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 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.
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 was 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.