Tuesday, March 6, 2007

My Peter Panned

The Walt Disney animated version of Peter Pan is, unarguably, the definitive adaptation which we can all be one hundred percent certain is, in every detail, exactly what James M. Barrie had in mind when he wrote his play and later novel. Had Barrie still been living when it was released in 1953, I know he would have ripped up all his manuscripts and shouted, "Thank you Walt. That's what I was saying! You've saved me from my own fucking British whimsy. I can't wait to see what you do to Winnie-the-Fucking-Pooh! That'll show Mr. I-have-a-real-son-not-like-you A. A. Milne, that bastard! Hey A. A., Oh bother my dick, Eyeore!" (Little James M. had a real Scot's temper at times.)

Disney’s uniquely butch movie was released in a DVD 2 disc edition today, so that all of you with the single-disc version can now throw them away, because you can not adequately present this 75 minute movie on fewer then 2 discs, preferably 5.

I say "uniquely butch" as Disney made an astounding, transgender casting choice for a film aimed at children. As everyone above the age of two is aware, Peter Pan is the story of a middle-aged lesbian cross-dresser living with fairies and battling with seamen, who kidnaps a pubescent girl, and carries her across state lines, to be her love slave, while selling her brothers into white slavery for blackguards. Why on earth Walt Disney cast a teenage boy to play a middle-aged dyke I can not imagine! You don’t tamper with a beloved classic like that.

I can state Jimmy Barrie’s artistic intentions with authority because he explained them to me at length over our long lunches, upstairs in our little secret love nest in the Algonquin Hotel during the rehearsals for the original American production of Peter Pan starring Maude Adams back in 1905, long before she played the title role in Octopussy opposite Roger NoMoore. I absent-mindedly forgot to mention in my narrowly-beloved autobiography, My Lush Life , that I was in the original American production of Peter Pan. What an oversight! Well, when you keep your brain as well-lubricated as I do mine, things will slip your mind.

I played Wendy’s great-great grandmother, Sylvia. Originally Sylvia Darling was just going to be Wendy’s grandmother, but when they saw how I looked on stage in 1905, her age was moved back a hair, though they did manage to shave off a third "Great" by keeping me in dim light. The alert among you will have noted that I was 8 years old at the time. I was remarkably mature for my age, probably due to my youthful heavy drinking.

My performance as Old Sylvia Darling was so popular, causing riots in the theater at my first entrance each show, that Barrie "Retired" the character from the play when we closed, saying: "After having your performance seared into my mind like scar tissue, I could never bear to hear anyone say those lines or act that part again. It would be physically painful to me." What a beautiful thing to say to an 8 year old's face. How fitting I was too drunk to hear it. It actually says in the Peter Pan rights contracts, "Reinstatement to the text or portrayal on the stage of the character of Sylvia Darling is punishable by DEATH!", an unusually strict condition for a Hospital for Sick Children to insist upon enforcing. Yet another unique tribute to my thesbic genius.

But Walt Disney had a male performer play Peter, turning her into a boy-playing-a-woman-who-dresses-like-a-boy, making the whole thing too confusing for children to follow. Is this Peter Pan or Victor/Victoria? (Be very grateful you've never seen Julie Andrews's Peter. I have.) And once Peter is no longer a middle-aged, sexually-ambiguous woman, the whole relationship with Wendy becomes meaningless! Mary Martin, always a maverick, took the additional transgressive step of playing Peter as a nun. And they broadcast that sacrilegious version on television in the 1950s!

But the Maude Adams production of Peter Pan was not my only appearance in the play. No, I never played Peter myself. I’m afraid the world was robbed of ever seeing my amazing, enormous Peter. Remember, if someone ever tells you they have seen my Peter, they are lying. However, in 1966 I was persuaded to appear for two weeks at Melodyland Theater, in Anaheim, in a Yuletide production of Peter Pan, in a different role.

Since Peter had always been played by a woman, the decision was made to experiment with some cross-dressing, and I was cast as Captain James Hook, the physically-challenged ship’s captain plagued by an anarchic middle-aged lesbian who thinks she’s a juvenile delinquent, who has maimed him and is trying to kill him. It is an heroic role, this brave, one-handed seafarer, battling a tribe of vicious, homicidal, feral children, and one gravity-free lesbian, and who himself eventually meets a Tragic Fate.

(In an amazing display of virtuosity and versatility - I am known for my versatility, though I no longer top, thanks to Anna - I also played Mrs. Darling, Wendy's mother. Thus the audience was not robbed of my beauty during Hook's long absences from acts one and five.)

The titular thug Peter Pan, who battled my beleaguered Captain Hook, was stage legend Ethel Merman. Getting Merman was a lucky break for me, since audience sympathy for Hook, often irrationally considered an unsympathetic role, was much easier to arouse. From the moment Merman first sailed onto the stage, suspended from chains, the audience was firmly on my side.

And she had a ways to go, I might add. Melodyland Theater was right across the street from Disneyland. It was a theater-in-the-round, an insanely designed gimmick that was nothing if not egalitarian, since every seat was a bad seat, and it didn’t allow for any scenery taller than ankle-high. Consequently, there were no windows for Ethel to fly through. She had to be soldered into her chains out at the room’s rim, and then flown, squawking, all the way down the long aisle and onto the stage. She built up such a head of speed that, at some performances, she sailed right across the stage and up the opposite aisle, to collide with the room’s far rim. Since, in order to avoid any chance, however tempting, of dropping Miss Merman, thus damaging the theater, she was, as I said, soldered into her fly-chains, and had no choice but to wear them throughout the entire performance.

