We are heartbroken to announce that Ralph Lee, the legendary puppeteer and theatre artist and founder of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade and the Mettawee River Theater Company, has passed away at 87. He is best known for his use of masks and large puppets in theatre and performance, and his productions that take place outside of traditional performance venues, including parades, pageants, celebrations, and outdoor theatrical performances in public locations.
He started making puppets as a child growing up in Middlebury, Vermont and then moved to New York City, acting on Broadway and Off Broadway and as a member of The Open Theatre directed by Joseph Chaikin, while also moving into set and production design and mask and puppet making at La MaMa.
He did set design for Leonard Melfi’s “Niagara Falls” in 1967 and then performed in a production of two plays by María Irene Fornés—"Red Burning Light of the American Way of Life" and "A Vietnamese Wedding"—in 1969. In 1974, he launched and began directing the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in the courtyard of the Westbeth Artists Community, and he also directed and designed a production of Nancy Fales’ “Ark”. He made the masks and props for the 1976 production of Adrienne Kennedy’s “A Rat’s Mass” at La MaMa, which was directed by Cecil Taylor. His masks for the production were on display at the Whitney Museum.
He also became artistic director of the Mettawee River Theatre Company in 1976, which presented outdoor productions throughout upstate New York and New England based on creation myths, legends, and folklore from many other cultures. A decade later in 1986, he made the masks for a production of “Orfei” directed by Ellen Stewart. In 1988, he made the masks for “The Summer Face Woman.” In 2018, La MaMa’s Coffeehouse Chronicles honored Ralph Lee and his long career.
Lee received a 1975 Obie Award and a 1985 citation from the Municipal Arts Society for his work on the parade, as well as a 1996 Bessie Award and a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship, among several other grants and awards. Lee also taught at more than half a dozen colleges over his career, including Bennington and New York University. Today, the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade is one of New York City’s major events, attracting over 250,000 people from around the world each year. Lee was a beloved figure of the La MaMa and Westbeth community, and he will be missed by many.