Ralph Lee, one of the New York stage’s preeminent mask and puppetry designers perhaps most widely known for his “Land Shark” that ate various cast members of Saturday Night Live during the 1970s, died May 12 at his home in Manhattan following a months-long illness. He was 87.
His death was announced by the Westbeth Artists Housing and Center for the Arts, the Manhattan residential complex where he long resided. His wife Casey Compton told The New York Times that he had been in declining health for several months.
Among his other accomplishments, Lee is credited with having launched New York’s Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in 1974, an event that has grown to become one of the city’s largest and most cherished holiday events.
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The parade – initially billed as a “pageant-parade” associated with the Off Off Broadway venue Theater for the New City – was created in part to spotlight Lee’s bizarre and lovely masks and puppets. The small gathering outside the West Village theater was an immediate success, even earning Lee an Obie Award. By the 1980s the parade relocated from the small Village sidestreets to the Avenue of the Americas, where it continues every year.
Over the years, Lee’s designs would not be confined to either streets or Off Broadway: His masks and puppets were featured on the stages of the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Joffrey Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera. He was a longtime artist-in-residence at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
But the Lee creation that reached the widest audience was no doubt the Land Shark, a Jaws-inspired Great White costume first worn by Chevy Chase in a 1975 Saturday Night Live sketch. The popular bit, in which Chase’s ravenous shark meekly pretended to be offering Candygrams to unsuspecting victims including Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman and Jane Curtin, became a recurring and much-loved sketch during the early years of the NBC show.
In a 2003 interview quoted by The New York Times, Lee said, “People still know about that shark. For many people, it is my claim to fame. When I was making it, I thought it would get used once and shucked.”
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