Sunday, August 14, 2016

Jim Henson Was Not Left-Handed.

Jim Henson is included on many lists of "famous left-handed people". A lefty myself, I would be proud to share this trait with Jim Henson. But he did not puppeteer left-handed, and he did not write or draw left-handed, so there is no basis on which to claim he was a lefty.

With very few exceptions, puppeteers of hand/rod puppets like the Muppets put their dominant hand inside the puppet's head. There are thousands of photos that demonstrate Henson used his right hand for his characters' heads, like this one:

Or this one:

But hey, what about this one:

He's using his left hand there, yes? Actually, no. As could very easily happen back in the old days of film and negatives, this photo has been mirror-flipped. You can tell by the way his shirt buttons, and where the pocket is, and the direction of his hair part. It should really look like this:

Okay, so Henson puppeteered right-handed. But what about writing and drawing? Well, here's a clip from the 1968 film "Muppets on Puppets", where Henson draws with his right hand as he talks to puppet builder Don Sahlin:

Here's a one-minute clip from 1994's "The World of Jim Henson" with ten shots that show him holding and using a pencil with his right hand:

'Nuff said. So, how did this Henson-was-a-lefty rumor get started? Perhaps it is based on the fact that most Muppet characters seem to be left-handed. This is most obvious in a group like the Electric Mayhem, where characters play guitar "backwards", like left-hander Paul McCartney does:

But this is only a function of the puppeteers themselves being right-handed. The puppeteer's right hand goes inside the puppet's head, leaving the puppeteer's left hand free for simulating the guitar playing. If you're going to fake guitar playing by moving only one hand, the "strumming hand" is a much more effective choice than the "chording hand". And while the puppeteer could reach across their body and use their left hand to manipulate the puppet's right hand, if you've ever tried it, it feels very strange. It's much more natural to just flip the guitar around, and use the puppet's left hand for strumming.

Hence, most Muppet characters seem to be left-handed, and I suppose this has led people to assume this means the puppeteers are too. While there are left-handed puppeteers who have worked with the Muppets (like me), just like the general population, Muppet performers are largely right-handed. And so was Jim Henson.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Moonlighting from the Carnival

Nashville Public Library recently acquired three puppets that Tom Tichenor created for the original Broadway production of Carnival: Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, and Renardo. For the Nashville International Puppet Festival last month, it was decided that we would present a 10-minute scene from the musical, to showcase the puppets. We borrowed a Marguerite from another set of Carnival puppets which were created under Tichenor's supervision, and went to work.

Here is the result, performed live at the festival, with Rosemary Fossee as "Lili" and me puppeteering and voicing all four puppets. (Special thanks go to my unseen assistant Rebecca Harwood, who was busy pulling the puppets on and off my hands as the show went on.)

It was a thrill and an honor to perform these characters, following in the footsteps (handprints?) of Jerry Orbach, with whom I worked in a Beauty and the Beast concert at the Waldorf Astoria in 1992. (I sang the part of Gaston, with Jerry of course as Lumiere.)

During my research, I uncovered a couple of interesting things. The Shari Lewis Show appeared Saturday mornings on NBC, from 1960 to 1963. Jerry Orbach made more than a dozen appearances on the show, performing the Carnival characters in various adventures with Shari and her puppets!

Here is a list of the episodes Orbach apparently appeared on, with synopses where available:

11/18/61: A Job for Mr. Gladly

11/25/61: Horrible Henry Show
Jerry Orbach and his puppets Horrible Henry and Carrot Top are featured guests.

1/29/62: Car Show
Horrible Henry and Carrot Top offer to give Shari driving lessons.

2/24/62: Horrible Henry’s Book Show

3/17/62: Horrible Henry’s House Show
Horrible Henry and Carrot Top turn Shari’s house into a shambles when she invites them to stay with her.

3/31/62: Horrible Henry’s Newspaper Show
Shari decides that Horrible Henry would make a good newspaperman.

5/12/62: Perry Comet Show
Horrible Henry asks Perry Comet’s advice on a career in show business.

