Oh, Pinocchio! by Peter Filichia
“This is a book that deserves attention” says Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump of Richard A. Lertzman and William J. Birnes’ The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney. But Simon & Schuster isn’t bringing it out until October 20. So while we’re waiting, we can get a Mickey Rooney fix from hearing the five-foot-two actor play Pinocchio. You’ll recall that he’s the wooden marionette that, after a few harrowing adventures, morphed into a real boy. Rooney dominates a forty-five minute album made from a TV special in which he starred on Sunday, October 13, 1957 – fifty-eight years and one week before this tell-all bio will be released. Trump hasn’t weighed in on this Pinocchio, but I’ll say that it has a good deal of charm and stick-in-your-head tunes. That’s proved by the recording that Masterworks Broadway has again made available for the first time since it was deleted in December, 1958. It isn’t just a standard soundtrack — which can be inferred from one fact alone. Walter Slezak, who played Pinocchio’s papa Gepetto on the broadcast, doesn’t appear on the recording. Gordon B. Clarke, who six months later would be on Broadway in Say, Darling, spelled for him. In between seven songs and six reprises, Rooney narrates the story. He often speaks in rhymed couplets and sometimes in unrhymed prose. He calls it a story “for children and people who used to be children. I used to be a kid,” he says before chuckling and adding “Lots of folks still think I am.” (Is he referring to the opinion of at least seven of his eight wives?) In a way, this Pinocchio was an adaptation of a Broadway show that had been originally produced as part of the W(orks) P(rogress) A(dministration)’s Federal Theatre Project in December, 1938. The book, lyrics and direction were by Yasha Frank, who headed the children’s division of the Project. The music came from both Eddison Von Ottenfeld and Armando Loredo. If the names are unfamiliar, no wonder; Pinocchio was the only Broadway credit for each of the three men. Nevertheless, their show ran 197 performances at the Ritz Theatre (now the Walter Kerr). In a year when 112 shows made it to Broadway, only fourteen amassed more performances.
In fact, Pinocchio could have run even longer if Congress hadn’t decided to cut off funds to the Federal Theatre Project. So at the closing performance, Yasha Frank decided that Pinocchio wouldn’t become a real boy but would die.
He actually had the actors put Edwin Matthews, who’d been playing the title character, into a casket. Then he had them leave the theater, march down Broadway along with some stage hands and interested audience members who all chanted “Who killed Pinocchio?!” Once they got to the heart of Times Square, they read aloud the names of the offending congressmen.
If Frank was infuriated this much, imagine his ire when fewer than eight months later, Walt Disney’s animated Pinocchio came to the screen. No song in his production’s score could compete with the Oscar-winning “When You Wish upon a Star” that was tenderly sung by Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket. He was Pinocchio’s friend and advisor that the screenwriters invented. The return on Disney’s $2,600,000 budget – comparable to $44.3 million today — was a smashing $13 million gross in 1940 dollars – which translates to $222 million today. That the name Pinocchio was now imbedded in the public’s consciousness spurred Frank in the early ‘50s to call television moguls and hope one would produce his musical on TV. The timing was right. This was an era when TV desperately wanted pedigree and battled Broadway by offering plenty of live TV “spectaculars,” as they were routinely called. Such Main Stem musicals (Wonderful Town) and originals forged in the Broadway template (The Adventures of Marco Polo) dotted the airwaves. Why not Pinocchio? NBC executive David Susskind agreed with Frank that a Pinocchio musical would fly, but he didn’t like the Broadway score. He would allow Frank to adapt his libretto and direct, but instead engaged the esteemed Alex Wilder for the music. William Engvick, who had written the words to the recent mammoth film and pop hit “The Song from Moulin Rouge” (“Where Is Your Heart?”) would do the lyrics. Susskind and co-producer Frank assembled quite a cast in addition to (Juvenile) Oscar-winner Rooney and Slezak, fresh from his Tony-winning role in Fanny. Stubby Kaye, using his night off from Li’l Abner, portrayed The Town Crier. Gilbert & Sullivan star Martyn Green, who’d recently taken over for Cyril Ritchard as the alien in Broadway’s Visit to a Small Planet, played the evil Fox who led Pinocchio astray. Even the most fervent Ethel Merman fan will have to be impressed with Green’s holding a note for eighteen solid seconds in “The Fox’s Pitch.” That pitch, not so incidentally, works on the naïve Pinocchio, who believes Fox’s false promises about an easier life. “You’ll never have to wash your hands” in a land where “they never heard of brushes or soap.” And if that isn’t seductive enough, there’s the clincher: “Forget about that crummy school.” (No parents or grandparents relish having that hard talk with their children or grandchildren on how they must automatically distrust a smiling stranger who offers them treats. This scene may well serve as a less threatening gateway to that discussion.) Rounding out the cast was Fran Allison, known at the time to every Baby Boomer kid as the one adult on the Kukla, Fran and Ollie TV puppet show, played The Blue-Haired Fairy Queen. Those who know Disney’s Pinocchio will recall that there she was simply called The Blue Fairy. Alas, there’s no artwork in the Pinocchio liner notes to show us if The Blue-Haired Fairy Queen was conceived either as an elderly woman or a punk rocker well ahead of her time. The latter seems less likely, given that Allison sings the luscious easy-listening ballad “Listen to Your Heart.” Pinocchio takes quite a while before he can do just that, but he does just in time for Allison to reprise the lovely melody. Playing puppets in one scene and fish in another was the noted dance team of Mata and Hari – meaning Ruth Mata and her husband Eugene Hari. That someone surnamed Mata could just happen to meet and fall in love with someone surnamed Hari is hard to swallow, so let’s come clean. She was born Meta Krahn and his original name was Otto Ulbricht. If Engvick is to be believed, Frank was “a terrible guy … who resented us because he wanted to do it all himself.” As it turned out, Frank wound up having as many credits on TV as he did on Broadway: one. He might have had more, but he committed suicide in 1958. I’ll always admire Engvick for one lyric in “Happy News.” After The Town Crier proclaims that “The circus is coming to town,” he sings “Bring all the kids — and money, too!” Now THAT is coming down to brass tacks. There’s a brass tacks feeling to some of Rooney’s narration, too. He has such lines as “I know you’re not going to find this easy to believe” and “It’s quite a coincidence, but you try telling a fairy tale without stretching things a bit.” His endearing and soothing voice puts it over, although when he plays the not-yet-human Pinocchio he sounds as if he’s been gargling with razor blades. Pinocchio is ideal in-the-car listening for families on a trip. For those who have been hankering for a new “Happy Birthday” song to replace or augment the one we’ve all literally heard since our own Year One, here’s a nifty alternative. “May you always stay as happy as today,” goes one lyric, soon to be followed with “May your heart be warm with the love of many friends.” Nice! Some children won’t get the marvelous in-joke midway through the album, but most adults will. Pinocchio tells The Blue-Haired Fairy “What I need is a cricket who is very bright who will sit on my shoulder day and night.” Anyone who knows Disney’s tight leash on the characters it’s created won’t be surprised to hear that she says “No.”
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Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.