Origins of Puppet Opera

William “Bill” Fosser’s Opera in Focus has its roots in the legendary Chicago puppet opera at the downtown Kungsholm restaurant, in a building that is now home to Lawry’s the Prime Rib restaurant. Bill Fosser first worked on the Kungsholm puppet opera at the age of 14, in 1943.

Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera

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The original idea for an elaborate stage full of puppets reenacting operas was the brainchild of a Chicago youth named Ernest Wolff. Back in 1928 when Wolff was not yet a teenager, he became a lifelong fan of opera. The seeds for a new kind of show were sown in his mind. As a teenager, Wolff became interested in creating miniature renditions of opera sets in his home.

Several years later, in 1936, Wolff founded the Chicago Miniature Opera Company opened. By 1939, Wolff was touring all across the United States and Canada, delighting audiences with his curious new art form.

World War II brought a temporary halt to the growing puppet opera when Wolff was called to serve in the Army. This is when restaurant owner Frederick Chramer took Wolff’s groundbreaking idea and turned it into the Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera. When Wolff was away serving in the war, Chramer continued the puppet show along with the guidance of Wolff’s mother. However, Chramer failed to credit Wolff for creating the puppet opera.

When Wolff returned from the war, he sued Chramer for essentially stealing his unique puppet show idea. The Wolffs won, and with the settlement they invested in another puppet opera company that eventually went bankrupt. Fosser also worked with the Wolffs on this project.

Meanwhile, the lavish Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera continued its operations. Five years later, in 1947, a fire destroyed the Kungsholm building. Still, this didn’t stop the show. When the restaurant reopened in 1950, the puppet show also returned. Chramer installed modern lighting and sound for the puppet opera productions. Fosser returned to Kungsholm for the opening and remained there for three years.

In 1957, after Chramer’s health began to fail, he sold the show to the Fred Harvey restaurant chain.

The 1960s showed a steady decline in the quality of puppet opera that appeared at the Kungsholm. According to one source, people looted puppets and the theater no longer dazzled with the same brilliance.

Bill Fosser took over as art director in 1963, after Chramer’s death, and revitalized the program a bit. Still, the Kungsholm was fated to bust. While Fosser moved on to start his own puppet opera called Opera in Focus, the Kungsholm puppet show ended by 1971.

After the Fred Harvey restaurant chain was sold, the remaining Kungsholm puppet opera artifacts were donated to the Museum of Science and Industry.

Shayne Snyder, Bill Fosser, Justin Snyder

Shayne Snyder, Bill Fosser, Justin Snyder

Bill Fosser continued the tradition of puppet opera with his Opera in Focus. He mentored and trained Shayne and Justin Snyder until his death in 2006. The Snyder brothers are the current owners and operators of Opera in Focus, which is currently in production at the Rolling Meadows Park District Theater.

To purchase tickets and for more information on Opera in Focus, click here.

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9 responses to “Origins of Puppet Opera”

  1. Raymond Geckler says:

    Absolutely marvelous! I have been a devoted fan of Opera in Focus for many years and was delighted to see them on Chicago Tonight. True artistry!

  2. John Harris says:

    So enjoyed the Puppet Theater. My parents would take me to the restaurant ( Now Lawry’s) in the 50’s for a special treat. The fact it was in one of the last McCormick mansions near Michigan Ave was special. I remember the Opera Hansel and Gretel well. Thanks John Harris-Rogers Park

  3. Cynthia Singer says:

    My daughter and I look forward to the new show each month. Each one is unique and exceptionally entertaining! The beautiful, elaborate sets are my favorite part of the show.

  4. […] Interesting piece on the WTTW website about something I knew nothing about–mostly because my research on the Harvey company primarily carried through the late 1940s. But in the 1950s and 60s the company had a lot of different restaurants in and around Chicago–non-Harvey Girl restaurants–and according to this the Kungsholm was quite famous for its Puppet Opera. Who knew? […]

  5. Robert Marks says:

    My first opera, IL TROVATORE, seen in the Kungshokm Puppet Opera Theater, begain a love of opera that has continued to today. I was privileged to meet later in life Ernest Wolff, the originator of the puppet operas, and spent happy hours listening to recordings of great operatic voices of the past contained in his amazing collection. I have often wonderred what became of that historic collection upon his demise.

  6. Judi Doychak says:

    We recently went to the Czech Republic and attended the performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the National Marionette Theatre in Prague. We’re happy to learn about Opera in Focus and plan to attend a performance soon. Thank you for the information.

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