Thursday, December 8, 2016

What happened to Emily's baby?

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is my favorite play. But a question just occurred to me that I've never thought of before, and I can't find anyone else wondering about it anywhere online. That question is this:

What happened to Emily's baby?

In Act 3, we learn from the undertaker that Emily has died:
Joe Stoddard: Had some trouble bringing a baby into the world. ’Twas her second, though. There’s a little boy ‘bout four years old.
The now-dead Mrs. Gibbs confirms that Emily died "in childbirth". Emily then joins Mrs. Gibbs and the other dead onstage:
Emily: My boy is spending the day at Mrs. Carter's. (She sees Mr. Carter among the dead.) Oh, Mr. Carter, my little boy is spending the day at your house.

Mr. Carter: Is he?

Emily: Yes, he loves it there.
Clearly, Emily is talking about her four-year-old son. Later:
Emily: But, Mother Gibbs, one can go back; one can go back there again…into living. I feel it. I know it. Why just then for a moment I was thinking about…about the farm…and for a minute I was there, and my baby was on my lap as plain as day.
Mrs. Gibbs: Yes, of course you can.

Emily: I can go back there and live all those days over again…why not?
The "rules" of Wilder's afterlife seem only to allow reliving days, not resuming life as if one had never died. So the baby Emily refers to here must again be her now-four-year-old son.

Finally, when Emily is advised to relive only an "unimportant day", she says:
Emily: Then it can’t be since I was married; or since the baby was born.
Once more, "the baby" has to be her four-year-old. And that's the last mention of Emily's offspring in the play.

So...what happened to the baby Emily died delivering?

• Did it live? Emily never mentions it, or even who's taking care of it during the funeral, as she does with her four-year-old son. So this option doesn't seem likely.

• Did it die? In that case, why doesn't it join Emily among the dead onstage (as impractical as it would be to stage this)? Is there some sort of afterlife daycare? Why is there no mention or sign of a funeral for the baby?

Wilder's notion of Emily dying during childbirth is deeply poignant. But by choosing it, he introduces a question into the play that doesn't seem to have a satisfactory answer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Over the weekend I had the pleasure to be among the first several thousand guests at PizzeRizzo, the new Muppet-themed restaurant at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando. There are several "easter eggs" hidden around the place, for the delight of Muppet geeks like myself. Here are a few:

The animated neon sign outside proclaims "THE CITY'S TOP RATED PIZZA". But every now and then some of the letters flicker off, making the sign momentarily read "IT'S RAT PIZZA"! The flickering lasts about 12 seconds, and happens approximately once per minute. So if you just happen to glance up at the sign for a few seconds, chances are you'll never see the secret message!

Tucked away on a shelf in the main lobby area is an ancient can of Wilkins Coffee.

And finally, the most incredible, subtle, layered easter egg I've ever seen anywhere: Upstairs at PizzeRizzo is the gloriously tacky "Rizzo's Deluxe Supreme Banquet Hall". Outside the Banquet Hall there's this sign:

This is an easter egg reference to The Muppets Take Manhattan, where Kermit encounters advertising executives named Jill, Bill, and Gil. Cute, huh? Ah, but underneath! If you look very closely, beneath the changeable letters on the sign, through the faux fading and dust, you'll see that this sign used to read: Pa Otter Memorial Service with tribute performance by The Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug Band.

You can read all about Pa Otter here. Kudos to the PizzeRizzo designers for including such an incredibly subtle, even touching, reference.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Thornton Wilder in "Our Town"

On September 29, 1946, Theatre Guild On The Air broadcast a radio adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Our Town". The adaptation was by Erik Barnouw, and the production featured Thornton Wilder himself.

Wilder played the role of the Stage Manager onstage numerous times in "Our Town", beginning as a replacement in the original Broadway production. As far as I know, this radio adaptation is the only surviving record of his performance. The cast features Dorothy McGuire as Emily, the role she understudied and performed during the original Broadway run. Original cast members Doro Merande and Arthur Allen are heard as Mrs. Soames and Professor Willard, respectively.

As grateful as I am to be able to hear and share this recording, I must say I think it's a poor adaptation of the play. Barnouw made his adaptation without knowing that Wilder himself would be performing the Stage Manager role (which Barnouw renamed "Narrator"), and the part is greatly rewritten. In his book Media Marathon, Barnouw writes of being very nervous during the first readthrough, but Wilder was apparently quite game about the whole enterprise. Wilder's performance is good, although it would be nice to hear him reading more of the lines he actually wrote. The syrupy, overblown music is also a serious detriment to the production.

Admittedly, it's an impossible task to reduce Wilder's three-act play to 60 minutes, and the play itself is granted only about 45 of those minutes, due to sponsor messages. It is, as they say, what it is. And here it is. The photo in the video below shows McGuire and Wilder, with John Craven (the original George Gibbs on Broadway).

The full cast of the radio production:
Emily: Dorothy McGuire
Narrator: Thornton Wilder
George: James Dobson
Dr. Gibbs: Cameron Prud'Homme
Mrs. Gibbs: Barbara Weeks
Mr. Webb: Bill Adams
Mrs. Webb: Dorothy Sands
Mrs. Soames: Doro Merande
Mr. Morgan: Will Geer
Simon Stimson: Philip Tonge
Professor Willard: Arthur Allen

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?