Early Children’s Television Pioneer and San Francisco Renaissance Man Rediscovered in New Exhibition

Ralph Chesse with puppet
San Francisco Public Library hosts world premiere of Ralph Chessé: A San Francisco Century, including never-before-seen artworks and puppets from the children’s television show Brother Buzz

On view May 16 – August 18, 2024, San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin Street 
Public Opening Program and Reception: Saturday, May 18, 1-5 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO, April 25, 2024 - On the second floor of the iconic Coit Tower, there’s a modest mural by Ralph Chessé, a prolific but little-known San Francisco artist. This is his most visible and enduring legacy, but Chessé (1900-1991) was a true Renaissance man. He engaged in a remarkable range of media, including painting, sculpture, murals, printmaking and, notably, puppets. Chessé was an actor and puppeteer who performed throughout the Bay Area, even developing a beloved children’s show, Brother Buzz, in the early 1950s. San Francisco Public Library partnered with curator Glen Helfand and the Chessé family to tell the untold story of a pioneering artist's deep connection to San Francisco through a diverse range of artwork, puppets, photographs and artifacts.

Born of Creole heritage in New Orleans in 1900, Chessé spent the bulk of his life as a working artist in San Francisco, contributing to and representing Bay Area culture. His work is prominently featured amongst the murals in Coit Tower placing him in the midst of Depression-era public works; he staged puppet shows at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island; and starting in the early 1950s, was the main creator of Brother Buzz, a long-running and beloved animal-themed educational children’s show still fondly remembered by Bay Area residents. All the while, Chessé made a wide variety of works, including paintings depicting the 1960s rock and roll scene. Ralph Chessé: A San Francisco Century offers an overview of the artist’s work, including rare puppets, paintings, woodcuts, photographs and documents that highlight his unique and under-recognized place in the City’s history. 

“The Chessé family are all very indebted to San Francisco Public Library and curator Glen Helfand for choosing to honor Ralph’s work and legacy,” says the artist’s grandson Matt Chessé. “This show is incredibly meaningful for us, as many of the works on view come from our personal collections. They are the remaining connections we have to this industrious patriarch and Renaissance man, who shaped all of our lives through his indefatigable commitment to creativity and his art. It has long been a dream of ours to see Ralph’s life and work recognized and celebrated in the city that he loved, and that was his creative home. And, through the mounting of this exhibition, the terrific team at the Library have made this dream a reality. We could not be more grateful or excited.”

The exhibition opens with a snapshot of Chessé’s artistic range. This section features works dating back to the early 20th century, including the 1927 painting, The Black Madonna, which won the prestigious Anne Bremer Prize in the San Francisco Art Association’s Annual Art Exhibition in 1928, along with self-portraits, documents and family photographs, including a portrait by noted photographer Imogen Cunningham. 

Following is a section devoted to Chessé’s Coit Tower fresco and his activities during the WPA era. During this period, he served as the State Director of Puppetry for the State of California, and staged puppet shows for the Federal Theater Project, with some rare footage of his Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on Treasure Island during the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition.

Chessé’s puppets are a key part of his legacy, it is a form that he used to create theatrical experiences for adults and children.  The show includes puppets created for his productions of Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neil’s The Emperor Jones, which he staged numerous times, and works by Moliere. A selection of linocut posters, printed with an old-fashioned washing machine ringer, attest to the range of material and the San Francisco addresses where Chessé set up his stage, many of them now lost to history. As part of the exhibition, the SFPL produced a facsimile of a puppet theater based on the artist’s sketch.

Brother Buzz may be Chessé’s best-known achievement. The children’s show ran on KPIX from 1952 until 1966 with the Brother Buzz character serving as a guide through the animal kingdom. Chessé created new puppets weekly for the show, doing extensive research into his subjects. A video reel, compiled by the artist’s grandson, Matt Chessé, an Academy Award-nominated film editor, introduces the TV show to new audiences while bringing back fond memories to those whose Bay Area childhoods were enriched by the show. 

In the 1960s, Ralph Chessé was introduced to San Francisco’s youth culture—hippie and rock and roll—through his nephew, Peter Albin, the guitarist for Big Brother and the Holding company. While he was more stately in disposition, Chessé observed the cultural shift with interest.  The show includes a stylized painting of the band, including lead singer Janis Joplin, full of life and color. Chessé’s paintings engage a number of aesthetics and styles, attesting to his continued creativity and curiosity. 

Audio commentary from family members provides unique personal insight into the works in the exhibition. 

Ralph Chessé: A San Francisco Century was made possible through funding by Friends of the San Francisco Public Library and the generosity of the Chessé Family. This exhibition was curated by Glen Helfand in collaboration with the Library’s Exhibition Team.  

All events are free and open to the public. More information at sfpl.org.

Ralph Chessé: A San Francisco Century 
On view May 16 – August 18, 2024
San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, Jewett Gallery, Lower Lovel 

Opening Program and Reception 
A celebration program and reception will take place on Saturday, May 18, from 1-5 p.m. in the Koret Auditorium at the Main Library. The afternoon will include an exhibition tour with curator Glen Helfand; a conversation with Bruce Chessé, Ralph’s son and collaborator and an on-stage demonstration with local puppeteer Fred C. Reilly III who will activate different types of puppets. Immerse yourself in the world of Ralph Chessé, a prolific artist who made a lasting impact on the Bay Area arts and theater scene. 
Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, Koret Auditorium, Lower Level 

Puppet Making Workshop
Make a puppet inspired by Ralph Chessé: A San Francisco Century. During his long and prolific career, Ralph Chessé produced a wide range of artworks, most notably marionettes, which he created for productions of plays – Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare were favorites – and his beloved children’s television series, Brother Buzz. Learn how to construct a simple puppet using string and other materials with local artist and arts educator Ramon Abad. 
Saturday, July 20, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, Latino/Hispanic Meeting Room, Lower Level 

Coit Tower Mural Visits
Receive free admission to visit the WPA mural painted by Ralph Chessé at Coit Tower on Friday, August 16, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.. This is a one day only deal; be sure not to miss the opportunity. 
Coit Tower, 1 Telegraph Hill Boulevard, San Francisco


April 25, 2024