Ralph Lee

On Attending the Memorial Service of Ralph Lee, Puppeteer Extraordinaire and Founder of the Halloween Parade—among other things

By Penny Jones 

RALPH LEE, founder of the Village Halloween Parade, before his death in May 2023. Photo courtesy of Village Preservation.

It was a magical experience for me – for the second time.

Thirty years ago, I attended Ralph’s Earth Day celebration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. At the end of the program an enormous blue 20-foot ball was revealed on the floor in front of us. Slowly it began to move upward higher and higher into the shadows, growing ever smaller and farther away from us, some 125 feet. I actually felt a sadness, a separation anxiety. Like someone in outer space might feel. And I really did not want to be separated from that blue ball. I wanted it, now tiny, to come back. There was a pause. Interminable. Then, slowly, majestically, it did—to my great relief. It was a powerful message about where we are in the Universe. 

This time in the Cathedral we were memorializing the life of Ralph Lee himself. After various members of his family shared personal stories about him as a father and family man, there was music signaling the end of the service—or so I thought. But then creatures began to emerge floating in the air hovering in the central passageway. The music was woodsy, curling like mist around the pews. One could almost smell leaves and puppets wafted in the air above us magically full of life and humor.

Last week I watched a street parade of his puppets which made me want to dance with delight. This time the mood was different as these ghostly apparitions in the Cathedral held me spellbound.

Fortunately for us, Ralph’s magic is not completely gone with his passing. Like a Stradivarius violin when played, like the wind blowing through a Calder mobile, Ralph’s creations come to life with personality, humor and poignancy. In a cathedral they represented the ethereal spirits of the human race. When careening through open streets they were untethered, raucous, irrepressible, happy and ready for mischief.

Appropriate settings and occasions may still present themselves as habitats where these works of art can be experienced again. And that is a happy thought. His puppets just need open space above them and a suitable occasion — where magic is wanted.

And an important thing to know–these mobiles were co-created by Ralph and his wife, Casey, whose patterning and sewing of the fabric created the flow of the bodies. She worked with him on every phase of the puppet making and performing. With Casey as guardian, all is not lost.

End of event music, woodsy, magical, light wafting and circling around the room hallway like magical creatures drifting in like Du Maurier etchings, music played on Stradivarius and humor of Cabit. These creatures waft by in their natural environment like mist through trees in a forest full of personality like French revolution, laughing and dancing.

Penny Jones is a puppeteer and neighbor of Ralph Lee at Westbeth. pennypuppets@att.net