Peanuts

Peanuts

On the 19th of September Linus Van Pelt turned 69 years old.  I know this because the Charles Schulz Museum put a special post on Facebook reminding me of my favorite Peanut’s character’s birthday.  They also ran the first strip.  In that historic strip Linus is still in diapers and hasn’t even learned to walk yet.  But that uniquely shaped head and the scraggly hair definitely told you that this was Linus.

That’s true of all The Peanut’s characters.  If you go back and look at the original strips, they look remarkably different than what they would be in ten years’ time.  Ten years after that they would change a little more but not by much. Even the characters would change.  In the first strip which was dated October 5, 1950, we see three characters two of which are all but forgotten today.  Shermy, who is always the shepherd in A Charlie Brown Christmas, Patty (not Peppermint) a blond-haired girl who be most often seen with Lucy, and Charlie Brown.  These three were the center for awhile but slowly the cast would grow as Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty Marcy, and Franklin would all join the cast as well as a host of other characters.

Charles M Schulz was a genius born in 1922 and died in 2000.  For fifty of those years from 1950 until 2000 Schulz wrote and illustrated every Peanuts strip.  If he took a vacation, he wrote strips 2 or three weeks in advance.  Not one line of a pen or one word came from anybody else.  Every strip was pure Schulz.

That’s not to say he didn’t take ideas from those around him.  Watching his own children grow gave Schulz much fodder for his strip.  Watching them at play or what they were learning in school or how they got things mixed up was him plenty of ideas.  He took outside advice to and when an African American lady wrote him asking him to put an African American child in his strip, he took the advice and Franklin was born.

One other gift that Schulz had was seeing the human experience the sad and the happy and making us laugh at it.  His strip had the capacity to make kids laugh at the antics of a beagle and adults laugh and yet ponder the words of Linus who, more often than not, was the moralist of the characters.  He saw inside of us and liked what he saw but he also knew we could be better.  It’s all there in The Peanuts strip.

Mr. Schulz was a Baptist at the beginning of his career and through out the 1950s and 1960s you will find Bible verses peppered through out those years.  Of course, the most famous moment is Linus reciting from Luke Chapter Two in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  But he could be subtle too.  There is one strip where Linus is building a sandcastle.  It was a Sunday strip, and it was panel after panel of turrets and towers, high walls, and battlements.  In the last few panels, it starts to rain and the whole thing disappears.  Linus, looking at the work he has done melting away say, “I know there’s a lesson to be learned here, but I don’t know what it is.”  If you know your New Testament you know exactly what it is.  It’s a pictorial reference to Matthew Chapter 7 verses 26 and 27 where Jesus says, “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain came down, streams rose, and the wind blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.  This is the end of The Sermon on the Mount.

Peanuts somehow enters all of us.  I know at different times of my life I can be as crabby as Lucy, as insecure as Charlie Brown, passionate as Schroeder, Adventurous as Snoopy, as loyal as Woodstock or as wise as Linus.

For a good part of my life, in recent years, I saw myself as Charlie Brown.  The loser, the guy that had little to offer the world.  The guy that failed at life.  Like Charlie Brown too many curve balls knocked me on my back on the pitcher’s mound, but I got up and tried again.  Like Charlie Brown I sought help.  A few times I ended up with advisers that might just as well been Lucy and her psychiatric booth, but more than once I ended with councilors who could and did advise me well and I found myself back in the game again.

Physical issues knocked me down too and again I needed help to get back in the game.  And again, there were people there, professionals who knew how to advise me and get me moving.  Like Linus helped Charlie Brown see what the true meaning of Christmas is.  People helped me to see what the true meaning of life is and how to live it.

These days I think I see life as a cross between Linus and Snoopy.  I want to see the meaning behind the events of my life.  I want to have deep discussions on philosophy and faith and how each of these fits into my life.  I also want to live an adventure.  Snoopy became whatever his imagination decided he would be, A World War One fighter Pilate, A lawyer, a doctor, A skater.  You see Snoopy swimming and surfing and sometimes driving a car he is almost always at the head of an adventure and willing to take the risk of the next one.  This is how I want to live.

What is an adventure.  Thornton Wilder said that you can tell if you’re in an adventure if you look around and say, “How did I get into this?”  But he countered with that you know “There is something wrong with you when you sit quietly at home hoping for an adventure.”

Right now, life is full of adventure for me.  My journey has taken a new turn and there is much to decide in the coming months.  I have been asking myself, “how did I get into this?”  And the answer has been through no fault of my own, at least for most of it.  Regardless of how, the question now is what?  What’s the next move?  How do I solve the puzzle?  I could look on the issues I am facing and be all, “woe, is me”, or I could see each situation as an adventure.  A chance to learn and grow as a person and ultimately to be a better man than I am.  To me that’s the perfect balance between Snoopy and Linus.  Seizing the adventure and seeing the meaning and the potential behind it.

I’d like to talk a little more about Charles Schulz.  Schulz was an amazing man with an incredible mind.  His work will live on through out the ages.  Other comic strips will come and go because they are grounded firmly in the time they were written.  The political landscape of Doonesbury is not the same as we have today and so the strip will fade as its creator passes on.  The same could be said for other comic strips.  Schulz work is timeless.  He makes us laugh and hits are hearts and minds at the same time.  An example of one such strip goes like this.

