Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thornton Burgess, traveling performer

Thornton Burgess was not an enthusiastic public speaker (he appears to have suffered from some stage fright) but he did a lot of it and got good at it. [UPDATE: The 1960 TWB profile in Life indicates he averaged 50 lectures a year for 30 years]. By the time he began appearing on WBZ he knew how to talk to an audience and relate, especially, to children. His public appearances in large cities could attract thousands of people. The typical Burgess appearance featured a mix of storytelling and nature talk, the nature talk illustrated either by animal photo slide show or film. (Initially, the films were courtesy his conservationist friend, William L. Finley, but eventually they were his own). Burgess was compensated for these appearances but did not price himself out of small markets. A common feature: extensive autograph sessions--a good way to sell books.

The most detailed account of a Burgess appearance that I know of is found in a pair of articles following his visit to Lewiston and Auburn, Maine on October 24, 1921. I am going to quote them at length (they are in the public domain, luckily) to give you a full sense of what these appearances were like. Sections appearing in the Lewiston Daily Sun will be labeled (LDS); sections from the Lewiston Evening Journal will be labeled (LEJ).

The day began with an autograph session:
Yesterday forenoon B. Peck Co., secured Mr. Burgess to autograph the books in his series purchases there. He was due at ten o’clock but a late train meant he was a little late in arriving. When he did reach there it was case of write fast for the place was filled all around the book department and more coming right along. Half past eleven was the time set for him to stop, but at twelve he was still signing his name on fly leaves and on nearly all was a different message.(LDS)
At four o'clock, over 900 children (and many adults) assembled in Lewiston City Hall.
Mr. Burgess was introduced at both meetings by Mrs. Lila N. Flint president of the Business and Professional Women’s club. She spoke of him as the most widely known writer of children’s nature books in the United States and Canada. (LDS)

He told the children that he had come up to tell them about Peter Rabbit who was at home in the old briar patch, for he was rather bashful and let Mr. Burgess do all the talking. His stories were to make his hearers want all his friends to be theirs, for Mother Nature needed the help of all the boys and girls. (LDS)

Then he went to speak of a certain friend down South which wore feathers, was bald and red-headed, not a hair or feather on that head. He has a cousin who has a black bald head. He is the most wonderful flier and yet when he gets started he doesn’t use his wings at all, just tilts and moves along like an airplane. Old Mistah Buzzard he is called, but his right name is Mistah Vulture. He evidently has cold feet for he always sits on a chimney. With this Mr. Burgess told the story of how there happens to be black headed buzzards in the family... (LDS)

Another friend, Mr. Burgess told about was the homeliest friend he has. Humpbacked, bowlegged, popeyed, a hind-side-before tongue and all covered with warts “Can you guess who he is,” he asked, and immediately from all over the hall came cries of “Mr. Toad.” There were many interesting things he told about that friend, how he changed his clothes four times a year, always swallowing the old ones, how he digs a hole with his hind feet and backs into it, letting the dirt fall over him until he is hidden, thus getting out of the heat of the sun, what great value he is in the garden for destroying worms, etc. That led to another funny story of how Old Mr. Toad fooled Peter Rabbit by digging a hole and hiding and when Peter Rabit was stealing lettuce, frightened Peter by calling out “thief” from right under his feet, a voice from the ground which could not be seen. Peter ran for the Brier Patch as fast as he could go, and never knew who had played the trick on him.(LDS)

He told how one toad got himself out of a six foot into which he had fallen by persistently digging a tunnel. It took him ten days and he went around the pit several times always keeping his course upward and coming to the edge of the hole occasionally for air and bugs which form his food. A woman who watched the toad’s engineering feat sent Mr. Burgess an account of it with a diagram of the pit and the tunnel.(LEJ)

Then there was something about a baby turtle which came popping out of the ground where he had just hatched and which needed no mother to tell him the place for him to find was the Smiling Pool. He knew how to take care of himself without having someone to look after him. Not many knew that a turtle couldn’t eat unless his head was under water. (LDS)

How the children did enjoy the story of Buster Bear’s Sugar Party where eight little bears climbed into a sugar house and stole sugar from a barrel, knocked the spigot out of a maple syrup barrel and got all stuck up with syrup before the four mother bears found them. How odd it seemed too, to know that a baby bear only weighs eight ounces, doesn’t open his eyes until 40 to 45 days old and doesn’t come out of the den until three months old. Then there was another charming story of “A Million Little Sunbeams.” (LDS)

Fascinated as the little folk were with the stories, the pictures made an even greater appeal. It was almost like seeing familiar friends face to face.

“Oh’s” and “ah’s” greeted many of the pictures but often it was the name by which the children have come to know their animal friends through Thornton Burgess’s stories.

“There’s Johnny Chuck,” a score of voices exclaimed in unison.

“Prickly Porky,” they said on the appearance of another picture and again it was “Happy Jack.”

Mr. Burgess was surprised at the knowledge some of the younger members of his audience possessed concerning the wood creatures.

