WICKER PARK — A 73-year-old master puppeteer who lost his storefront theater to a fire, his partner to a stroke and his house is now trying to raise money to get a long-lost collection of marionettes back from his landlord.
The landlord won't reveal the amount puppeteer Ralph Kipness owes him, but Kipness said it is $6,000.
Volunteers have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to pay a landlord back rent and help Kipness open a theater in Chicago.
The 2,000 puppets were found packed in steamer trunks in an apartment building in the 1400 block of North Bosworth Ave. in Wicker Park.
Kipness called the discovery "a miracle."
Landlord Mitch Hutton said that in 2008 Kipness signed a six-month lease to store 25 trunks along with props and scenery backdrops. Then Kipness "took off to Indiana [and] never paid any rent except a few hundred dollars."
While Kipness claims Hutton "didn't call me to say please get [the puppets] out," he admitted to a reporter that he "never paid more than a few hundred dollars" to Hutton.
Hutton, the president of the Pulaski Park Advisory Council, said he and other volunteers from the park had, back in 2008, helped Kipness haul his collection from an apartment in Evanston the puppeteer had been evicted from to Hutton's three-story apartment building.
Kipness and Hutton knew each other from an arrangement where Kipness was to perform puppet shows rent-free at the park field house in exchange for offering education programming to students.
After just a few performances, and one puppetry lesson with students from a nearby elementary school that Hutton described as a "disaster," Kipness went into a hospital, suffering "emotional, physical and mental problems," according to Joseph Lewis, who is trying to reunite Kipness with his puppets.
In June, Lewis, who runs a children's educational theater company, got a call from Hutton's 19-year-old son, Ben Hutton, to check out some "old dolls" found in the basement of the apartment building.
"The weird dolls were hand-carved, they looked clearly important to somebody. I Googled, found an old number for [Kipness' former] puppet parlor that was still active," Lewis said.
Lewis is assisting Kipness with putting on two performances of "Pinocchio" this weekend at a theater in Michigan City, Ind., where Kipness now lives.
Kipness said he has 500 or 600 puppets at his home in Indiana.
In 1968, Kipness and his now-deceased life and business partner, Lou Ennis, opened a theater at Michigan Avenue and Cermak Road, and later a storefront theater, The Puppet Parlor, at 1922 W. Montrose Avenue.
Shortly before a fire damaged the Ravenswood theater in 2005, a Tribune story described the parlor as, "a crowded space, awash in nostalgia."
While Kipness claims Hutton won't give him his puppets until he receives $6,000 in back rent, Hutton declined to comment on any financial negotiations with Lewis or Kipness and told a reporter he was not aware of the Kickstarter campaign to "Rescue the Lost Marionettes of Ralph Kipness."
Lewis said he'd like to get help Kipness get the dolls back so the puppeteer can use them for performances to raise money to help pay the back rent.
Launched on Monday, the crowd-funded project is just 1 percent funded, with a goal of raising $25,000 by Nov. 13.
Some $6,000 will be used to get the puppets themselves back, Lewis said, while the rest of the money would be used on moving the puppets, finding new storage space and eventually helping Kipness reopen a theater in Chicago.
Kipness said he's optimistic that Lewis can help reunite him with his collection.
"I am thankful to God that Joseph is helping me," Kipness said.