Masterpieces in Miniature | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Masterpieces in Miniature 

Opera hits the small-time with William B. Fosser's ingenious creations.

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By Deanna Isaacs

There's a show after the show at William B. Fosser's "Opera in Focus" in Rolling Meadows. It begins when Fosser steps through the drapes at one side of his jewel-box puppet stage to address the audience. He's there to explain the magic they've just seen, but to eyes adjusted to the miniature world of his Hansel and Gretel, he looks (for a moment) gigantic and magical himself. Fosser has the size and snow-white hair of a Santa Claus and large, heavy-looking hands that glide through the air when he speaks, as if they were riding on a wire. In this 65-seat theater, improbably located in the basement of the Rolling Meadows Park District headquarters, he is Geppetto come to life. "We'll show you how we do what we do," he says. "We won't tell you why we do it."

Bill Fosser was born on the west side of Chicago 71 years ago. He was an asthmatic kid with a lot of forced downtime. His twin obsessions came into his life early on, thanks to an aunt who gave him a book on puppetry and took him, at the age of seven, to a performance of Il trovatore at the Civic Opera House. "That did it," Fosser says. "I fell in love with opera and the staging of opera. I never got over it."

When his worsening asthma sprang him from a parochial school and landed him at the Jesse Spaulding School for Crippled Children, he got his first art lessons and his first access to artists' materials. He began constructing his own sets, duplicating in miniature any stage production he saw. A boyhood chance to work with a marionette company taught him the limitations of stringed actors and led him to develop an articulated rod puppet that was operated from beneath the stage and could move through an elaborate set. He took it to Fredrick Chramer, who owned the Kungsholm restaurant in the former McCormick mansion at Rush and Ontario (now Lawry's the Prime Rib), home of the celebrated Miniature Grand Opera. Chramer hired him as a stagehand. It was 1943; Fosser was 14 years old.

Kungsholm's puppet opera originated with another Chicago youngster, Ernest Wolf. An opera buff and record collector, Wolf built a copy of the Civic Opera stage in his basement and began producing shows performed with rod puppets. His puppet opera went to the 1938 World's Fair and on a national tour before Chramer hired it in '41. Chramer and Wolf soon parted company, but the puppet opera remained a fixture at the Kungsholm, where Fosser gleefully worked until his parents forced him to quit because his grades were falling. He would return for two more stints there: one in the 1950s and another (as artistic director) a decade later, after Chramer died and the restaurant had been sold to the Fred Harvey organization. Chramer's arrangement with Harvey stipulated that the opera continue as it had under his ownership, but by the early 70s both the opera and the Kungsholm were closed.

Since then Fosser has earned his living as a set decorator, designer, and art director, working on films like Ordinary People and Groundhog Day. But he continued to perfect his own puppets--larger and more flexible (they walk, sit, kneel, bow, carry things) than Kungsholm's. His experience there convinced him that a condensed show of opera highlights, no more than an hour in length, would draw an audience--if only he could find a home for it. He set his theater up in the only space he could get--a large empty classroom at Niles College, a seminary. He wasn't allowed to perform there, but with the theater assembled he was able to fine-tune his ideas. Shortly before the seminary closed he got a call from the director of the Rolling Meadows Park District. Six years ago, "Opera in Focus" opened in its current quarters.

After his postshow spiel, Fosser invites the audience backstage to see the high-tech underpinnings and little wheeled stools the puppeteers whiz around on. The staff includes puppeteer and costume designer Paul Guerra, an associate since Fosser's last stint at Kungsholm; puppeteers Will Harder and Mark Boudreau (who began as a fan and apprentice when he was 12); and actor Tony Mockus, whose narratives sound like they're broadcast from the Met. "I can walk through here and look at things, and the age I was when I made them comes up," Fosser says. "It's sort of like this is my life. It is my life." It's been a good one, he says, adding that he's looking for one or two interns who might fall under the spell of the grandest music married to the smallest vehicle and help carry it on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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