Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Radio Nature League (1925 June-August)

Note: The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center lacks scripts for meetings held on June 3, July 1, and August 19, 1925. There were no meetings on July 29, August 12 and August 26. The Boston Daily Globe lists the program as "Radio Nature Story by Thornton W. Burgess" at 7:32 (after the baseball scores).

According to Marcel LaFollette's Science on the Air (2008), two things happened during the summer of 1925 that would change the Radio Nature League dramatically. First, the Literary Digest (with circulation over a million), ran a story about the League in its June 6 issue. This would give it national exposure and credibility. Second, Burgess became friends with Austin Clark of the U.S. National Museum (the Smithsonian Institute), who had his own science-related radio program. The Smithsonian connection provided Burgess with a place to send mysterious natural objects for identification.

In June and July new concerns emerge:
  • June 10 he rails against automobile drivers who vandalize and litter the countryside.
  • He also expresses distress in hearing reports of boys who have been shooting at song birds. (They are not cruel but unthinking).
  • June 17, he delivers an impassioned plea for the welfare of trees. [He also announces that a lumber concern (better conservationists than the general public) had just donated $100 to his program.]
  • He also reports approvingly of a Springfield firm that will no longer use roadside billboards for advertising (he proposes an honor roll of such firms).
  • June 24, in response to a correspondent, he expresses disapproval of the wearing of fur.
  • July 8, he reads the copy from a Connecticut Valley Lumber Co. (his unnamed donor?) poster about forest fire prevention, blaming careless smokers in particular.
  • July 22, finally, an issue emerges that may sound unimportant but would actually consume hours and hours of Radio Nature League time in the years ahead. Do snakes take their young into their mouths for the purpose of protection? (More on that in a future post!)
Clark and Burgess would work with members of the Boston Society of Natural History to put together a "clearing house" of speakers on natural history, to be shared on each others' radio programs. Clark, himself, would be the very first Radio Nature League guest speaker, on butterflies, August 5. LaFollette (2008) also marks the summer of 1925 as the first time Burgess would use the program for the purposes of science, asking his listeners to report on any instances of white herons they observed. This appeal was apparently made on August 19.

Next: Radio Nature League (1925 September to December).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Radio Nature League (1925 March-May)

Note: By March 4, 1925, Thornton Burgess had been officially allotted at least twenty minutes of time for Radio Nature League "meetings." This is not reflected in the Boston Daily Globe radio listings, which still have him at ten minutes (7:05-7:15) until April 8, when "Nature Study by Thornton W. Burgess" is listed for 25 minutes (7:05-7:30). The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at BU is missing scripts for March 18 and April 22 (the meetings were definitely held--Burgess referred to them in later episodes). Mrs. Burgess filled in for her husband on March 25. On May 20, the Radio Nature League moved to its definitive time-slot, Wednesday nights at 7:30 (The Boston Daily Globe mistakenly lists him from 6:30 to 8.)

March through May, 1925

The Radio Nature finally reached its target membership figure of 10,000 on March 11, though Burgess (and his wife when she filled in) would still aggressively solicit new members. (There were no broadcasting ratings services at this point--the only way to count audiences was by correspondence). By the end of May, the count would be 16,000 (Burgess thinks it should be "16 million.")

Some perennial Radio Nature League concerns also began during this period:
  • On March 11, one could hear Burgess deliver his first plea against the picking and marketing of the trailing arbutus.
  • On March 25, Mrs. Burgess made clear one of the main purposes of the league--to prevent the extinction of American wildlife. The fate of the passenger pigeon would be used repeatedly as an example of what can happen, and also as an argument against people who deny the culpability of hunting in such extinctions. On May 27, Burgess would connect the sorry state of the heath hen to the story of the passenger pigeon.
  • On April 15, he announces a new membership category: gold stars for people who create bird sanctuaries.
  • On April 29, Burgess asks Boy and Girl Scouts to help remove the nests of tent caterpillars that are harming roadside beauty (this would become a full-fledged crusade the following year).
  • On May 13, he makes his first remarks against the indiscriminate killing of snakes. The categorization of entire species, even families, of wildlife as "vermin" would be a constant complaint of his.
Concerns about RNL finances begin to crop up. On March 25, Mrs. Burgess mentions an idea to make the club "self-sufficient" by offering membership certificates and other club paraphernalia--enough to hire a staff stenographer to handle the voluminous correspondence. On April 29, Burgess begins to actively solicit donations, not for the Radio Nature League but for a local Springfield "Bird Hospital" run by two school teachers. (He had introduced the League to the work of the hospital (via the mascot of a blind American goldfinch) at the Sixteen Acres School on April 22 (the script is missing).) [Note: Burgess knew Sixteen Acres School well--it was one of the Hornaday medal winners in the People's Home Journal Bird Sanctuary Campaign] He would accept but not actively solicit donations for the RNL itself. There were no membership certificates until the Brewer-sponsored show in 1935.