Linus (Pretending he has a gun) Bang Bang!

Charlie Brown:  What are you playing Linus, cops, and robbers?

Linus No!  Bang Bang!

Charlie Brown: Cowboys and Indians?

Linus: No.

Charlie Brown: Then what are you playing?

Linus: Liberals versus conservatives!  Bang Bang!

 Now Charles Schulz passed away 21 years ago.  This strip was written in the late 50s or early 60s and it is still as relevant today as the day it was written.

Schulz was a man who struggled.  He may have been at one time the most famous cartoonist in the world, but he struggled with insecurity and depression.  And yet they never beat him.  For 50 years this man would turn out strip after strip.  All those raw emotions and self-doubt became fodder for his imagination and instead of wallowing in self-pity he made us laugh and gave us the great gift of all of his characters.

I used to think that Schulz modeled Charlie Brown after himself.  I read an early biography of him where he talked about feeling out of place while in school and felt genuinely insecure.  But when Schulz was asked what character, he saw himself as he simple answered, “All of them”.  That answer, at first, surprised me.  But after thinking about it awhile, it seemed to be exactly true not only for him but for all of us.

As people we switch hats and masks every day.  Maybe to put it better we play different parts every day.  In a days’ time I can be a son, a brother, a writer, a chef, a researcher, a movie or book critic, a house cleaner, a good friend, or a councilor.  You in a day could be a mother or a father, a hockey player or businessperson, a student, or a teacher all in a single day.  We change our roles as we go from one of our interests or jobs to another and we don’t even think about it, the change is instant, sometimes simultaneous.

Charles Schulz is basically saying the same thing as he claims he is all of his characters.  He can lose and yet still be determined as Charlie Brown of be angry and crabby like Lucy.  I guess I’m pushing this to some extent, but the universalness of Charles Schulz Characters cannot go understated.

Charles Schulz is distinctly the only Newspaper cartoonist to have covered all the ways we can be entertained.  His characters have been successful in the newspapers and on-line, in movies and television and on the Broadway stage.  His entire 50 years of work has been bound in 25 hard cover books and are available for purchase.  Peanuts is read the world over and I doubt there are many countries where Snoopy plush dolls are not available for purchase.

One night in December 1969 Charles Schulz had printed his daily strip.  A Boy Named Charlie Brown was playing in the movie theaters, A Charlie Brown Christmas was on our television sets and You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown was being performed off Broadway.  Every form of media was corned by Peanuts that night.  No one has done that since.

Peanuts, Featuring Good Ol’ Charlie Brown has entertained informed and inspired us for 71 years. It has hit our hearts and our minds and our faith.  It remains popular being published every day still in print newspapers or daily delivered to your in-box.  (Since Schulz death they have been reprinting the strip from 1975 to 2000, this will end in 2025)  The Characters remain popular on television and though each of the holiday specials are available on DVD or digitally we still clamor for them to be shown on network television.  Last years rage over Apple buying the rights to show exclusively on Apple TV proves that.  The messages and the joy in those holiday specials should be free to the world as I think Schulz would want it.  Charlie Brown once said, “Life is like an ice cream cone, you have to learn to lick.”  I’ll leave you there.

The Sound of Music and Me

It was 1965, I was four years old so I don’t expect that I saw The Sound of Music when the movie was released on April first. But the movie would begin to have it’s effects on me at that early age and would continue to the present day.

First, as I stated before, mom loved musicals and I can bet she bought that album as soon as it came out. The music from that movie would permeate our house frequently.  I remember in kindergarten one of the kids brought in an album that told the story of The Sound of Music along with the songs and I think that was my first introduction to what the movie was about.  In those day movies ran for year and I know at one point I was taken to see the film.  I, of course loved it.

Sometime in early part of the 1960’s 20th Century Fox Studios was about to close its doors.  It had begun producing movies in 1935.  20th Century Fox was responsible for such films as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Miracle on 34th Street, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Robe, and The Rodger’s and Hammerstein films, Oklahoma, Carousel, and The King and I.  Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the only musical they ever wrote specifically for film for 20th Century Fox which was State Fair.  Hard times had come on the studio, but they had one card left to play The Sound of Music.

Sound of Music was hit with people if not with critics on it’s 1965 release.  Christopher Plummer it’s male lead would call it The Sound of Mucus and for the studio it was The Sound of Money.  Starring Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music would win Best Picture at The Academy Awards and Best Actress at The Golden Globes award.  It also took the Oscar for Best Original Score.  The Sound of Music saved 20th Century Fox and helped keep them going for many years.  Unfortunately, the studio would eventually get into financial difficulty again and would be sold to The Disney Studio in 2019.

As a boy I remember being delighted by the story of the nun that becomes governess to 7 motherless children.  You couldn’t help but wonder at romping thru Salzburg, it’s mountain and meadows while singing.  The movie was a delight to both the ear and the eyes despite what age you are.

I don’t remember when I found out that Maria, Captain Von Trapp, and the children were actual people.  Actual living people.  It may have been when Julie Andrews had her own variety show on television and she had as a guest Maria Von Trapp.  I remember the interview vaguely I know you can see some of it on YouTube.  One thing I remember is Maria saying she caused much more trouble in the abbey than the movie portrayed.

