Pauline Benton

Pauline Benton (1898 – 1974)

“Miss Pauline Benton, daughter of a president of the University of the Philippines, studied Chinese shadow manipulation with Lee T’uo-ch’en, the leading shadow player in Peking before World War II. Upon her return to New York in the early 1930’s, she formed a troupe using these traditonal shadow figures, the Red Gate Shadow Puppets, later called the Red Gate Players. For 35 years Miss Benton’s shadows were seen in authentic productions, performing throughout the United States. Plays included The Burning of the Bamboo Grove, Ch’ang O’s Flight to the Moon, The Drum Dance, The Empty City, The Monkey Stealing the Peaches, The White Fox Spirit, and The White Snake. The Red Gate Players continue to perform under the direction of Mercina Karam.” [From Toward the Art of the Puppet: New York’s Heritage, exhibition brochure, 1975ish?, pg. 8]

“A visit to Pauline Benton at her Carmel, California, cottage unrolls as an adventure. Other “guests” also greet you, colorful and distinctive; and animals, too, like a horse, a rabbit, a white snake, a crow and a playful, benevolent dragon. This esoteric cast of characters, two-dimensional and of delicate parchment, all live in traveling cases carefully labeled “Demons,” “Ladies,” “Entertainers,” “Emperors” and other diversified categories such as “Clouds.” They make up part of Miss Benton’s cherished collection of traditional Chinese Shadow Play Figures. Pauline is much more than a collector. She is a rarity – a China-trained American animator who, with the expertise of 50 years, is today held in reverence and respect as a world authority on Chinese Shadow Play. . . . . . . . .”SHADOW WOMAN by Lucile Fessenden Dandelet

“From blue cotton bundles piled in rickshaws, the troupe set up a stage and a paper screen. Then, with a lantern to shine through the translucent, richly dyed figures, they made the actors perform by manipulating wires from below. The audience out front saw only jewel-bright figures in flexible poses sometimes humorous, sometimes poetic. With music. And dialogue, including male falsettos.

On her next trip to China, Pauline stayed nearly a year to train with Mr. Lee T’uo-ch’en, master shadow player. No woman had trained before and in the ’30s, social taboos forbade a man’s touching a woman’s hand. This meant that Pauline had to learn by watching, and be corrected in sign language. She became fascinated with pantomime.
Home again, she couldn’t wait until she had given a Shadow Play herself. She found an American actor and a musician, William Russell, who loved Chinese instruments, and the three worked on adaptions and translations, first for friends and then coast-to-coast for schools, colleges, clubs and museums. A full-time profession by 1932, her Red Gate Players were booked into 33 states.

Later, Pauline began giving slide shows at elementary schools, but popular demand was such that a new troupe was born, this time with the inspiring addition of Lou Harrison of the National Academy of Arts and Letters who did all the music.

Today, no longer performing or teaching, Pauline is directing her energy into the completion of a book on Chinese Shadow Theater. Richly illustrated with color photographs, it promises to reward its readers with its unusual firsthand experience in a country newly reopened to North Americans, as well as with its authenticity as a resource and its charm as folklore.

For new generations who will be creating their own legends and designing figures more often from plastic than parchment, it will be Pauline Benton’s unique legacy.” [Exerpts from Shadow Woman, byLucile Fessenden Dandelet, NRTA Journal, March-April, 1976, p. 51]


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