Jero Magon, Stager of Eugene O'Neill
It all started with e-bay. A few years ago I punched in a search for items in some way pertaining to Eugene O’Neill, especially theatre programs for productions of A Long Day’s Journey into Night. But it was something else that day that piqued my interest. It was a painting of “Peaked Hill Bars,” done by Jero Magon” (whose name, at the time, meant nothing to me). We decided to place a bid which we continued to raise until the auction ended and we learned that our bid, although it was the highest, it had not met the reserve placed on the painting. So we didn’t get it. Nobody did. And that would have been the end of it except that a few days later we were contacted by the seller and asked if we were still willing to pay the amount that we had bid. That was certainly o.k. with us. We sent off a check and in due time we received the painting.
The painting was signed “Jero Magon,” and on the back of the painting the artist explained:
Obviously, since Magon did the original for Eugene O’Neill, and not for Eugene O’Neill, Jr., who by the time “Peaked Hills Bar” had slipped into the Atlantic had become the last owner of the converted life-saving station originally bought for the playwright by his father, James O’Neill, but later passed on to him, the question arose naturally as to just who Jero Magon was and how was he connected to O’Neill. I considered the probability that was a two-way correspondence between Magon and O’Neill and that it had survived. A search of the likely places—the O’Neill papers at Yale University’s Beinecke Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts and the O’Neill collection at Connecticut College—turned up some material. At Connecticut College I found copies of three O’Neill letters to Magon now housed in Special Collections at the University of Virginia. They were dated December 24, 1939, March 13, 1940, and October 16, 1941. At the Beinecke I expected to find Magon’s side of the correspondence but came up dry. What I did find, in O’Neill’s letter notebooks, copies of drafts in O’Neill’s hand for three letters to Magon—none of them dated. One of them I recognized as the draft for the letter of December 24, 1939, a copy of which was at Connecticut College.
The next step, of course, was to find out just what the University of Virginia had by way of Magon—O’Neill materials. As it turned out, they were listed as having seven letters from Magon to O’Neill, along with a playbill for a production of Marco Millions, a drama in three acts, Marionette Guild, New York. May request for copies of these materials was honored, with the exception of the playbill, which could not be found. The letters ranged in date from1933 to 1941.
The first letter, dated June 22, 1933, and in O’Neill’s hand, carries the returned address of Casa Genotta, Sea Island, Georgia. It is addressed to Jerome Magon, Esq., 201 East 40th Street (Studio 4), New York City.
Four months later, on October 20, 1933, still from Sea Island, O’Neill wrote again.
I’ve inserted the word “more”; but in doing so I may be distorting O’Neill’s true meaning.
There are no letters for the next five years. Then, almost to the day, on October 18, 1939, O’Neill writes, this time from Tao House. The letter is typewritten and signed by O’Neill.
I did not find this book at the Beinecke.
The next letter, again from Tao House, is dated December 4, 1938. It carries an inside address: “Mr Jerome Magon, / 257 West 40th Street, / New York City.”
The Marco Millions program is listed in the library catalogue of the University of
Virginia holdings but could not be found when I requested it.
A little over a year later, on December 24, 1939, O’Neill writes again. This time the name on the inside address reads “Jero Magon,” not “Jerome Magon.”
The next-to-last letter of O’Neill’s side of this correspondence was written from Tao House on March 13, 1940.
The 1931 marionette production of The Hairy Ape was the work of Louis Bunin, not Jero Magon. Hence O’Neill felt free to offer his candid opinion of the production when writing to Magon, as we have seen.
The critic for the New York Times did not much like the production:
I do not think Tony Sarg took up the suggestion that he do a “tom-thumb” version of Strange Interlude.
The last letter of the batch of seven was sent from Tao House and was dated October 16, 1941. It acknowledged the receipt of Magon’s special gift to O’Neill in celebration of his forty-third birthday.
Well, it was hardly a friendship for the ages. In fact, it was not a friendship at all. At best, it can be inferred from O’Neill’s letters, Jero Magon was a fan of his, one who set gifts and, better still, used his skill and talents as a puppeteer to put on several of O’Neill’s plays. For years Magon carried around O’Neill’s letters to show other puppeteers and fans at festivals and the like.
For example, a New York Times report in 1963 on a gathering of “300 puppeteers from 37 states and Argentina concludes: “Jero Magon, who once presented a puppet version of ‘Marco Millions,’ proudly displayed a letter from the playwright. In a brief note, dated 1939, O’Neill asked, ‘Did you ever think of doing ‘The Hairy Ape?’”