This made me curious and I found in one of frequent trips to the bookstore the book that The Sound of Music was based on…The Story of The Trapp Family Singers.

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers was first published in 1949.  It is a memoir of the Von Trapp family from Maria’s point of view and is told in the first person.  Maria, I think was surprised at herself for writing this book.  At least that’s the feeling you get if your read the introduction.

The book itself is different in many ways from what would become The Sound of Music.  For instance, though Maria did upset the abbey quite a bit as a postulant that was not the reason she was sent to The Trapp’s.  She had been suffering from severe headaches and it was thought that fresh air and regular exercise would be of help to her.  When the need for a teacher for The Captain’s youngest daughter, who was also named Maria, reached Mother Superior, she felt this a good opportunity for Maria to get her health back before permanently entering the abbey.

So Maria was sent to the Von Trapp’s

It was Maria’s personality that won the other children to her.  Their were other governesses and staff in the house but the children liked Maria and yes eventually because Maria loved to sing especially folk music she taught the children how to sing together and in harmony.

The Captain too was not the ogre he is presented as in the film.  He is a man that grieved for his wife and so ran a strict household, but the children didn’t want for anything that they knew of and he loved them, frequently coming home with gifts after his absences.

The family had all become recent converts to Catholicism.  Maria opened whole new worlds of worship of God for the family.  Two chapters in the book An Austrian Christmas and Feasts in a Family go into great detail about this.  I read these two chapters each year one at Christmas and one at Easter because Feasts in a Family goes deeply in to how Easter was celebrated prior to Vatican II, the Christmas chapter in advent is self explanatory.

The first half the book  in many ways resembles The Sound of Music.  The Captain is engaged to an Austrian Noble Woman and he does break it off when he realizes he is in love with Maria.  Many things happen between his marriage and his ultimate decision to flee Austria.  Many things and many years pass.  The couple married in 1927 and left Austria in 1938.

In the years between the marriage and the departure The Captain’s children grew up.  Rupert, the oldest son was a practicing physician and was also offered a place in The Third Reich along with his father.  The Captain also lost almost his entire fortune.  He had the money in a bank but that bank went under.  The Family still had the estate but they began renting rooms out in order to secure more income.

It was during this time that they were heard singing by Lotte Lenya a popular vocalist at the time.  It was She who encouraged them to go professional and they did and were a huge success.  The Captain did not sing with his family.  He found the whole thing very painful to endure.  He would eventually get used to it as he had no choice  And ultimately because they had some international contracts being offered to them to sing outside Austria they were able to flee the country when both father and son were offered place’s in Hitler’s regime.

Before leaving Austria Maria would have two children of her own Eleanor and Rosemarie.  She would have a third in The United States as she was pregnant with her youngest Johannes when they left.

The second half of the book is about their adventures in America.  Settling first outside Philadelphia, where Johannes was born and their early concert tours.  Ultimately they found a place in Vermont that reminded them of the Austria they left behind and they settled in Stowe before the America got involved in WWII.

First they farmed the land and made their own branded maple syrup.  Eventually they would buy an army barracks that was abandoned and they ran family music camps so that families could learn to sing together.  

When the war started the two Von Trapp boys, now young men, served in the U.S. military.  The family was successful in The United States and they gave back.  Thankfully both boys came home.

The Captain died in 1947 at the age of 67.  Maria was 22 when she married him and 42 when he passed away.  In 1949 her book was published and it gained the interest of a German film maker who made dramatic film called The Story Of The Trapp Family Singers.  Maria sold the rights to her book for 200 dollars.  They were the complete rights and so it was the German film company who owned the rights when Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted to make a stage musical about the family. Maria and the family made very little money from the Sound of Music.  I think signing her rights away for 200 dollars was one of her biggest regrets.  She was given a certain amount from the film and even had a few seconds of a scene In the movie.  Ultimately that scene was cut, but you can glimpse Maria crossing the square during the Do Re Me Montage.  But you must look very carefully.

The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in November 1959.  It starred Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel as Georg Von Trapp.  It would run for four years on Broadway closing in 1963 and would be perennially done by schools, touring companies, community theaters, and Broadway revivals.  It would star many well known actresses such as Florence Henderson who took over for Mary Martin, Shirley Jones, Maria Osmond, Debbie Boone and the list could go on.  There are some lovely pictures online of the real Maria posing with the actresses who portrayed her.

But Maria’s work and her story do not end with The Sound of Music.  It was my first year of college, probably the spring of 1980, I was walking through the stores in downtown Mansfield PA when I spotted a book by Maria Von Trapp called Yesterday Today and Forever.  I bought it and devoured it.  The book was a sort of Life of Christ from a family’s point of view.  It was also a guide on how to bring Jesus into your own life.  Several years later I would find that book as a hard cover at our local library book sale.  I got it for a dime and opened it to find Maria’s signature.