5/26/62: Reynard Show

6/9/62: Hayes and Henry Show
Bill Hayes visits the show, and Horrible Henry and Carrot Top try ruses to have him sing into their “hidden” microphone so they can sell the record.

9/29/62: Horrible Henry Contest Show

10/13/62: Circus Show

11/17/62: B.J. Barney Show

5/4/63: Invisible Man Show
Shari and Jerry Orbach try to figure out if an invisible man really exists on a carnival midway.

There's a brief clip from one of the episodes at 7:30 here:

It's so weird to think of these characters "moonlighting" from their regular jobs on Broadway. But while all that was going on, and also on NBC, Tom Tichenor himself performed Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, and Renardo on the 12/20/61 episode of Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall!

As Jack Gaver reported for UPI:
This has been the most successful year Tom Tichenor of Nashville, Tenn. has experienced, yet there has been a little frustration involved.
His puppets have been a huge success, but he hasn't opened his mouth in their behalf. A puppetmaster doesn't mind being unseen by an audience — that's an essential of the calling — but he does like to be heard.
Tichenor will get a big chance to wipe out the frustration the night of Dec. 20 when he and the famous puppets he created for the Broadway hit musical, "Carnival," appear on Perry Como's NBC-TV hour at 9. Tichenor will manipulate Horrible Henry, the Wonderful Walrus, Carrot Top, a peppy boy, and Renardo, the fox.
"We will do material especially prepared for the television show by Como's writers," Tichenor said. "For some reason, they didn't want Marguerite, the opera-singer puppet we use on the stage. I'm a little sorry about that, and, of course, Marguerite is pretty mad at being left out."

Halsman snaps Carnival

Celebrated photographer Philippe Halsman took several wonderful shots of Anna Maria Alberghetti and the puppets she co-starred with in the Broadway musical Carnival. These puppets were created by Tom Tichenor, who posed the puppets for Halsman during the photoshoot. The first two shots are from Life Magazine, the third from Theatre Arts, and the fourth I found online:

From Burr Tillstrom to Paul Berthalet

The TV show Kukla, Fran, and Ollie (about which I've written at length here) featured Fran Allison, who stood in front of a puppet booth where she talked and sang charmingly with numerous puppet characters, all performed by Burr Tillstrom. Inspired by the apparent love between Fran and the puppets (which obviously extended behind the scenes to Tillstrom), Paul Gallico added a romantic spin, and wrote a short story which appeared in the October 28, 1950 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

It's entitled The Man Who Hated People, and it can be read in its entirety here. It tells the tale of Milly Maynard, a young woman who appears on the Peter and Panda show, on which she talks to six puppet characters. The puppets are Peter (a leprechaun), Panda (a fat panda), Arthur (a raffish crocodile), Mme. Robineau (a French lady), Doctor Henderson (a stuffy penguin), and Mr. Tootenheimer (an elderly toymaker).

These puppets are performed by Crake Villeridge, a Canadian whose aborted hockey career left him with disfiguring facial scars and a dark temperament. In the story, Milly is fed up with the abusive Crake, and is leaving the show to marry Fred Archer. After what is to be her final show, she's crossing through the darkened TV studio when the puppets (as performed by Crake) call out to her from their puppet booth, begging Milly not to abandon them. Milly realizes that she is actually in love with Crake, and stays.

It's Gallico's concept of this final scene — an antisocial puppeteer using his puppets to beg a woman not to leave — that seems to have a hold on audiences. (Never mind that Tillstrom himself was a charming, handsome, gregarious gay man who clearly relished sharing the spotlight with his puppets!) It's commonly thought that Gallico adapted his Post short story into the novella Love of Seven Dolls, which Helen Deutsch then adapted into the screenplay for the movie Lili, which Michael Stewart then adapted into the libretto for the Broadway musical Carnival. All of these iterations end with the same basic scene.