Jero Magon was not the first puppeteer to put on an O’Neill play. The Emperor Jones was done with puppets in the 1920s. Tucked away at the Beinecke are nine shots by Helen Liebman of this otherwise unidentified production. It is possible that the production in question is Ralph Chessé’s production in 1928. As Chessé later recalled,
Over the years Chessé would do a number of productions of The Emperor Jones. As he recalled, “Jones was always a surefire success and won the praises of audience and sponsor.”
It was not until 1933 that Jero Magon produced The Emperor Jones. I do not know the exact date of when or precisely where it was first produced, but it is announced in the New York Times for the end of April at the New School for Social Research. At the end of the year Magon did The Emperor Jones at the Provincetown Playhouse.
The author of this one-paragraph review signed “B.C.” was probably Bosley Crowther, an influential critic at the Times. However, Magon, who had a vision of his puppet work as “high art,” saw his efforts “as part of the expressionist art movement of the early twentieth century.” Time seems to have vindicated him. His production of The Emperor Jones is now seen as the important beginning of his personal “pursuit of puppet modernism.”
Jero Magon’s next production of an O’Neill play was Marco Millions, at Carnegie Hall’s Chamber Music Hall in 1938, using this time “marionettes and shadow figures.” Unfortunately, I have not seen a copy of Puppetry 1939, which contains a piece on Magon’s production (see Magon’s letter of December 24, 1939). I have no knowledge of any other Magon productions of O’Neill plays. Nor, might I add for the record, was Magon responsible for the marionette version of The Count of Monte Cristo presented at the Episcopal Actors Guild of the Little Church Around the Corner on December 21, 1939.
But Eugene O’Neill continued to play an important part in Magon’s creative life. Besides carrying around the letters he received from O’Neill, he brought the playwright into his 1976 book Staging the Puppet Show. This manual is generously sprinkled with examples and illustrations related to his own productions of O’Neill’s plays. Magon also published in facsimile three of O’Neill’s letters to him (June 22, 1933, December 24, 1939, and October 16, 1941), along with a photograph of the plasticene bust, as we have seen, and a photograph of Magon with Paul Robeson captioned: “greatest black actor and singer, examines Brutus Jones marionette made in his image by Jero Magon.”
As for the possibility that Magon’s work had any influence on O’Neill’s, that notion must be left to my betters to sort out. Virginia Floyd, who thinks that Magon’s Book of Puppetry may have “inspired” O’Neill “to experiment with marionettes,” has something suggestive to say on the subject:
But, as I’ve said, I’ll leave the matter to others.
One last thing. In 1971 Magon wrote to Time magazine. He wished to put in his own two cents to the important question of just who should be the Times “man of the year.” His letter appeared in the December 13th issue: “My nomination for Man of the Year: John Kerry. His eloquent, haunting protest against the war may well mark a turning point in our country’s ‘long day’s journey into night.’” O’Neill was never far his mind—to the last.
PRODUCTION ILLUSTRATIONS FROM MARCO MILLIONS (Figures 10-14):
 I wish to thank Ann Causy of Special Collections, University of Virginia libraries, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, for supplying me with copies of O’Neill’s letters to Jerome Magon, and Laurie M. Deredita, Special Collections Librarian, Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut, for her aid with material from the Louis Sheaffer—Eugene O’Neill Collection.
 “‘The Hairy Ape’ Given with Marionettes,” New York Times (Apr. 15, 1931), p. 21.
 Paul Gardner, “Puppeteers Wake Catskill Village,” New York Times (June 25, 1963), p. 35.
 Ralph Chessé, The Marionette Actor (Fairfax, Virginia: George Mason University Press, 1987), p. 23.
 Chessé, Marionette Actor, 39.
 “Theatrical Notes,” New York Times (Apr. 25, 1933), p. 15.
 B. C., “Puppet Show,” New York Times (Dec. 26, 1933), p. 18.
 John Bell, Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History (Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 2000), pp. 94, 95.
 Bell, Strings, 95.
 “Grace George Back in Opening Night,” New York Times (Dec. 21, 1939), p. 28.
 Virginia Floyd, Eugene O’Neill at Work: Newly Released Ideas for Plays (New York: Ungar, 1981), 321-22.
 Floyd, O’Neill at Work, 346.
 Steven Meltzer, “Paul Winchell: Getting the Dummy off the Knee,” The Puppetry Journal (Spring 1996), www.ventriloquistcentral.com/articles/index.htm. See also Paul Eide and Gary Busk, “Artist and innovator”—a documentary film on Jero Magon’s life and career in puppetry—and “Some Older ‘News,’” The Puppet-Gram (Sept. 2003), www.puppetlove.com/PGSF/news2003-19.pdf.
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