Maria would go on and write a separate book about Our Lord titled When King was Carpenter.  This book was about the hidden years of Jesus, between his being found in the Temple at age 12 and his baptism by John. The book gives the details of how people lived in Judea at the time of Jesus.  Both books are marvelous treasures for a Christian and I recommend you reading them.  You feel as though Maria and her family really loved The Lord and it comes out in these books.  If you are lucky you may come across a book titled Let Me Tell You About My Savior this book is Yesterday Today and Forever and When King Was Carpenter in one volume.

Maria would write another book on her family called A Family on Wheels.  This book is about their adventures giving concerts across the United States.  It’s a fun book.  A lighthearted look at artists on the road.

In 1972 Maria would publish her last book, Maria My Own Story.  This book is a much more intimate look at the woman separate from her family.  It is her faith journey from a family of non-believers to becoming a novice in a convent.  There are many surprises in the book as well.  Maria felt in 1927 that she was more marrying the children than their father.  The fact is she brought the marriage proposal to Mother Superior and the nuns met and decided for Maria that she would accept.  Maria wasn’t expecting the marriage to be intimate.  She loved the children when she married the father but she grew to love the father as well.

Maria’s story has become part of my own faith story.  I and my housemate do an advent wreath and Advent devotionals during the time leading up to Christmas because of her books.  Maria made Jesus accessible to me.  Especially in the book Yesterday Today and Forever.  She helped me realize that Jesus can be an intimate part of my life if I choose to get to know him better.  And these books help you get to know the real Jesus not the untouchable Christ that some churches portray him as being.

The songs in The Sound of Music give me great strength to do what I need to do.  Climb Every Mountain is a hymn in some churches.  And My Favorite Things brings Paul’s Letter to The Philippians Chapter 4 verse 8 to life.  You can look that up on your own and then compare the instruction to the lyrics.  It is my go-to song when I am feeling very low.

Maria’s life, and her faith have brought much encouragement to me.  She passed away in 1987 at the age of 82.  I felt that passing.  It was like a good friend had died.  But she left a legacy for us all to find if we dare look for it and listen for the sound of music.

DISNEY

It was December 1966.  I was 5 years old, and my mother told me Walt Disney had died.  I remember going out to our side yard and wandering around feeling a little lost.  I know I didn’t really understand what death was at that age, but I knew something precious had been lost never to be found again.

Of course, I didn’t know Walt Disney and yet he had been a part of my life every Sunday night for as far back as I can remember.  He hosted what I remember, being called, The Wonderful World of Color.  We didn’t have a color TV set yet, but those shows were wonderful.  Walt led us into the deepest parts of our imaginations and taught us the about the natural world on those Sunday nights.  He was woven into my generations DNA, and I believe I am the better for it.

Walt Disney, his television shows, his movies, his music his cartoons, his toys and his theme parks have played a huge part in my life.  They are part of what makes me who I am, and they help sustain me in the tough times.

It has been 55 years since Walt Disney died and yet his philosophy and his work lives on.  It has been in danger of being lost and sometimes the quality of what was produced was not always great.  The 1980s were a tough time for The Disney Studio but somehow it always comes back.  Disney always finds a way to fly again.

I think my first Disney film that I was taken to Was Mary Poppins.  Now I’m not sure I saw the original release as I was three when the movie debuted.  But back in the 1960s a movie could play at theaters for a couple of years or make the rounds to different theaters.  The Sound of Music was running well into the 1970s from its initial 1966 release.  Movies don’t do that today.  I believe I was probably about 5 years old when I was taken to Mary Poppins, and I fell in love with a wonderful Nanny that could fly with a umbrella and walk up the smoke that came out of chimneys.  Oh, and lest I forget, cleaning out your room with a snap of your fingers was awesome too.  One thing I disliked doing was cleaning my room.

Fun fact:  Julie Andrews was given a song in Mary Poppins that she didn’t much care for.  The Sherman brothers, Richard, and Robert, decided to write a new song for her to take its place.  When, I believe it was Richard, got home from work that day his daughter came in from school and he asked her about her day.  She told him that they had received the polio vaccine on a small sugar cube.  That was all he needed.  He got in touch with his brother and soon A Spoonful of Sugar was written.  It didn’t become a radio standard but it’s part of what we like to refer as The Great American Songbook.

In reflection it’s a little funny to me that back then children and adults took a vaccine without question.  Everyone knew what polio could do and they were eager to remain healthy.  Now today I don’t think a child could be given a vaccine at school and some parents don’t allow their children to get the childhood vaccines that are necessary.  Then there is the resistance of people to take the vaccine that could save their lives right now as we face a worldwide pandemic.  With the last important vaccine, we got a song.  What will get from what we have now?

Another fun fact about Mary Poppins.  Richard and Robert Sherman were the only composer and lyricist ever to be given offices at The Walt Disney Studio.  After Mary Poppins was released when Walt was feeling down, he would call the brothers in to play Feed the Birds, another iconic song from the film.  Mary Poppins had some stiff competition at The Academy Awards that year.  It was competing against My Fair Lady.  And though My Fair Lady would win for best picture.  Mary Poppins took best actress, Julie Andrews, and best song which was Chim Chim Cheree.  I always thought that was kind of funny as in my opinion that was the weakest song in the film.

Disney continued to delight, entertain, and educate me as the years went by.  Films like The Jungle Book would follow and Bed knobs and Broomsticks, with the great Angela Lansbury, The Love Bug and The Winnie the Pooh shorts.

