Ralph Lee, Puppeteer Who Created Village Halloween Parade, Dies at 87

By Arthur Schwartz

RALPH LEE, above, was considered one of the most innovative and creators in the puppetry field. Photo credit: Maggie Berkvist.

Ralph Lee, the innovative puppeteer who created New York’s Village Halloween Parade and the elaborate land shark puppet that “ate” Gilda Radner and many other Saturday Night Live cast members, died at his Manhattan home on May 12. He was 87. His wife, Casey Compton, told the New York Times his health was declining in recent months.

The Westbeth Artists Housing and Center for the Arts stated, “He was a gentle beloved figure of immense creative vision in the Westbeth community and the world–which is now a lonelier place without him. Our hearts go to his wife, Casey, and his family.”

Lee was a writer, producer and actor but was considered one of the most innovative and prolific creators in the puppetry field. He built masks and figures for his Mettawee River Theater Company as well as the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Shakespeare Festival, New York City Opera and Theater for the New City.
Lee’s most lasting contribution to New York City is the Village Halloween Parade. He first staged it in 1974 in Greenwich Village with the help of George Bartenieff and Crystal Field of Theater for the New City. A modest announcement in the Times promoted the event. It read, “Starting at 5 p.m., a pageant/parade will spill forth from that Off Off Broadway citadel, Theater for the New City, at Jane and West Streets, winding across Greenwich Village for a Round Dance in Washington Square.” The parade was to be “a transient entertainment” with musicians, giant puppets and floats. Children were invited to wear costumes and join the procession.

“There were not many people around besides us — maybe bums,” Lee said in 1998. “And here we were, all holding sparklers, kind of looking at each other.” But the next year the parade grew and so did the audience, earning Lee an Obie Award. Soon it was a flamboyant fixture of the city’s October calendar, so big that in 1985 it had to be moved off the narrow side streets of the Village and onto the Avenue of the Americas. Lee stepped aside from running the show around that time but it has continued through the decades.

“Halloween is for the kid in all of us,”  he told the Times in 1982. “It gives people, especially adults, permission to act any way they want.”

Lee’s most famous work outside New York City was the land shark. Introduced during Candice Bergen’s SNL episode, the land shark was featured in a sketch called “Jaws II.” In this first sketch, the land shark, voiced by Chevy Chase, would knock on a woman’s door pretending to be a salesman or repairman. When they opened the door, the shark would attack. Between each scene, Matt Hooper (John Belushi) and Chief Brody (Dan Aykroyd) are seen going over the shark’s dirty work. The land shark made frequent appearances in early SNL episodes.

Lee was born on July 9, 1935, in Middlebury, Vermont. He was educated in a one-room schoolhouse where he starred in his first play. He also developed an interest in puppetry at an early age. After graduating from Amherst College in 1957, he got a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Europe before he began his theater career in New York. He is survived by four children, six grandchildren and one great grandchild.

Arthur Schwartz is counsel for the Village Halloween Parade.