Burgess would call on League members for other actions as well, including donations to support a warden in Nova Scotia to protect nesting birds, and the clearing of gooseberry bushes by Boy Scout members to protect white pine.

Next: Radio Nature League (1925 June-August)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Radio Nature League ( 1925 January-February)

Note: Initially, if listings in the Boston Daily Globe are accurate (I have my doubts), the Radio Nature League was held during the old "Bedtime Story" period (Wednesday nights from 7:05-7:15 on WBZ). The Globe only occasionally notes TWB's participation sometimes listing it as "Radio Nature Story". There appears to have been some slack in the schedule (or inaccuracy on the Globe's part), however; Burgess sometimes refers to speaking for fifteen and then twenty minutes. (The programs consistently following on WBZ at 7:15 are listed as: "Information Concerning Civil Service Exams" or "At the Theatres.")

January - February 1925

The Radio Nature League was formally established on January 7, 1925 (see earlier post). On January 14, the very first meeting of the Radio Nature after its foundation, Thornton Burgess was absent. Filling in was his wife, Fannie, using a script written especially for her by her husband. ("Mrs. Burgess" would become a regular fill-in for Mr. Burgess when he was away lecturing and would later be a character in various dramatizations.) In the script (prepared by her husband, please remember) Mrs. Burgess relates, in vivid tones, how excited her husband was about the foundation of the league. Much of the program is devoted to reading names of charter members from each state as well as new school members. She continues the aggressive solicitation of new members.

On January 21, the Radio Nature League "meeting" moved to 7:05 (the Sleep Fairy would no longer be part of the program on Wednesday nights). Burgess continues the list of charter members. It would include listeners in Lancashire and Cheshire, England in addition to 29 states, the District of Columbia, five Canadian provinces and Bermuda. The total membership now stood at over 4000, including schools and clubs (one correspondent is a teacher who has invited students without their own radio to her home to listen to the broadcasts). Burgess introduces a new category: "silver star" members, who pledge to feed wild birds.

On January 28, the membership count was "just under 4500." Burgess reinforces the "meeting" framework, formally calling the meeting to order. There were now 400 silver star members. He reports telegrams of support (and enrollment) from William L. Finley, William T. Hornaday, and Harry C. Oberhalsen of the USDA Biological Survey.
(The Boston Daily Globe lists "Radio Nature Story" for WBZ 7:05-7:15, though Burgess promises not to keep his listeners "over 15 minutes.")

On February 4, Burgess sets the target for membership at 10,000. He spends most of the program responding to members' questions, including advice about keeping "Happy Jack" away from bird feeders. He asks the membership to write legislators to extend the protection of the Bob White in Connecticut.
(The Boston Daily Globe lists "Radio Nature Story" for WBZ 7:05-7:15)

By February 11, the program has begun to settle into its format. Burgess will generally spend most of the program relating and responding to experiences and questions sent in by League members. On some evenings he will prepare a longish lecture on a particular animal (e.g., squirrels on February 18). He responds positively to listeners expressing anti-hunting sentiments. By February 25, the membership count stood at "almost 8000," though erroneous news reports (e.g., one in the Syracuse Herald on February 22) would place the number as high as 20,000.

On February 18, Burgess introduced a new category: "red star" members who pledged to build bird houses. The following week he referred them to USDA Farmer's Bulletin #609 for instructions on how to build one. He also, lest listeners think he only cared about birds, drew their attention to people who damage road-side beauty by breaking branches from pussy willow trees.

Of particular interest during this period are personal questions posed to Burgess by readers. On January 7, for example, he assures a correspondent that it actually is he, Thornton Burgess, that is speaking. On the other hand, on February 25, despite his fame as a children's book author, he feels obliged to spell his name for listeners (cards had been coming into WBZ addressed to "Burroughs" and "the bird man"). On the January 14 program hosted by Mrs. Burgess, he has his wife offer a description of what he looks like--not the white bearded old man (John Burroughs) some apparently imagined. This attention to Burgess himself would wane over the course of the first year.

Next: Radio Nature League (1925 March-May)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bedtime Story Radio Talks (1924)

Some technical stuff first: The Burgess radio script collection at The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University begins with "Radio Talk" script #2, dated November 26, 1924. It is in poor condition, is missing pages, and the place where the number should be is torn off. (I only know it is script #2 because the script from the following week is numbered #3). Luckily, the condition of scripts improves from that point on. The collection lacks script #1 --my date of November 19 is an assumption that still needs final confirmation. A story in the Syracuse Herald from November 16 (mentioned in an earlier post) suggests that the talks had already begun by that date (with a discussion of myths around wolves). The Bedtime Story period (including the Sleep Fairy's story) was Wednesday night from 7:05-7:15.