When Disney first acquired the rights to do Winnie the Pooh it was originally thought of as a full-length film.  When the film was completed, Walt insisted that the movie be cut into shorts and would be shown before a full-length Disney feature.  The film was broken down into Winnie the Pooh and The Honey Tree and Winnie the Pooh and The Blustery day. I know I saw both on the big screen when they came out.  But I only remember that I saw Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day with my mother before seeing The Love Bug.  In 1977 Disney released the full film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Putting those shorts back together.

That’s something else that needs explaining.  Back in the 60s and into the 70s when you went to the movies you didn’t go to see just one thing like today.  There was always a cartoon or a short documentary first.  With most movies it was a Bugs Bunny Cartoon, but with a Disney Film you could never know what you might get but it was always good.  They even had double features where you would see two movies for the price of one.  I remember going to see a double feature Of Yours Mine and Ours and The Yellow Submarine with my family at a Drive In.  I was asleep before The Yellow Submarine got under way.

The Disney Studio had a policy with its animated movies to release them every seven years.  I was nine when Peter Pan was released again.  The film made its debut in 1953 and was magical from the start.  Of course, Tinker Bell became a Disney Icon opening all his television shows, I knew her well, but not so much Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Peter Pan changed me somehow.  It awoke in me a spirit of adventure that I never really knew I had before.  I went from playing cops and robbers and Cowboys and Indians to playing Peter Pan and the lost boys and I was Peter.  We had a creek across the street from the house I grew up in and at places the creek had banks that were four or five feet high.  That was good enough to become my home underground, like Peter’s.  A little way up the street there was a tree that was easy to climb and where you couldn’t be seen in the leaves that was my place to fly to.  When things got bad for me in one way or another, I would wish fervently that Peter would come and take me to Neverland. 

In The Bible we read Jesus saying that “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I think that’s the great lesson of Peter Pan.  We don’t have to grow up completely we can keep the child inside of us alive and be filled with living in the present moment, finding joy in the sound water makes in a creek or stream, or being happy with simple things.  I remember when a refrigerator box gave me more pleasure than the most expensive toys.  The toy could only be one thing.  That box could be anything.  Maybe we surround ourselves with all of our adult to toys because we are lookiing for an empty box.

It was about this time that my cousin Maryann and her husband Chuck were moving to California, eventually settling in San Jose.  (yes, I am proud to say my cousin can answer the age old question, “Do you know the way to San Jose?)   The important thing was they were moving to the state that had Disneyland.

Disneyland was my big hope back in those days.  But there were six of us in the family and a trip across the country was out of the question.  We went on vacations.  We had great times down the shore in Wildwood NJ and twice to Canada.  We were even taken To Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, but it was no Disneyland.  The reason I bring this up is because Maryanne had a younger sister, Diane, in the year that Maryann and Chuck lived in California My Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve along with Diane went to visit.

A trip by plane anywhere in those days was a big deal in our family and all of us went to the airport to see them off.  And all of us was a lot.  My grandmother my parents, myself and my brother and sisters and my other aunts, uncles, and cousins.  I knew that they were going to Disneyland and asked my cousin, more like pleaded with her, to get me Peter Pan’s autograph.  I knew he was there I saw him there on TV.  They came back and my cousin had no autograph for me.  She told me that Peter was played by a woman in the park, and she didn’t think I would want it.  I was terribly disappointed.  To this day on my trips to Disney World, where I know for a fact Peter is a boy I still hope for an autograph or at the very least a picture with my hero, but it has yet to happen.

This was the early 70s and Disney magic still filled our lives.  Angela Lansbury would play her first part for Disney in the wonderful Bed knobs and Broomsticks.  I spent many nights dreaming that I had a magic bed that could take me anywhere I wanted to go, and where did I go on those imaginary flights?  Disney World, of course.

!971 brought us Disney World.  This was a project that Walt himself had started before he passed away.  He secretly acquired the land in Florida and then made promotional films.  He unfortunately never saw Disney World completed, but he walked the grounds and imagined where everything would be.  Those dreams were kept alive by Walt’s brother Roy who put off his retirement until Disney World could be completed.

It was the summer after my sixth-grade year, 1973, that my mom, dad and my sister Susan and I went to Disney World.  12 years old is the perfect time to be in Magic Kingdom.  You are old enough to appreciate it and not old enough to become cynical like most teenagers do.  I enjoyed every minute of that trip.  The first time I saw Cinderella Castle I knew I had found my special place in some ways I had come home.

My friend Brad, who is a pastor, told me long ago that we all have sacred places.  Those places are unique to us and the to the way God had made us.  For some people it is great churches and cathedrals.  For other people that sacredness is found high in the mountains or the ocean shore.  Though I have felt the sacredness by the ocean I feel very close to God standing outside Cinderella Castle and looking up at the towering spires.  Maybe it’s because as a Christian I know I am part of The Kingdom or God and I’m sure that His Kingdom is filled with such fairy tale palaces.  Or maybe its’s because in that spot reality and fantasy bend and become one, and one day I believe that my faith in the things I cannot see and the reality that I live in now will also become one.  I will see and know God and His son Jesus and The Holy Spirit as they really are.  In my own head that all comes together in Disney World.