“What is that,” he asked, as the picture of a queer little animal appeared on the screen.

“A bat,” came from all over the hall, almost instantly.

“yes,” said Mr. Burgess, “that is a bat, but I have never seen but one audience before that could tell me what it was.” (LEJ)

The last of his pictures showed several of the animals dressed up as they appear in his stories, and weren’t the youngsters pleased with those! Just before the final one Mr. Burgess asked each to promise to do something for him and his little friends, but not unless they really wanted to, and that was to be kind to birds and animals. Almost like one voice came their response. “I will.” Then Peter Rabbit, beloved Peter Rabbit, appeared to say goodby. (LDS)

After the afternoon lecture especially the bookstand at the hall was besieged with children anxious to have one of his books to take home. He was kept busy too, shaking hands, for many of the little folks just had to come up to speak and tell him how much they liked what he had said and shown them. (LDS)
The evening program at the Webster Grammar School Hall in Auburn was also to a full house, mostly adults with a "generous sprinkling of children." (LEJ) The pedagogical ideas behind the stories were explained.
Mr. Burgess’s work with the children is, as he himself says, first of all educational. He teaches the facts of animal life and he takes pains to have every detail in his stories absolutely accurate and in accordance with natural history. Thus far he has been challenged but twice in his statements. The first challenger was a southern man who maintained that Bowser the Hound was not a hound at all but just a cur dog. The northern hound and the hound of the south differ in their habits and training. It was the same difference in location that caused one man to write Mr. Burgess that he should go out in the pastures and make a study of rabbits before he attempted to write about them. Peter Rabbit was an entirely different breed of rabbit from that which this man was accustomed. There is an even greater difference between the gopher of the West and the gopher of the South. The western gopher is known in the South as a salamander. (LEJ)

Mr. Burgess spoke of the vast amount of misinformation that is handed out to the children and what they carry with them into old age. For instance, there is no hoop snake. A porcupine does not throw its quills and cannot. A horse hair will never turn into a snake where you leave it in water one year or ten. What is sometimes claimed to be a hair snake is a parasite. (LEJ)

Mr. Burgess invests his stories with his delightful imagination and he does it so skillfully that the smallest child knows what part of the story to take as fiction and what part to take as truth. Unconsciously he absorbs an intimate knowledge of wild life as was shown by the prompt replies Mr. Burgess elicits from the youthful readers of his stories. In the guise of Peter Rabbit, Prickly Porky, Johnny Chuck, and Bobby Coon the animals of the wild attain real living personalities that command respect and consideration from the child and so the little stories carry their moral lessons. (LEJ)

There are delightful takes to explain the various characteristics of the animals. The children take as a happy bit of imagination the story that Old Mistah Buzzard got all smutted up, except the feathers under his wing, owing to his insatiable curiosity to hear all the conversation that was going on in the room below while he was warming his feet on a chimney-pot; but they will always remember the fact that there is a black head in the buzzard family, a family which is, for the most part, red-headed and bald-headed. (LEJ)

Mr. Burgess told the story of the million little Sunbeams and the million little Raindrops which united to make the beautiful rainbow and he got children and grown-ups laughing with the tale of Buster Bear’s sugar party. They will never forget how dearly bears love sweets. (LEJ)

However, Mr. Burgess did not tell so many stories to his grown-up children as to the little folks in the afternoon. He pointed out in his own happy vein odd traits and characteristics of the out-doors creatures which escape the attention of most of us, encouraging an intimate acquaintance with Nature that brings great happiness. When he described his homeliest friend everybody at once recognized the hop toad but very few knew that the toad is a good singer, that he has one of the sweetest voices of the spring. But he sings as he does everything else the other way round. He sings with his mouth shut and Mr. Burgess explained just how he does it. He also surprised the children by telling them that in an audience of between twenty-five and thirty thousand children on the East Side, New York, less than two hundred had ever seen a common garden toad. (LEJ)

The pictures of the animals were very diverting. Mr. Burgess introduced Jerry Muskrat as the original subway builder and showed pictures of his comfortable winter home and he introduced the weasel as the only animal that kills for the love of killing. (LEJ)

To the birds he gave especial attention, pointing out the fact that we cannot live without the birds. If, by some accident, every bird should be of a sudden annihilated in a very few years we would have to go too because enough food could not be saved from the pestiferous insects to support us. Thus it is for our own good that we protect the birds and establish bird sanctuaries. Mr Burgess told how a Cincinnati man reported that, after reading the Burgess bird stories, the boys ceased to trouble the birds in his large orchard, thus achieving what he had not been able to do by threats or persuasion. (LEJ)

Some remarkable photographs of our feathered friends appeared on the screen building their nests, feeding their young and engaged in various domestic duties. In most cases the baby birds were shown with the old ones. (LEJ)

Burgess's talks were well-honed, crowd-pleasing performances. This would serve him well in his move into radio.

Next: Scripted radio

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