Village Preservation shares our oral history collection with the public, highlighting some of the people and stories that make Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo such unique and vibrant neighborhoods. Each includes the experiences and insights of leaders or long-time participants in the arts, culture, preservation, business, or civic life.
Ralph Lee’s interest in puppetry and theater began as a young boy in his family’s home in Middlebury, Vermont. Neighbors were few and far between in the New England community, so he and his brother spent plenty of time on their own undertaking a range of artistic endeavors. When Lee was around seven or eight, he recalls: “My parents had taken a trip to New York City and had brought back some hand puppets for my brother and I. Those were the first hand puppets I played with.” That early spark launched him on a career in the performing arts that took him from the Taft School in Connecticut and Amherst College, to Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship, and ultimately to the role he’s most often recognized for, as the “father” of Greenwich Village’s annual Halloween Parade.
Born in 1935, Lee describes his journey in an oral history conducted with Village Preservation in 2019, available here. By the age of 11, he built a large stage for puppetry and put on numerous shows based on children’s stories like Ferdinand the Bull and Winnie the Pooh; a few years later, he got into performing when he joined a dance program that his mother organized at nearby Middlebury College.
“You know, if there were any kind of theater thing that I could do, I would become engaged with that,” he said. “I remember there was a small summer stock theater just outside of Middlebury for a couple of years, and one day I bicycled out there just to ask them if they needed any help doing things. And so they actually put me to work building scenery and painting sets and stuff like that. And I really felt, yeah, ok, I’m at home here.”
At Amherst College in the 1950s, he majored in directing, where his first play was a translation of Euripedes’ The Cyclops. “This is my senior year of college, and I said, ok, there’s a chorus of satyrs and there’s a Cyclops, and there’s Odysseus. And I said, they’ve got to have masks! And so I made masks for this production. I’d never made that many masks and but they turned out pretty ok.” After graduating from Amherst in 1957, he traveled to Paris under his Fulbright award to study mime, and then pursued acting at the London Academy of Dramatic Art.
By the early 1960s, he and his new wife moved to New York, first to Riverdale to live with his in-laws, followed by a brief time in the East Village and a longer stretch on West End Avenue. In 1970, he and his family were among the first people to move into Westbeth on Bethune Street, the affordable housing site for literary, visual, and performing artists. “A lot of friends from the Open Theater [a local experimental theater that Lee had joined in the late 1960s] were living here, and so we could all see each other as frequently as we wanted to, or maybe a little more often than we might want.”
Soon after moving into Westbeth, Lee took a leave from the Open Theater to teach at Bennington College, where he combined his skills in puppet- and mask-making plus directing to lead a play that took place at various sites across campus, “an amazingly successful event,” Lee notes. Meanwhile,
The Theater for the New City had been bugging me for a couple of years to do some kind of a Halloween event. I had been either busy with the Open Theater or some other projects, and just hadn’t thought twice about it. But after doing this thing at Bennington I thought, “Hmm. Well…” They asked me again [and] I said, “Oh, yeah, let’s do some kind of a parade.” And so we did [in 1974]. In some respects, it was designed the way I had done the thing at Bennington. There were scenes that took place on balconies of buildings, or on the doorstep of a church, or near a flagpole, or various kinds of locations — or a playground. We’d stop the parade at various places and an event would happen, and then the parade would move on. That’s what the first parade was about. I had dug up all the masks that I possessed, that I’d made for one thing or another, and put them on people for this event.
The first parade route started at the theater on Jane Street, cut through Westbeth’s courtyard and over to Bleecker Street, then zigzagged to end at Washington Square. Its success allowed a second year for the festivities, when they realized the entire parade couldn’t be stopped for individual performances and instead started holding events that could be repeated at several sites. After the third year, the route had to change to incorporate Fifth Avenue on the trek to Washington Square Park. Each year, the parade and its attending crowds kept on growing.
“I continued to make some stuff for the parade but as time went on, I was so busy just getting it organized that I didn’t have time to really do that so much,” Lee said. “But I would try to make something for the parade specifically, something on a pretty large scale. One thing I did was I made this giant skeleton. It was like forty feet long, and it was carried in the parade on poles, at an angle, by a dozen people. And then when it got to Washington Square — and we had access to Washington Square arch by then — it could get hoisted up into the arch, and dance around in the arch once it was there.” By the parade’s 12th year, in 1985, he chose to step down from the event’s leadership.
Lee has continued his artistic pursuits over the years, and is currently both artistic director for the Mettawee River Theatre Company in Salem, New York, and an artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan. In 2018, Village Preservation honored Lee with a Village Award for his contributions to the arts and our communities.
Read more about Ralph Lee’s artistic education and theatrical experiences at our oral history here.