The 70s turned into the 80s and part of me did grow up and part of me got a little cynical.  We went back to Disney World in 1976 and I still thoroughly loved that trip, but something had changed.  I wasn’t going to many Disney movies now.  I put most of the childhood stuff away and had to get through junior and senior high school.  Those years were hard for me.  They are for most of us, and I had a hard time figuring out who I was.  I fell in love with other things during that time.  Movie musicals and stage shows as well as other activities.  My interest in Disney waned until 1991.

In 1991 Disney released the second of it’s renaissance movies Beauty and the Beast.  The first of these films was The Little Mermaid.  I hadn’t seen that.  In fact, I avoided it.  Disney’s animated films of the 1980s were lack luster and I figured The Little Mermaid would just be more of the same.  I was completely mistaken, of course, and found that out when I watched the film for the first time at my friend’s Manny’s house.  I was living with him and his family at the time in Syracuse NY which is where I would also see Beauty and the Beast.

In the animated film the character of Mrs. Potts was played by Angela Lansbury.  Sometime, before the film was released, in a Disney special on TV, as the finale, Miss Lansbury appeared in a beautiful gown, with a full orchestra and sang the title song.  Disney magic was 100% back in that song.

I remember seeing the film for the first time and being blown away by the incredible animation that was being played out before my eyes.  This film rivaled anything that Broadway or MGM ever produced.  Every member of the voice cast was perfect and well suited to the roles.  The scene of the dance in the dining hall took your breath away as much as when the king sweeps Anna up in his arms to dance in The King and I.  It would be years later in 2020 after Disney World restructured Fantasyland that I would I have a chance to eat in that dining hall in the Be Our Guest restaurant.  That was magical too.  Sitting there with my good friend and Disney Buddy, Pam, enjoying an amazing meal in place that looked exactly the animated film.  Disney had made magic come to life.

After Beauty and The Beast almost every Disney movie was a treat.  I’m not die hard, I didn’t like all of them but most of them yes, absolutely.  Aladdin, Tarzan, Toy Story, James and the Gian Peach, and more recently, the live action remake of Cinderella, Mary Poppins Returns and the live action Beauty and the Beast which opened on my birthday in 2017 all continued to bring magic to my life.

I am very lucky and blessed in my friend Pam who lives in Florida.  I would be blessed to know her wherever she lived but we are both fans of Disney and the last time I was in Disney World she spent much time with me making my trip extra special.  She also allowed me to talk and dream and she allowed me to be me and that is the greatest gift anyone can give another person. That was February of 2020 after I returned form that trip Covid 19 struck and paralyzed the world.  Disney World shut down and the movie theaters shut down, but Disney helped rescue us during this time with their new streaming service Disney+, that not only gave us a great portion of the Disney Movie and TV show catalogue but also gave us Broadway’s Hamilton to watch in our homes with the original cast.

I would be remiss in not mentioning my niece Melissa, her husband Chris and their kids Caitlyn, Dominic and Joseph.  They are a whole family of Disney fans and do many Disney things together.  We swap stories, pictures and recipes, especially for the famous Disney Parks Dole Whip and the Strawberry Soup at the Grand Floridian Resort on the Disney World property.  Disney is in my DNA and that gene got passed down.

In the 1980s my boss Barb had us watch the film version of a book called In Search of Excellence.  Part of the film focused on the Disney company and their philosophy for work.  No one in the parks is an employee.  They are all cast members expected to play a part as long as they are at work.  Once they start their jobs they are on stage and must play the character they are assigned whether it be a hostess or a dishwasher as if they are in front of an audience.  No attitude, a constant smile, no guest in a Disney owned business is ever to see a cast member in any thing but a good mood.  I was a dialysis technician at the time and decided it would be a good idea to adapt this philosophy as my own. I’m an amateur actor, so developing a work character for myself was a joy.  I’m not saying I was perfect at this.  I had bad days and messed up more than once, but I think over all I became better at my job because I believed that my patients were better served by a happy smiling me than a grumpy me.  I tried to keep that work philosophy wherever I worked, and it has served me well.

There is so much more I could say about Disney.  We got our first dog, Lightning, a dalmatian, after my seeing 101 Dalmatians.  There were other trips to Disney World, and I left out adventures in Epcot and Animal Kingdom.  There are wonderful movies that I didn’t mention like The Happiest Millionaire and The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh both of which I hope you take the time to find and watch.  There is The Disney Channel that appeared on cable networks in the 80s but also imported a wonderful stop action animated television show from England, The Wind in the Willows, that show gave me hours of entertainment and also introduced to the breat children’s classic book by Kenneth Graham.  There is the fact that Disney now owns both Marvel Comics and The Star Wars franchise and has given us all so many new adventures over the last dozen years, and lastly Disney magic brought to New York City where they bought and refurbished many run-down theaters that were close to 100 years old so they could bring Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins to the stage.  Disney Magic in a whole new medium.

Walt Disney is quoted as saying “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them”.  I am now 60 years old and find myself reinventing me.  I’m doing this blog which is new, I’m working on a book and I’m working on some other surprises for the near future.  At 60 I feel like a 30-year-old with a lot of experience.  I have something left to give to this world and as long as I live, I hope I have the opportunity to give it.  I believe that’s what Walt would do.

