Ralph Lee 1935-2023

Ralph Lee and MasksRalph Lee, Legendary Mask and Puppet Maker, Artistic Director of the Mettawee River Theatre Co, and Founder of the Village Halloween Parade, dies at 87

Ralph Minor Lee, 87, of Middlebury, VT, died in his home in New York City on May 12, 2023, following a long illness. He was preceded in his death by his parents, William Storrs Lee and Mary Louise Minor Lee, and his brother William “Bill” Lee, and is survived by his beloved wife and artistic partner Elizabeth “Casey” Compton, children Heather Lee, Jennifer Lee, Joshua Lee, and Dorothy Lee, six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. In addition to his major contributions to the theater world, he was also a loving and dedicated husband, father, grandfather, and friend.

Lee first made puppets as a child, and went on to create masks, puppets, and large-scale figures for many theater and dance companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, the New York City Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, the Phoenix Theater, the Waverly Consort, the Living Theater, Shari Lewis, the Ensemble for Early Music, the New York Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare & Company, Erick Hawkins Dance Company, Jean Erdman’s Theater of the Open Eye, Saturday Night Live (he designed and built the Land Shark), La MaMa, and Yoshiko Chuma’s School of Hard Knocks. As an actor he appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway, in regional theaters, and was a member of the Open Theatre, directed by Joseph Chaiken. He produced and directed events for many institutions including the LaJolla Playhouse, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where he was an artist-in-residence since 1984.

Lee directed the first Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in 1974, working in conjunction with the Theater for the New City. The parade was conceived as a mile-long theatrical event of masked performers, giant puppets and musicians that moved through the small neighborhood streets in an environment populated with additional flamboyant characters. After directing the parade for 12 years, during which time the event began to attract crowds of over 250,000 people, Lee stepped away, stating, “The parade has always been a celebration of the individual imagination in all its infinite variety. It continues to provide a framework for this expression and invites the participation of everyone.”

In 1976 Lee became Artistic Director of the Mettawee River Theatre Company, which became a center of his creative activity. With Mettawee he worked alongside his wife, Casey Compton, one of the founding members, and the company’s Managing Director. Together they produced plays based on creation myths, trickster tales, legends and folklore from the world’s many cultures. Each summer Mettawee operated from a farmhouse in Salem, NY, and toured with outdoor performances in upstate New York and New England, traveling to rural communities with limited exposure to live theater.

Lee graduated from Amherst College in 1957 and held teaching positions and residencies with several schools and institutions, including New York University, where he was on the faculty 1988-2022, the Coalition of Immokale Workers in Immokale, Florida, the Navajo Reservation in Rock Point, Arizona, and the University of Maryland in College Park, where he was the Jim Henson Artist-in-Residence 2007-08. Lee received many awards and honors for his work, including a Citation from the Municipal Arts Society, an induction into the CityLore People’s Hall of Fame, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York State Governor’s Arts Award, two individual Obie awards, and two American Theatre Wing design awards. Ralph Lee and Casey Compton received a 2022 Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Lee’s work included parades, pageants, seasonal celebrations, and theatrical performances, often outside of traditional performance venues. He always strived to make the artistic experience accessible to all by staging events in familiar public locations, free-of-charge whenever possible, and creating vivid images that resonate deeply.

Those who would like to make a tribute donation are welcome to do so either to the Agricultural Stewardship Association or Mettawee River Theatre Co.

You can read more about Ralph Lee’s life and work in various publications, including The New York Times, the Times Union, and The Village Sun.