Sydney Chrysler

Sydney Chrysler (1915 – 1999)

Sydney Chrysler as told by Frank Ballard

edited by Crystal Tiala

He was exposed to the most wonderful culture and all the highest principals of education, but he was just as weird as the rest of his family. He worked a little bit as a librarian and was a great opera buff and of course I am a great opera buff. So, we met him shortly after we got here [1956] and he would invite us over. We had been to see half a dozen of his operas and he did so many more since I had last been there. He invited about 25 at a time to his studio theatre. In the wall of his studio was a permanent proscenium with an orchestra pit. The orchestra raised up at the beginning revealing all the orchestra members equipped with all their instruments.

There were bleacher type steps where we would sit on chairs. He stocked opera glasses. We watched this miniature opera where everything was in the exact detail and size that it would be if you were in the family circle at the Met. So after a while you really got the feeling that these were live performers. They were 3 inches high.

He was a researcher and everything had to be exactly right. These were his own designs built with everything exactly according to period. He had shelves and shelves of catalogued research; i.e.: shoes 1850’s, women’s wear 18th century, men’s wigs, 17th century.

His talent in doing these toy theatre operas was just unsurpassed. This was his big hobby. The basic figure began with a pipe cleaner and then were dressed in [crepe] paper. He did the work with tweezers, added jewels and lace and they were just exquisite. The stage had its own running system, its own fly system. The music was recorded. Spot lights were made out of toilet paper rolls and he would have whole banks of them. He had cycloramas, sky drops, that would fly. Everything flew or slid in. Above the stage was a hole cut in the ceiling to accommodate controls for the scenery and puppeteers up in the attic. The storage was all under the eaves and as far as you could see there were sets.

Major characters were like marionettes. They had strings and little cardboard controls. The choruses were on sliders, cardboard pieces that would pull them across the stage. The grand march from Aida had sliders about 6 feet long, 6 of them, filled with figures; elephants, ivory carriers, slaves, and it just goes on and on and on. Most of the figures were stiff, of course, and just stand there, but then as he said, so do opera singers. Many others, however, had movement. Solome could take off her seven veils and she could strip. Tosca moves her arms. She could go over and pick up the candelabra and set them on either side of Scarpia. This is all 3 inches tall and all of them are different. The chorus in La Traviata were dressed in these beautiful hoop skirts, all in lace and jewels, and they are able to waltz. He had a double track system that brought them on and turned them so they were able to spin around, each one. There must have been a dozen waltzing couples.
Usually something would happen like a string would catch on something and force him to reach in to rectify the situation. All of a sudden this huge form would appear in your opera glasses and it would make you jump. This would make him very mad at the operator.

Important Facts The port scene in Manon Lescaut had a ship which sailed in and unfurled its sails. He had an 18th century woman walking her three poodles, each one a little different style, different color, and a puppy that trailed behind her. The stage coaches in Manon Lescaut, besides having horses and people inside them, had exact replicas of what would be in the luggage rack outside, suitcases, hatboxes and sword cases. It was just amazing. He had very long fingers for doing detailed work. He was a beautiful artist and the sets and costumes were exquisite.
He did some manipulation, but he depended upon his friends and neighbors to be his main manipulators. They came in to help him but if a mistake was made you had better watch out. His neighbors would help him with his house, also. They took care of his furnace or mowed his lawn and he would get mad at them and they wouldn’t know why. All of a sudden they would go to do whatever they had been doing all these years and he would chase them out of his yard. They where on his black list for some unknown reason.
He was very persnickety and you could get on his black list very quickly. One time, he invited us in to listen to the opening of the Met which had commissioned Samuel Barber to do a new opera and called Antony and Cleopatra. He had a big listening party that night and you came in and he met you at the door and said, “No one talks while the opera is on or out you go.” So all his friends sat there petrified. Anyone who had to go to the bathroom kept crossing their legs but no one would dare speak up and say they had to go. They just sat there and they would listen to the opera. When it was over he said, “Well, it wasn’t very good, was it?”.

Sydney Chrysler born June 20, 1915 He earned a degree in Interior Decoration from the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY. Received an honorable discharge from the United States Army on December 10, 1945, where he had worked as Supply NCO, never served in a battle or campaign, and was awarded the American Theater Ribbon, the American Defense Ribbon and the Victory Medal.

Excerpts from:The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry acquired what remained of the Chrysler collection from his estate in December of 1997. Despite earlier wishes that the operas be burned, the Museum was able to convince the estate of the importance of its preservation. Many of the items stored in the attic were attacked by mice and mold and could not be saved. But the number of operas created by Sydney Chrysler was so great that much could be recovered and it is now in the process of being restored. It is a painstaking process that will take many years. Frank Ballard dreams of recreating the stage to a working condition so that the Chrysler tradition of opera can be continued.

“Chaplin Impresario Stages Grand Opera With Performers Three Inches High”
by David H. Fowler, The Hartford Courant: Sunday, November 25, 1951

Grand opera, with 800 singers and a 75 piece orchestra, is in rehearsal in this town of 712 under the guidance of impresario Sidney Chrysler. Connecticut music lovers will find it hard to believe that statement, but Chrysler can prove it: on a stage three feet high and three feet wide, with his 800 miniature actor singers, each three inches high. . . . . . . . . “A friend calls me a ‘miniature impresario’” said Chrysler. “I’m just another stage-struck person, a frustrated one. I’ve directed amateur plays, designed scenery and I do interior designing. And I do all my own work on these miniature operas. They’re not puppets, you know; most have only one string to move them, and they’re much smaller than regular puppets.” Chrysler has combined his artist’s eye, his craftsmanship and a thorough knowledge of grand opera and ballet in staging his miniature productions. Both the little figures, which are of wire, covered with paper, and the settings show elaborate and accurate detail.

Interior sets, he said, are completely furnished with specially made pieces. Furniture intended for doll-houses can never be used since it is out of scale and generally too large. Exterior sets sometimes have three dimensions, depending on the opera. The backstage is built on two levels; the drops rise above the second floor of the building, and the persons manipulating the strings which move the figures are on the second floor. Stage settings are assembled on wheeled wagons and are rolled into place for speed. The orchestra, with instruments in proper proportion, rise to the pit in front of the stage from below. Many different lighting effects can be produced with the 30 stage lights, such as a moon rising and crossing the sky, or fires on the stage, as in Wagnerian operas.

As many as 200 actors appear on the stage during the performance of Verdi’s Aida. Other productions include Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Tannhauser and Die Walkure and Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Salome. Also Verdi’s La Traviata, Massenet’s Manon , Bizet’s Carmen Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel ballets to music by Bach, Tschaikovsky and Ravel, and a Nativity pantomime designed as a Flemish fifteenth century alterpiece.

In the planning stage are Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, a royal progress on the Thanes to Handel’s Water Music, and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe ballet.

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