Give My Regards To Broadway

I grew up on Musical Theater in one form or another.  My mother cleaned on Saturdays, and we had one of those stereos that took up the whole wall of the house.  You remember the type.  It was about 5 feet long and it had a flat service the center part was cut out and you lifted that and the turn table was there.  The speakers were built in.  You could stack albums on the spindle in the center of the turn table and the next one would drop and play when the first was finished.  I know all you vinyl lover are cringing at that.  On those Saturdays mom loaded that spindle up with original cast albums and soundtracks of her favorite stage and screen musicals.  She would clean and sing and in the summer, anyone walking by could hear my mother’s wonderful voice as they walked past the house.

That was my introduction to Broadway and the wonderful world of musical comedy and drama.  It wouldn’t be long before I would see my first stage show.  I was probably four or five when I went to spend the night at my cousin’s John’s house.  In the afternoon my Aunt Dee sent us to see a Performance of OKLAHOMA.  This was a production by The Saint Francis Players a group that performed musicals in The Saint Francis Chrch Auditorium  The performance was just for kids and as I remember it was pretty much pandemonium in the audience.  I, however, was mesmerized.  I can still see Curly singing Poor Jud is Dead.  I had been to the movies, but I had never seen anything live before and I was bitten.  In the years that followed I know I saw L’il Abner there as well as Camelot and I loved every minute.

From entering school until eight grade my interest in musicals waxed and waned.  Every year as a family we sat down to watch White Christmas and The Wizard of Oz .  These were family traditions and my sister and I scanned the TV supplement in the Sunday paper looking for when these favorites would be aired.  In the fourth grade my class did a watered down version of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.  I dearly wanted to play Linus and I got the part.  I think I was one of the only kids that ended up with a solo and I pulled off well.  Now not only was I watching musicals I was in one.

You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown was also my first original cast album.  I wore that album out and to be honest still love it to this day.  The whole show is amazing and stayed true to the characters created by Charles Schulz in the Peanuts strip.  Fun fact one evening in December 1969 Peanuts was off Broadway in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, on television in A Charlie Brown Christmas and on the big screen in A Boy Named Charlie Brown and in the daily newspaper strip.  I don’t think any other writer can claim dominating almost every form of entertainment in one evening.

Musicals waned again after this.  I still loved musical films and enjoyed being taken to see Tom Sawyer with Johnny Whittaker and the musical version of Lost Horizon and The Phantom Tollbooth, but as we moved into the 70s movie musicals were disappearing on the big screen and my interest lagged until 1975.

One of the musical that my family watched together every year was Bye Bye Bridie.  This was mostly due to the fact that my father was smitten by Ann Margaret.  I loved that movie especially the song The Telephone Hour it was fun to watch all those kids talking to each other.  In 1975 I was in 8th grade and it was announced that the All School Musical that year would be  Bye Bye Birdie.  I wanted in on that show, and I knew the part I wanted Harry MacAfee the father of the girl who was to be kissed by Conrad Birdie a thinly disguised version of Elvis Presley.  Harry was played on Broadway and on the screen by Paul Lynde who I thought was awesome.  To keep this short I got the part and was in my first full length musical.

Being in Bye Bye Birdie was a great experience.  I found my spot in the teenage social order, I was a theater geek.  Not the highest place on the social ladder but not the lowest either.  I made friends in that production too.  Some of which I still have to this day.

I would get into my share of shows over the next four years.  My High School offered acting classes as part of the English Department.  I took those and in my tenth-grade year we were taken to New York City to see A Chorus Line at The Schubert Theater.

I still remember that trip.  It was a blast and NYC was at it’s lowest point so I saw much more than I bargained for, but when the lights went down in that theater and the show started it was electrifying.  A Chorus Line was everything you can imagine on stage.

I didn’t get to NYC again until the mid-eighties but my love for live theater was kept alive.  My parents bought season theater tickets at The Valley Forge Music Fair.  This venue was theater in the round.  With my folks I saw Godspell, Pippin, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Sound of Music.  Dinner Theater was also very big at the time and I saw The Music Man and OKLHOMA at different venues.

My cousin Joanne lived next door to me and she was years older than I.  She took me to see The Wiz and 42nd Street in Philadelphia.  These were the national touring companies, and it was almost as amazing as being in NYC.  When I got older, we went to see A Chorus Line together at Valley Forge.

Valley Forge would continue to be my place for productions.  My sister Trish and I got season tickets there one year and saw West Side Story and South Pacific.  The cool thing about the Music Fair is that these were professional productions with stars in the leading roles.  In South Pacific It was Barbara Eden and Robert Goulet and The Sound of Music was Debbie Boone.

Valley Forge Music Fair was a great venue for all kinds of music events.  It started in a tent and then they had a building and were very successful for several years then I guess things got hard.  It’s gone now.  There’s a shopping center in its place. That saddens me.  Anytime a theater dies we lose something very special.

I could go on about the wonderful shows I saw in person and the wonderful experience I had working as an actor or director in amateur productions, but that’s not what this writing is about.  I want to talk about the magic of musical theater.