Here are the scripts in the collection:

Talk #2 (November 26, 1924). Theme: "Mother Nature's Sleepy Heads"

Talk #3 (December 3, 1924). This is the episode mentioned in a previous post when Farmer Brown's Boy makes an appearance.

Talk #4 (December 10, 1924). Theme: "Billy Mink." Sign on is: "This is Mr. Burgess speaking for Old Mother Nature." As recounted in his autobiography, Burgess is thrilled that the first answer to his "shrews into whale" math problem comes from Manchester, England. Burgess plays a trick on the Sleep Fairy.
(The Boston Daily Globe lists "Nature Story by Thornton W. Burgess" on WBZ from 7:05 to 7:15)

Talk #5 (December 17, 1924). Theme: "Reindeer ." No Sleep Fairy story, instead a live hook-up with Santa Claus from the North Pole.
(The Boston Daily Globe lists "Radio Nature Story by Thornton W. Burgess" on WBZ from 7:05 to 7:15)

There was no Radio Talk on December 24--Burgess read a special Christmas story, "The Joy of the Beautiful Pine." The HGARC lacks the December 31 script in which Farmer Brown's Boy proposed the foundation of the Radio Nature League.

As you can tell, the "Bedtime Story Radio Talk" era was a short, transitional period. Although the shows revolved around a specific theme, Burgess was already encouraging interaction with correspondents (he recruited one girl, e.g., to report when a local woodchuck awoke in the spring). He was also surprisingly loose on the air (judging by the scripts at least), especially in his interaction with the Sleep Fairy. On December 10, for example, the script details a mild joke in which Burgess has the Sleep Fairy whisper on-mic a reminder to finish the program on time and pretends that he doesn't know that the audience could hear her. (He reports correspondence the next week indicating that the joke was a big success).

[UPDATE: Apparently the telegram from England that so thrilled TWB was a source of great confusion to the directors of WBZ. All it said was "Fifty-two and a half million shrews equal whale" without any other context. According to a syndicated news story, the directors thought the message was in code until they remembered Burgess's natural history talk. Also, the fact that there were listeners from England may be a byproduct of an International Radio Test held during the last week in November].

Next: Radio Nature League (1925 January-February)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thornton Burgess radio scripts, an overview

Marcel LaFollette's recent (2008) book, Science on the Air, provides a good overview of the history of the Radio Nature League. (You can read large portions of it via Google Books.) She draws heavily from correspondence between Burgess and Austin Clark of the Smithsonian. I don't know many radio scripts she had access to; I imagine there were a few copies included in the Burgess-Clark correspondence. I am indebted to her account for any behind-the-scenes context I provide. You can hear a conversation with her about the book on Mark Lynch's Inquiry program on WICN.

The radio scripts in the Thornton Burgess collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University can be divided into five periods. (Note: the dates ranges below indicate the scripts available in the collection. These may or may not correspondent to the date ranges of the actual programs).

1. Bedtime Story Radio Talks (WBZ November 26,1924 to December 17,1924) These were weekly ten minute talks on a variety of natural history topics. The "Sleep Fairy" bedtime story directly followed. (Note: Burgess began to appear on WBZ earlier in 1924; the numbered scripts in the HGARC begin November 26, with episode #2. Presumably, the talks began on November 19.)

2. Radio Nature League (WBZ/WBZA January 7, 1925 to August 2, 1930 with periodic breaks). These were weekly ten-minute to thirty-minute programs that featured Burgess recounting experiences and answering questions from RNL members. Some of the programs included guest speakers. This is the largest part of the collection.

3. Burgess Radio Talks (WBZ/WBZA-NBC November 27, 1933-December 29, 1934). These were weekly fifteen minute talks that also featured Burgess recounting experiences and answering questions from correspondents. The "League" framework was absent, however, and Burgess used the forum to promote his books and personal causes (e.g., anti-steel trap regulations). (Note: The HGARC lacks a script for the first show (November 20, 1933) and any scripts from January and early February 1935. It is during this period presumably that the new Brewer-sponsored format was established).

4. Radio Nature League on the Sun Glow Program (WBZ/WBZA-NBC and other New England stations, February 13, 1935-January 7, 1936. These were highly-produced weekly and twice-weekly half-hour programs that featured dramatizations of Burgess's and RNL members' experiences, as well as a rotating cast of visiting characters. The "League" framework was formally re-introduced but only a small amount of time was devoted to member experiences and questions. The program was sponsored by Brewer & Co., a Worcester, MA pharmaceutical firm. "Sun Glow" was a brand of cod liver oil. (Note: February 6--not in the collection--is presumably the date when Burgess announced the return of the Radio Nature League. January 7, 1936 is the last script in the collection from this period. It is unclear whether the program remained on the air after this date.)