One problem though: Lili premiered in 1953 but Love of Seven Dolls wasn't published until 1954. So how could the movie be inspired by the subsequent novella? It's clear that Lili was not simply adapted from The Man Who Hated People. While Lili and Seven Dolls are quite different in tone, they do share common story elements not to be found in The Man Who Hated, to an extent far beyond possible coincidence. In both Lili and Seven Dolls,  the setting is changed from an American TV studio to a French carnival. A young orphan girl, rejected by the carnival, is diverted from committing suicide by a charming puppet named Carrot Top. The girl's easy rapport with Carrot Top and the other puppets (including a raffish fox named Reynardo) makes this new act the hit of the carnival, although the girl hates the bitter, antisocial man who performs the puppets. But despite a possible romantic entanglement between the girl and another performer, the bond of love between girl and puppeteer ultimately prevails. (The name "Golo" also figures in both Lili and Seven Dolls; Golo is a puppet in the former, the puppeteer's assistant in the latter.)

There is a "missing link" in the chain of works that takes us from Kukla to Carnival, and which explains the common elements between Lili and Seven Dolls. That link is an unpublished story by Gallico entitled The Seven Souls of Clement O'Reilly. The credits for Lili state only that it is "based on a story by Paul Gallico", so it's understandably assumed that this story is either Man Who Hated or Seven Dolls. But the Clement O'Reilly title surfaces in August of 1951, where a syndicated newspaper story lists it as actress Pier Angeli's next film for MGM. Ralph Meeker and Fernando Lamas are later listed as cast members. Of course, this is the film that, with a different cast, would ultimately become Lili. In July of 1953, another newspaper story announcing the film's release notes that it is based on Gallico's original story The Seven Souls of Clement O'Reilly.

So it seems clear that Gallico first adapted The Man Who Hated People into The Seven Souls of Clement O'Reilly. This is where the French carnival setting came into play, and all the other elements that Seven Dolls shares with Lili. He then adapted Clement O'Reilly into his Seven Dolls novella. (Note that the puppeteer in Seven Dolls, named Michel Peyrot, inherited the "wiry reddish hair" one might expect from someone named "O'Reilly".) Helen Deutsch adapted Clement O'Reilly into Lili, adding her own plot points, and renamed the puppeteer Paul Berthalet. And finally, Lili was adapted into Carnival. While this task was first attempted by Deutsch herself, the musical's director Gower Champion was unhappy with the results, and brought in Michael Stewart for the job.

But interestingly, while Carnival is officially credited as "based on material by Helen Deutsch", buried in the original Playbill program it also states "Carnival was originally based upon a story entitled The Seven Souls of Clement O'Reilly by Paul Gallico." The Paul Gallico papers are housed at Columbia University; perhaps the O'Reilly story is in there?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Animals...The Animals...

The wife and I are late to the “Orange is the New Black” party, but enjoying it greatly. Am I the only person on the Internet who, upon hearing Regina Spektor’s theme song “You’ve Got Time”, thinks of Gilda Radner singing “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals”? Both songs start “The animals/The animals…”, with identical rhythms (but admittedly different melodies).

Regina uses musical and lyrical quotes with some regularity, from the obscure (quoting Eric Biondo’s “Your Daughter” in her “Somedays”) to the obvious (quoting “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” in her “Oh Marcello”). So it may be a stretch, but I don’t think it’s entirely out of the question.

Anyway, I finally Googled the matter to see if anyone else had ever commented on it, and I found nothing. So now, when you do it, you will. You're welcome.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Sondheim's Poker Pals

In his New York Magazine puzzle of 6/2/69, Stephen Sondheim imagines a poker game between eight men. Their names begin with the first eight letters of the alphabet. As one aspect of the fiendishly difficult puzzle, you need to figure out the numeric values of each name (A=1, B=2...Z=26). Three of the names have numeric values of 21 (Alec, Ben, and Hal), so that even if you figure out the "21" value, you still wouldn't automatically know which of those three names to use. Tricky, huh?

Even given all those parameters, it's interesting to speculate about the names Sondheim chose, and hard to imagine he would resist giving a "shout out" to his pals if convenient. Let's speculate, shall we?

Alec: This is one of the "21" names, so it's possible that might be the only answer. But one wonders if Sondheim knew New York composer Alec Wilder (1907-1980). Wikipedia tells us "Wilder loved puzzles: he created his own cryptic crosswords"!

Ben: This is one of the lead characters in Follies. While Sondheim was writing Company when this puzzle was published, Follies was in development at the same time.

