Husband Maurice Browne

Queer Places:
Fine Arts Building, 410-418 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60605

Ellen Van Volkenburg (October 8, 1882 – December 15, 1978), born Nellie Van Volkenburg in Battle Creek, Michigan, the daughter of Frank Hoyt Van Volkenburg and Juliet Cooper. She was a leading actress, director, puppeteer and theater educator in the United States and the UK. Educated at the University of Michigan (A.B., member of the Alpha Phi), Van Volkenburg has been credited, along with her then-husband Englishman Maurice Browne (married in Chicago on June 1, 1912), with being the founder of the Little Theatre Movement in America through their work with the Chicago Little Theatre.[1] Van Volkenburg and Browne went on to found the department of drama at the Cornish School in Seattle in 1918, now Cornish College of the Arts.[2] Although she divorced Maurice Browne in 1922, for much of her life she signed herself "Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne." She had a 15-year intimate relationship with a woman.

The most notable work in American puppets was done in Chicago under the direction of Maurice Browne and Ellen Van Volkenburg, with productions that included A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1916. She developed the art, carried her work from Chicago to New York, and across the continent to San Francisco and Seattle in 1918-1919. Here she founded puppet groups and worked with Nellie Cornish at the Cornish School of the Theatre. Ellen VanVolkenburg and Nellie Cornish were responsible for training the first group of professional puppeteers on the West Coast.

Among the outstanding students trained in the art of puppetry at the Cornish School of the Theatre was Grace Barnes, one of the first professional puppeteers in Los Angeles. She toured with puppet shows on the Pacific Coast during 1914-1923. While traveling in the north, the company was known as the Cornish Puppeteers; later the name was changed to the Grace Barnes Puppet Group. By 1924 Grace Barnes and her associates played at the Gamut Club in Los Angeles. A circus show, "Peter Rabbit," "Aladdin," and other acts were presented. Among the features of the shows were the beautiful puppets which Ellen Van Volkenburg had purchased in Europe; she allowed Miss Barnes to use them for her performances.

Van Volkenburg later directed plays for Tony Sarg, who became the most important influence in American puppetry, with such large-scale marionette plays as Rip Van Winkle, The Rose and the Ring, and Alice in Wonderland.


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