Miss Merman was an unforgettable Peter Pan. Even now, over forty years later, her forceful Peter remains deeply embedded in me, and in the memories of even the youngest child who had the traumatic joy of enduring a performance, no matter how much therapy has been applied. Everyone enjoyed her exuberant renditions of I Gotta Crow and I'm Flying, both the audience members proper, and the people riding the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland across the street, as well as the people trying to enjoy the saloon show at Knott’s Berry Farm, six miles down the freeway. I’m told the last note of her crooning of Neverland could be heard on the moon, and it’s a vacuum. I myself suffered significant hearing loss that has been traced back to the punishment my ears received each night during act two. However, when Ethel sang I Won’t Grow Up, nobody challenged her.

I was relieved when I learned that it would not be considered necessary for me to amputate my right hand to accommodate the prosthetic hook I wore as the salty seaman with the coincidental name, which was fortunate, as otherwise I would have had to wear gloves as Mrs. Darling, to fake the missing hand. Dodged a sawblade that time.

Frankly, I thought it a bit over the top, and V-U-L-G-A-R, when, a few years ago, Robert DeNiro played Captain Hook for a two week Christmas pantomime engagement in London, and had his hand amputated for the run, stored in ice, and then surgically reattached at the cast party. Poor, show-offy Bobby. When he awoke from the first surgery, he found the doctors had mistakenly taken off the wrong hand. Since switching hands would necessitate altering his costumes, reblocking every scene, and rechoreographing several musical numbers, he had them reattach the left hand and amputate the right. When we last met, backstage at the Golden Globes, I said to him, "Bobby darling. You only had it removed once? I had it done nightly when I played Hook." He seethed with envy as he massaged his wrists. Watch him on award shows. He never applauds any more.

The hardest thing about doing this play live, was the lack of stunt doubles. I was required to do all my own stunts, as well as do all my own acting, sometimes concurrently! I was multi-tasking my brains out. Fortunately, vodka makes multi-tasking much easier. Imagine trying to fence, with a broadsword in a fake hook instead of your hand, and a completely het-up Ethel Merman in drag, whizzing around your head on lethal-looking chains, swinging wildly and blindly with her sword. To hell with staying in character, I was just lucky to get out alive, as were those members of the audience that did. Thank God I was drunk every show. I don’t know how I could have done it sober!

All in all, it was an interesting experience. I got good notices as Hook, with critics saying things like "Born to the role," "Fits Hook like a glove," "Now it makes sense!" and "More camp than a decade with the Boy Scouts." I’m not certain what that last one means, but the critic clearly loved me in the role, even suggesting that a more appropriate title for the production would have been The Killing of Sister Peter. I was a bit miffed that most of the reviews were about my secondary character, Captain Hook, while my primary achievement, my daring Mrs. Darling, was mostly ignored. Has any other actress ever taken the risk of playing her as openly gay? (I mean besides Janet Blair! Don't be so obvious. Goodbye Janet, my wee one.)

I’m told (I don’t really remember anything between 1969 and 1980.) that I ended up returning to the same part in the same theater ten years later, which is much easier than learning a new play. The second time around was a little bit different, as we had quite a different Peter. But then, I like a different Peter now and then; don’t you? A sudden change of Peter can really liven things up.

This time out the little thug who won’t grow up was definitively delineated by Miss Carol Channing. Certainly, Carol’s renditions of the songs were wholly different from Ethel’s. She also had a couple of songs from her previous Broadway hits slightly altered and inserted into the score, so that, on arriving in Neverland, Peter and the Lost Boys did a huge production number of Hello Peter, and later, Peter sang Diamonds Are a Pre-Pubescent Boy’s Best Friend. Carol also had the play’s title changed to Gentlemen Prefer Peter. The critics said my Hook was completely of a piece with Miss Channing’s unique interpretation of Pan, and equally masculine.

Carol did not require chains to get hoisted aloft. Quite the contrary. The thinnest of wires, barely a thread, was sufficient to propel the skeletal Miss Channing to the stratosphere. In fact, they eventually sewed weights into her costume, to keep her anchored on the stage.

Watching the Disney cartoon with Little Douglas today, I was struck by the Fairy Dust. Peter Pan can fly when he shakes a load of Fairy Dust off of Tinker Bell onto himself, and/or anyone else he wants to fly, and then thinks Lovely Thoughts. Okay. But what exactly is Fairy Dust? Well, it falls off of Tink in flurries when you shake her or spank her. (That's the derivation of the term "Spank Your Fairy".)

Oh my God! Fairy Dust is Tink’s old dead Fairy Skin!!! It’s like Magic Dandruff.

Wait a minute. Little Douglas has a skin condition … I’ll be right back.


I’m back. Eureka! It works!

Little Dougie is, let's face it, a big old fairy, and he has this yucky old skin problem. Keep him away from moisturizers, his medicated skin cremes, and soap for more than a day and his face turns as white as an Alabaman draft board, and great, huge flakes of his old, dead skin cells cascade off of him at the slightest breeze or facial agitation.

Well, I kept his face moisture-free for two days, and then I slapped him around for a while (He loves it. Stop whimpering Douglas!), while luxuriating in a Niagara of his dead epidermal cells, like a blizzard of powdered cadaver, until I was coated in authentic Fairy Dust. Then I began thinking Lovely Thoughts, thoughts like vodka, throbbing erections, gin, forced felching, Matlock with cupcakes and margaritas, while enjoying a lively beverage.

Darlings, I’m flying!

Cheers darlings.

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