “The Puppetmaster’s Regime” sparked horrible debate among the theatre companies. Several audience members had to be treated to special therapy for years to come…and the show itself was covered up by the police. For years to come the theatre company, as well as the police department, who had never managed to solve the gruesome murders of the cast and crew of the show, denied that the play ever existed. However, in recent years the story has resurfaced…sparking much new debate on the subject.
The theater that housed the musical still refuses to acknowledge the show’s existence, and most theatre historians know nothing about the show in general. To this day, the identities of the anonymous lyric and music writers are unknown, and (to our knowledge) all recordings of the songs and police reports have been destroyed. However, through certain pieces of historical documentation, we can gather a bit of information on the production: The show itself had its first workshop in London in 1928. One of the songs, “Get A Puppet” was recorded with vocals by twelve-year-old Garris Creely. However, this recording has been lost, but is supposedly available in the black market of the internet. Other than that, no official records were ever made. Some ancient accounts say that an illegal audio taping of the final scene of Act I was recorded from backstage, but we cannot be certain that this is anything but a rumor.
As for any official memorabilia, very little of anything has survived. Until her death in 1994, theatrical historian Gladys Masters kept two large-scale posters, which she displayed at charity events–but these have since disappeared. Early costumes by Alice Lively, who had been the costume designer on Puppetmaster until she quit after payment disputes, are on display at the Pickett-Dahny Theatrical Museum in Dover, England. Other than that, playbills from its premiere night were given out, but most audience members destroyed their copies after seeing the show. Legend has it, around ten to twenty survive.
On another note, over the years the show has grown a small cult fan base, and here recently, an off-Broadway revival has been scheduled to premiere soon.