Chuck: This might be Sondheim's college friend, theatrical producer Chuck Hollerith.

Dave: Meryle Secrest's biography tells us that in 1953, while assisting John Huston's direction of Beat the Devil in Italy, Sondheim played poker regularly with David O. Selznick!

Eddie: Possibly Sondheim's college friend Edward Gushée? "Eddie" is also a character in Do I Hear a Waltz?, so that's another possibility.

Frank: A tough one. Loesser, perhaps? The character "Franklin Shepard" in Sondheim's 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along has a different name in the 1934 Kaufman and Hart original, so we can rule that out.

George: Not Seurat; most likely Furth, the librettist of Company. But let's not forget By George, the show a 16-year-old Sondheim wrote while attending George School.

Hal: Who else but Hal Prince, director of Company and Follies? (Okay, possibly Hal Hastings, music director of Company. Or both gents. But I'm sticking with Prince.)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The RSC's Nicholas Nickleby, from stage to screen

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1980 production of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” was a landmark theatrical event. Presented in two parts, the entire production lasted eight and a half hours, with audiences either seeing the two parts on consecutive evenings or viewing the entire production within the span of a day. Part One of the play was broken into two acts, and Part Two into three.

Happily, the production was adapted for television broadcast. In England, Channel 4 broadcast "NN" in four weekly installments, starting on November 7, 1982. Mobil Oil presented it on US television over four consecutive nights, starting January 10, 1983. On that date, the New York Times reported: "David Edgar, the adapter for the stage, submitted a revised script, attuned to the requirements of the television breaks."

Indeed, when compared against the published playscript, the piece was radically revised.  The most striking change was in redividing the five-act theatrical structure into four acts for video. Acts 1 and 2 of the video correspond to the first two acts of the play. The third video act contains all of the play’s Act 3, plus some of the play’s Act 4. The fourth video act contains all the rest. Of course, this made it necessary for Edgar to find a new “act break” to end the third video act, which occurs after Squeers captures Smike.

But Edgar had to plan for still more breaks. As explained in the "official full colour magazine" produced by Channel 4: "Because of transmission requirements Nickleby was taped so that it could be transmitted in the UK and USA over a four-night span, three of two hours and one of three hours: and for the rest of the world in nine one-hour segments." In the US at least, the three two-hour evenings were each broken with an intermission, and the final three-hour evening had two intermissions. Thus the nine-part division was utilized even in the four-night broadcast. (Each of these nine segments was actually 53 minutes long; the remaining time in the US broadcast was filled with an animated opening, and wraparound segments by Peter Ustinov.)

But Edgar’s video adaptation saw changes in content as well. In the theatre, there was a recap at the beginning of Part Two (or the third of the play’s five acts), speedily explaining and re-enacting key moments of Part One for new audience members. For the video version, similar recaps were written and staged for Acts 2 and 4 as well.

The last two scenes that resolve the Mantalini storyline, which occur in the first part of the script, were moved into Act 3 of the video. There are a few scenes and exchanges of dialog in the video that are not found in the script, and many more instances where the reverse is true. In fact, it’s tempting to suspect the script was trimmed for video, but 477 minutes (53x9) is just about the perfect running time for what's referred to as "an eight-and-a-half hour play", if you factor in an additional 35 minutes or so of intermissions.

In 1983, CBS Home Video released "NN" on four VHS tapes, one intermissionless act per tape. Probably due to tape length limits, there were changes from the broadcast version to the home video. Around 25 minutes were cut from the beginning of Act 4 (after the recap), and placed at the end of Act 3. These 25 minutes included John Browdie’s release of Smike, and so the end of the Act 4 recap was edited to remove the reenactment of Squeers’ capture of Smike. This change made Act 3 end at a much weaker point, dramatically speaking.

Act 4 also saw the complete removal of the scene where the loony, cucumber-bearing "Man Next Door" visits the Nicklebys, a loss of about two and a half minutes. But the home video version actually included a lengthened conversation about the French language between Nicholas and Mr. Lillyvick, which added around 80 seconds to Act 2.

