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From the Collection–Possum Trot

Calvin Black (American, 1903-1972) and Ruby Black (American, 1913-1980). Possum Trot Midget Doll Theatre.  ca. 1950-1972.  Wood, wood paneling, laminated Masonite, nails, bolts, paint, electrical components, and carved and painted wooden dolls.  The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art M1989.325.
Calvin Black (American, 1903-1972) and Ruby Black (American, 1913-1980). Possum Trot Midget Doll Theatre, ca. 1950-1972. Wood, wood paneling, laminated Masonite, nails, bolts, paint, electrical components, and carved and painted wooden dolls. Milwaukee Art Museum, The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art M1989.325.

It’s back!

After being off view for nearly ten years, the Museum’s popular Possum Trot is back!  And it’s kicking, spinning, and singing up a storm.  Not to mention riding a bike.

Possum Trot was one of the most famous, extensive environments of self-taught art ever made.

Between about 1950 and 1972, transplanted Southerners Calvin and Ruby Black created what they hoped would be a tourist trap in the California desert.  Visitors could get a cold drink, buy bait or souvenirs—and, most importantly, witness a show featuring a cast of performing wooden dolls.

Now part of this tremendous work of art lives at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The girls of Possum Trot were designed and carved out of wood by Calvin Black, while his wife Ruby made their dresses.

Calvin Black (American, 1903-1972) and Ruby Black (American, 1913-1980). Possum Trot Midget Doll Theatre.  ca. 1950-1972.  Wood, wood paneling, laminated Masonite, nails, bolts, paint, electrical components, and carved and painted wooden dolls.  The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art M1989.325.
Calvin Black and Ruby Black, Possum Trot Midget Doll "Miss Mary Ripple", ca. 1950-1972. Carved and assembled wood with painted cloth apparel, metal jewelry and electrical components. The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art M1989.325.3.

Calvin based his characters both on celebrities and friends, creating distinctive personalities for each doll, like “Miss Mary Ripple” at right.  He engineered a dedicated performance space, the Birdcage Theatre, for the wooden ladies, whom he rigged to move through various mechanical devices.   In addition, Calvin wrote and recorded speeches and songs for each doll, which he played for the guests as a revue.

Each doll had particular attributes, which you can see here on Miss Mary’s quirky hat—or like on the doll Maple Harris’s cap gun, which keeps her safe on her bicycle while out for a spin!

In addition, Calvin designed “kitty” or tip jars for each doll.

In the original revue, customers were able to give each doll tips, which the Blacks used to buy jewelry, perfume, and trinkets for the most popular performers. The Museum has one of the original kitties on view, complete with pennies in its eyes. You can see the “kitty” at the center of the shot below.

After the Blacks’ deaths, the Possum Trot performance complex was disbanded and the dolls were scattered.

You can watch an excerpt from a documentary about Possum Trot here.

Calvin Black (American, 1903-1972) and Ruby Black (American, 1913-1980). Possum Trot Midget Doll Theatre. ca. 1950-1972. Wood, wood paneling, laminated Masonite, nails, bolts, paint, electrical components, and carved and painted wooden dolls. The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art M1989.325.
Calvin Black and Ruby Black, Possum Trot Midget Doll Theatre. ca. 1950-1972. Wood, wood paneling, laminated Masonite, nails, bolts, paint, electrical components, and carved and painted wooden dolls. The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art M1989.325.

Artist and folk/self-taught art collector Michael Hall assembled the largest surviving collection of the dolls, as well as other original materials, then built a stage set to evoke the original theater.  This was given to the Museum in 1989 as part of the Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art, here you can visit an earlier Museum blog post about The Newsboy from the Hall Collection.

Today, visitors to the Museum can see Miss Ripple, Helen Marvel, Little Red Riding Hood and others perform, accompanied by an archival recording of Calvin Black’s songs and patter.  Come in to see this work on the upper level with “Folk & Self Taught” art collections, but please don’t tip the ladies today:  they’re now non-profit employees!

William Keyse Rudolph is the Museum’s curator of American art and Decorative arts, focusing on the Museum’s collections of American painting, sculpture, ceramics, glass, furniture, silver, and textiles from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

By William Keyse Rudolph

Curator of American Art and Decorative Arts

As curator of American art and Decorative arts, William focuses on the Museum's collections of American painting, sculpture, ceramics, glass, furniture, and textiles from the 17th to the 20th centuries. A self-admitted portraiture geek, he also not-so-secretly likes European porcelain, all portrait miniatures, over-the-top 19th Century historical revival objects, coffee, state fairs, cheeseburgers, and all dogs.

3 replies on “From the Collection–Possum Trot”

[…] FOLKART: The Milwaukee Art Museum, in addition to have a very nice modern art collection, which I think I mentioned in my previous post, has a pretty cool little folk art exhibition, which includes a number of pieces by my old friend Howard Finster. I was particularly struck this time by a transplanted section of a folk art environment by the name of Possum Trot, which was the work of a fellow by they name of Calvin Black, and his wife, Ruby. Beginning in 1950, and working until 1972, the paid had made several hundred performing wooden dolls for their roadside attraction in the California desert. (Calvin did the carving, and Ruby made the dresses.) The following excerpt is from the Milwaukee Art Museum’s webpage dedicated to Possum Trot: […]

My family used to stop by Cal and Ruby’s place every year when we went camping in the canynons near Calico Ghost Town.

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