The magic of musical theater comes from the songs.  I believe that there is a song from some show about every life experience out there.  There are songs about falling in love but there are also songs of losing someone, getting a new job, having a difficult boss, how hard it is to be old and how are hard it is to be young.  Every human emotion and condition has been brought to life in some way on the Broadway Stage.

Musicals teach us lessons too.  The Sound of Music  is about putting faith before anything else.  I already wrote about Mame’s lesson, “Life is a banquet, and most suckers are starving to death.”  South Pacific and Finian’s Rainbow are both about the damage bigotry can do and both were teaching that lesson long before the civil rights movement.  A lot of shows simply tell us that we can be all that we want to be if we work hard enough to do it.  There is a song from the musical version of I Remember Mama whose lyrics say “When you really want something,

                            When you really got to have something,

                            And you feel that it’s the only thing in life worth fighting

                            For,

                           Doesn’t matter if you’re strong or not,

                           You’ve got to try to give it all you’ve got,

                           And when you think you’ve given all you’ve got,

                           Give a little bit more.”

Musicals teach us life lessons; the songs can give us joy and comfort us.  Song such as You’ll Never Walk Alone and Climb Every Mountain have even made it into hymnals and are sung at church.

There is a verse from the Bible that says “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things. (Philippian’s 4:8)  I believe Oscar Hammerstein must have come across that verse when he wrote:

                           Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on kittens

                           Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens,

                           Brown paper packages tied up is string,

                           These are a few of my favorite things.

for Maria to sing in The Sound of Music.  Interesting note on this song.  In the film the song is sung to the children during a thunderstorm.  In the original stage version, the song is sung by Maria and The Reverend Mother in order to prepare Maria for the news that she will have to leave the abbey.  I find it more effective in the stage version than the film.  Where ever it is sung I believe it actually reflects Paul’s instructions to the Philippians in his letter and I would love to see My Favorite Things added to every worship team song list and every churches hymnal.

Hello Dolly ranks as my favorite musical at least right now.  Dolly is about older people having second chances.  As I am now 60 this musical is reminder that dreams can still come true.  That I have every chance to make life better.  Dolly is also full of joy and that joy is expressed in almost every song in the show.  It is a show of hope and great courage.  It is a show that everyone should see just to feel good and hum the songs on the way out of the theater.

Mame taught me that life can be good, even in the tough times.  When Mame is broke and jobless in The depression she sings We Need A Little Christmas, and celebrates the holiday a week after Thanksgiving because, “We need it more now.”

Musicals became musical dramas more and more in the latter part of the 20th century and moving into the 21st.  Show’s like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Rent all told tragic though hopeful stories with memorable songs such as All I Ask of You. And Bring Him Home and I Dreamed a Dream.

I believe that most of my life philosophy has come from the hours and hours I have spent listening to musical theater albums.  Memorizing the songs and singing them out with gusto.  I remember having very difficult time at work for a season and every morning as I walked across the parking lot I would sing Oh What A Beautiful Morning and when I got to my job my stressed lowered and I felt good despite the bad stuff that was going on around me.

I’m going to be up front.  I don’t get much out of worship music.  I love the people that lead us in worship, but I never feel close to God while I am singing those songs.  I feel close to God when I am singing the songs that I love.  The songs from Broadway.  I know I worship Him when I sing My Favorite Things.  I know I am relying on Him when I sing, You’ll Never Walk Alone, I know I am praising him when I sing Happiness.  As Eric Liddell states in the film Chariots of Fire. “I feel God’s Pleasure.”  And I do.

I have so mush to say about musicals and their effects on me and others, but I’ll save it for another time.  For now, let me encourage you to see live stage musicals as the world begins to open back up, Locally Anastasia and Hamilton are both coming to Philadelphia as touring companies.  One of my favorites, Baby will be played at the Media Theater, Swarthmore Players Club is doing Anything Goes this year and on Broadway the amazing Hugh Jackman will open in The Music Man this fall.  All of these are amazing shows and great opportunities to see the magic of the musical.

As for movie musicals almost every one that was ever made is available to buy or rent on Vudu through a Roku device or a smart TV.  There is even Broadway HD which has many live performances filmed on Broadway or West End, London’s Theater District.  On that channel I recommend 42nd St, and the stage version of Holiday Inn.

When I was growing up the songs from Broadway shows would become standards and would get radio play.  Groups like the Beatles and Herman’s Hermits sang and recorded songs from musicals.  The great soloist of the time Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, and Edie Gourmet all sang songs from Broadway and made them popular.  That doesn’t happen now and it’s a shame.  Music is an amazing tool and kids, and adults should be exposed to all kinds.  Not just what’s popular, but romantic music, classical music, folk music and musicals.

For me musicals are a way to keep the blues away.  They are a way to feel my own heart break when I can’t find my own words to express it myself.  The songs from musicals help me express great joy and the anticipation of a new day.  There’s always a song in my head and heart and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

                                   Happiness is singing together when day is thru,

                                   And happiness is those who sing with you.

                                   Happiness is morning and evening, daytime and,

                                   Night time too.

                                   For Happiness in anyone and anything at all,

                                   That’s loved by you.

                                   (The Finale of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.)