Interestingly, the home video version reveals that for the broadcast, an effort had been made to render John Browdie’s thick Yorkshire accent and archaic speech a bit more intelligible. Several of Browdie’s lines in the broadcast are looped; as one example, “Where’s this glass of summat, then?” in the home version is “Where’s this glass of something, then?” in the broadcast. It’s possible these changes were made for the US broadcast only, and thus not included in other versions.

Some changes from broadcast to home video were decidedly for the worse. There are clumsy and distracting attempts to dub in audience reaction sounds during Nicholas’ thrashing of Squeers, during the schoolboys’ rebellion against Mrs. Squeers, and (most damagingly) during the play’s final moment of Nicholas picking up the “other Smike”. There are also over 20 musical cues completely missing from the home video version, whether due to artistic decision or mere editorial fatigue we cannot know. (I suspect the latter.)

One notable difference comes at the end of Ralph Nickleby’s unraveling at Ned and Charles Cheeryble’s, after Ralph whispers the name “Smike”. In broadcast, there’s a very lengthy closeup of Ralph’s face, during which only somber string music is heard. In the home video version, the music is gone, but two lines are instead added from the script, spoken by the Cheerybles offscreen. Ned says (referring to Ralph’s accuser, Brooker) “Unhappy man. Unhappy man.” and Charles then adds “But doubly, trebly, ten times more unhappy must you be, Ralph Nickleby.”

Years later, A&E re-released "NN" on VHS, in a nine-tape set. There are opening and closing credits on each installment, but otherwise the contents of this version are exactly the same as the CBS version. The breaks follow David Edgar’s original nine-segment plan for broadcast, with each tape ending precisely where its corresponding broadcast segment ends.

The only thing A&E "cut" from the CBS version is the proper Act 2 bows, with the company bowing in Romeo and Juliet attire as the video credits roll. A&E used the final (Act 4) bows under the end credits for all nine segments.

A&E later released their nine-part version on DVD, with the nine segments spread out over four DVDs. This release has drawn a great deal of ire in the comments section on, with viewers bemoaning A&E’s “butchering” of the masterpiece into nine parts, and holding the CBS Home Video release as a “gold standard” which they suppose is an entirely faithful record of what happened onstage. As I’ve shown here, this is all very far from the truth. There are perfectly good reasons to dislike the home video version of "NN", but A&E is not responsible for most of them.

So then, what is the “gold standard” for viewing “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”? I humbly offer my version, which I make available on YouTube until told not to by The Powers That Be. (Hopefully this will be because TPTB have taken the time to restore and release it properly; all commercially available versions are currently out of print.) My four-act version draws almost entirely from the A&E DVD media, with occasional pieces of the CBS version, the original music soundtrack, and the broadcast version (from 30-year-old VHS tapes) as well. My goal was to create the most complete "NN" possible, so I’ve included all available scenes and music cues, painstakingly editing and restoring everything myself.

I hope this makes it easier for interested parties (including me) to enjoy this masterpiece. I’ve cherished it since the original broadcast, and even acted in a version in Memphis in 1985. My wife (then-girlfriend) and I binge-watched it straight through one night, just weeks after we met. Roger Rees, David Threlfall, Edward Petherbridge, and Alun Armstrong give unforgettable performances. Lines and moments from the show come into my head with great frequency. It’s a part of me. As Bernard Levin wrote of the original production in the London Times:

“There is only one way to behave at the Aldwych; to surrender completely to the truth, which is that not for many years has London's theatre seen anything so richly joyous, so immoderately rife with pleasure, drama, colour and entertainment, so life-enhancing, yea-saying and fecund, so — in the one word which embraces all these and more — so Dickensian. This production of “Nicholas Nickleby” is ceaselessly entertaining, dramatic, funny, touching, beautiful and right; it is a tribute to England’s greatest writer of prose and of the teeming world he conjured up; it is an evocation of England herself; but it is something more than all of these. It is a celebration of love and justice that is true to the spirit of Dickens' belief that those are the fulcrums on which the universe is moved, and the consequence is that we come out not merely delighted but strengthened, not just entertained but uplifted, not only affected but changed.”

Watch it here.