By 1975, Ralph Oppenheim’s Magic Puppet World had been going strong in the Poconos. One thing leads to another, and as with most things in his life, Ralph had veered off in a new direction—furniture making.
Magic Puppet World turning to furniture world, too
The Pocono Record, The Stroudsburgs, PA • 2 August 1975
Ralph Oppenheim finishes handmade chair in his barn workshop.
SCIOTA – Always at work on another project. Ralph and Shirley Oppenheim have patience.
They have a reputation for creating fascinating mechanized puppet shows but they have turned their talents lo making hand-tooled furniture, including luxurious dog beds.
They always seem to get involved in time-consuming projects. First it was puppet shows that take months of delicate adjustments and modifications before the figures act flawlessly. The latest is the construction by hand of a 26-piece dog bed wilh a modern art design. The project took three weeks.
The Oppenheims are asking $1,000 for the bed. They have beds of several designs on sale at the Animal Gourmet, a restaurant for dogs in New York City.
The furniture for humans appeals to people of more modest means. They are making tables, stools and chairs just as they were made in early America. No power tools are used to shape the wood and neither nails nor screws are used to piece it together.
All of the furniture is made with pine, either clear, knotty or Southern. It is fitted together with blind pegs. Like the other work the Oppenheims do, they design the furniture together. Ralph does the carpentry and Shirley does the finishing.
“You rarely see furniture that someone puts any artistry into.” Shirley said.
The furniture-making started after people saw their dog beds and suggested they make furniture for people too. Oppenheim, 68, has been a skilled carpenter and tinkerer with machines for years.
After World War II, Oppenheim gave up a career writing Fiction for pulp magazines to put together puppet shows, the thing that really interested him.
Mrs. Oppenheim helped out and 11 years ago they opened the Magic Puppet World. The attraction, on Bus. Rte. 209 between Snydersville and Sciota, was oriented toward children until a few years ago.
Then, the Oppenheims started working on a series of displays of modern sculptures in motion. To their surprise, their original art-in-molion creations appealed to children as well as adults.
Hand-carved statue of modern design.
Because of the changes, the place was renamed the Oppenheim Gallery and Puppet World. Oppenheim describes the new sculptures as expressionistic studies in motion. They are much more abstract and sophisticated than the earlier more conventional pieces.
“We feel we haven’t completely developed it even now,” Oppenheim said. They will continue to make mechanized pieces when their attention is diverted from the furniture they are making now.
“Whatever we are doing at the time seems the most important.” Oppenheim said.
The early pieces are miniature shows. Lasting about a minute, the two- and three-inch high figures move and interact on a stage, their movements guided by an intricate network of fine silk threads.
Five of the shows are circus acts. The rest are children’s storybook scenes. An aerobatic act and an assembly line of a sausage factory are among the shows. A half dozen figures guided by 25 or 30 strings, each with a specific purpose, comprise each show.
The first one made was an animal circus act. It uses a motor-driven rotating cylinder with cams that push levers connected strings that manipulate the figures. The cylinder rotates once, taking about a minute, to create all of the movement of the figures.
To design such a piece, it is necessary lo plan the motion of several figures at once and prevent all of the strings from becoming tangled.
“By the time you get finished, you have to go back and do it over again, usually,” Oppenheim said. He slowly became experienced in selecting motors and other parts for the displays, accepting advice from parts dealers.
Oppenheim began the work without any mechanical training. Computer experts vacationing in the area who stopped to see the show told Oppenheim that the cam design is similar to cam designs used in some modern computers, Oppenheim said. They assumed he had some background in engineering, which he does not have, Oppenheim said.
“When it came to these things, I didn’t even know about gears, how they work,” Oppenheim said. “It was all trial and error up to a point.”
In one of the shows, a lion tamer sticks his head in a lion’s mouth. In another, a balerina walks down stairs and her partners dance. All are coordinated to music, accomplished originally with use of a stop watch.
“It took three months to get her to walk down the stairs to the tune of the music,” Oppenheim said. “The entire piece took over a year to make” working off and on, he said.
Major industries, including the Ford Motor Company, AT&T and Westinghouse, several years ago contracted with the Oppenheims to custom make puppet shows for display at trade conferences, museums and at the New York World’s Fair in 1964-65.
Always, they would work together, sometimes day and night for weeks, to complete the projects on time, they said.
“Both of us tear each other’s work apart and it really becomes a collaboration.” Mrs. Oppenheim said. She attended Cooper Union, a New York City art school, majoring in design.
Recently, the Oppenheims discontinued making ceramic and copper jewelry. They had no time for that project along with all of the others they have going.
With Ralph’s death in August 1978, Shirley closed up the Oppenheim Gallery and Puppet World and moved back to New York City to be near family. She passed away in 2006.