A History of the Crankie

Before the invention of the modern cranky, the Japanese used scroll paintings that were influenced by Chinese scroll paintings. There was also an older form called a cantastorie. This device had images painted on fabric, telling stories in sequential order much like graphic novels of today.

The SF Weekly describes a cranky as a “primitive, miniature theater in a box: a roll of paper painted with pictures that tell a story, cranked by hand past an open frame. (The person doing the cranking often narrates and provides sound effects too…).” Though the parts can change, canvas instead of paper for example, this is an apt description.

Bread and Puppet developed the cranky (also called a crankie), so-called by Peter Schumann, in 1967 or earlier. Since Schumann thinks in images and sculptural form, he developed the device to aid in the storytelling of his shows. Cranky was the description of the box, and was Schumann’s word. The first box “cranked,” making it an easy name for the thing. Schumann’s Bread and Puppet has used crankies in various forms, although the device is not documented in any books about the group (there are two books in the SF Library by Stephen Brecht, one about Bread and Puppet and the other about Theatre of the Ridiculous).

Then the San Francisco Mime Troupe used one in a 1960s show that R. G. Davis directed. They had two people add to the play by standing on the side of the show to illustrate another element of the subject. The Moving Men, a group of male performers in Berkeley, used one as a vertical device to illustrate scenes.

The most important early adapter was the East Bay Sharks. They did a big 1970s Pickle Circus show with a massive scroll. Arthur Holden, Daryle Henriques, and two musicians were in that group, and are a good example of how to use a scroll (not necessarily a box with a crank-turning handle).

Davis wrote a MA thesis on the subject for Humboldt State University titled “Paper Movies in the Development of an Ecological Aesthetic” (1995; HSU; Arcata, CA). He created a large scroll, four feet by 6 feet wide, called “A Tale of Symbiosis” with Joyce Todd. They were on script with Ariel Parkinson painting and with John Polack and Davis performing. They did a performance at Lancaster University in England for a festival on Art and Environment in 2001, and have since performed that piece in Berkeley at the Arts Festival and in Santa Cruz. Davis recently attended a conference on ensemble theatres, and the president of the organization said they were still, after 10 or years, funding and fiddling with “defining the term.”

Davis and Todd are now rolling towards performances about the workings of organic farming for the farmers markets. Plans are to continue with cranky-aided stories that explain the science of organic food production and consumption.

Cranky performances have also turned up at Wise Fool’s Puppet Love festival. Art and Revolution built and performed with a cranky, and Big Tadoo Puppet Crew presented their first piece, “The Story of Hue,” in 2002. Anecdotal stories of crafting crankies in school have also surfaced.

Feeling that this obscure art form needs more attention, we present the first ever CRANKYfest tonight. The producer was inspired after assisting with Big Tadoo Puppet Crew’s cranky piece and seeing Dan Chumley perform with a cranky at the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s 40th anniversary five years ago. The producer made an open call to try to gather artists interested in creating a cranky show. Tonight’s show presents current ideas on how to utilize the medium, and will end with a meet and greet to further discuss the potential of cranky art. There will also be an opportunity for attendees to craft their own “shoe box cranky” after the performance.

The producer hopes that the second CRANKYfest will continue to shed light on the art form as well as begin to push the boundaries of it’s usage. Flippy and contestoria mediums may be added to the next production.

If you have any other cranky history, anecdotes, references, photos, corrections, etc. please contact happyfeet[at sign]happyfeettravels[dot]org so that this back-story can continue to grow and develop.

Thanks to R. G. Davis for his contribution to this text. Additions by Russell Howze

10 Replies to “A History of the Crankie”

  1. There will be the second annual BANNERS AND CRANKS FESTIVAL in New York City, from June 19th to 26th. Organized by associates of Bread and Puppet Theater (some of whom were collaborators with George Konnoff), this festival aims to preserve and re-invent the forms of cantastoria, picture-performance, and cranky.
    Check out http://www.bannersandcranks.wordpress.com.
    I’m excited I stumbled upon your blog. I am a member of Great Small Works, in New York City, and we use cantastoria and cranky a lot in our work.
    Trudi Cohen

  2. Greetings!

    My name is Sara and I work at the Greensburg Hempfield Area Library. A patron of ours came saying she had seen you talk about your crankies at the Westmoreland Museum of Art. She came into the Library requesting a book on crankies. I’ve tried doing mild research and have not had any luck turning up a book. The patron is very hard of hearing and would prefer a book to one of the youtube videos I found.

    Thanks for any tips! I appreciate your time!

  3. Hi Sara, Sorry for delayed response. I have never given a talk about crankies, though I have made and performed with them. Most of the knowledge I have gained is from word of mouth. I do not know of a book that talks about crankies. Perhaps Bread and Puppet in Vermont has documentation? I just saw a discussion about the cantaestoria, the crankie’s more storied cousin. Wikipedia has a page for that: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantastoria . Good luck!

  4. I am a long time Bread and Puppet groupie and certainly give Peter credit for elevating the crankie as an art form, but I remember making crankies to tell stories as a school kid in the 50’s in Vermont and my husband remembers them from growing up in Philly. There must be a much older history. Did you ever ask Peter where he got the idea? I’m curious if it came from an earlier European tradition.

  5. Thanks for the comment. On this post, SF Mime Troupe founder R.G. Davis said this about cranky origins: “Before the invention of the modern cranky, the Japanese used scroll paintings that were influenced by Chinese scroll paintings. There was also an older form called a cantastorie. This device had images painted on fabric, telling stories in sequential order much like graphic novels of today.” I wonder if Peter would have a similar answer (I’ve seen him use cantastorie style props in Vermont).

  6. I loved Peter’s early crankies, made before 1966.
    “Rinaldini the Great Robber.” It has a song, narration and dialogue that accompanies the pictures.

    “The Rat Movie” It was inspired by living on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1960’s.

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