5. Good Neighbors Club (WSPR February 7, 1939-July 4, 1939). Burgess briefly returned to the air on a program sponsored by the Women's Auxiliary of the Springfield branch of the SPCA. The format featured correspondents' experiences and questions and included some promotion of the SPCA's causes.

Next: Bedtime Story Radio Talks (1924)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Scripted Radio

I've just finished my month-long review of the radio scripts in the Thornton W. Burgess collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. I'll post about my discoveries over the course of the next two weeks or so. For now, I just wanted to say a little about the state of the collection and the nature of the scripts.

The documents in the collection are scripts, not transcripts. This is an important distinction. There are no audio recordings that I know of, thus we only have a record of what Burgess planned to say on the air, not what was actually said. Nevertheless, I am fairly confident Burgess kept to the scripts. First, he made notations on some scripts indicating omissions or sections "not used," suggesting that everything else was used. Second, he would include jokes and putatively off-hand comments in the scripts as well. (A particularly favorite device was the pretense that his producer was looking at him impatiently, requiring him to end the show). On the other hand, there are shows that undoubtedly did not go according to script--in his autobiography, Burgess relates one show in which he had to leave the microphone for an extended period in order to capture an escaped snake.

The HGARC collection is remarkably complete for the first run of the Radio Nature League (Jan 1925 to August 1930). It is very spotty for later runs, especially the sponsored Brewer "Sun Glow" Radio Nature League in 1935 and 1936. Here the script collection only provides a sample of programs, nothing comprehensive. Some key scripts are also missing, evidently pulled from the collection because of their significance. Unless the scripts show up elsewhere, I don't know what specifically "Farmer Brown's Boy" proposed in the week before the foundation of the League in 1925, or how Burgess explained why his show suddenly had a sponsor in 1935.

The collection is mostly (very fragile) carbon copies, but there are quite a few originals (on more stable paper, thankfully) with notations and last minute revisions. One very common notation, penciled in the margins, is "used on Sunday"--Burgess recycled the Radio Nature League scripts as material for his weekly Sunday newspaper columns (more on that in future posts). He would also pencil in thank yous for donations received after the script had been prepared and last minute schedule changes (there would be quite a few). Other notations indicate where copies or originals had been sent (he sent quite a few copies to KDKA--the chief station in the Westinghouse group at the time) and quite a few originals seem to have been gathered up and sent to the "Radio Institute" in 1936.

The scripts also indicate that Burgess did some of his own sound effects--specifically, bird calls. In later years, Burgess would rely on the advanced bird calling skills of Edward Avis. In the early years, when the script called for the "phebe" song of a chickadee, e.g., the script simply indicates "whistle." Two other calls that Burgess would do were "yellowlegs" (remember his long account of marsh hunting) and "screech owl." The last proves Burgess was a real birder (this is a call used to flush birds from their hiding places).

Next: Thornton Burgess radio scripts, an overview

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

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thornton Burgess the recording artist


Early in 1918 Columbia released five records featuring Thornton Burgess reading ten of his stories. These were heavily advertised in newspapers and used as a means of selling Columbia Grafonolas (a direct competitor of the more popular Victrola).

The records were:

1. Johnny Chuck Finds the Best Thing in the World [A7524-$1.25]
(On the back, "The Joy of the Beautiful Pine.")

Note: these two are probably the most widely read Burgess stories.


2. Peter Rabbit Plays a Joke [A7525-$1.25]
(On the back, “Little Joe Otter’s Slippery Slide.”)


3. How Old Mr. Toad Happened to Dine with Buster Bear [A7526-$1.25]
(On the back, “How Old Mr. Toad Won a Race.”)


4. Buster Bear Gets a Good Breakfast [A7527-$1.25]
(On the back, "When Old Mr. Toad was Puffed Up.")


5. The Teaching of Reddy Fox [A7528-$1.25]
(On the back, "Little Joe Otter Tries to Get Even.")
Note: the copywriter here doesn't appear to know the stories very well--"Old Bounder the Hound" indeed...

The novelty of hearing the stories read in Burgess's own voice was a chief selling point, but there are other interesting aspects of the advertising. The ad above, for example, offers a personal letter from Burgess (modeled after the weekly "personal letters" Burgess wrote for various newspaper "Bedtime Clubs" around the country).


Here the child's imagined relationship with Burgess is leveraged. It is Burgess himself who has been "wanting to really talk to the children." I also find it interesting that Burgess doesn't make a direct sell. Rather, he encourages children to visit the local Columbia Grafonola dealer for a trial listen. The ad provides the mechanism--a coupon that includes instructions to the dealer (see Buster Bear image above).

I'm particularly fond of the copy on this ad

At the twilight hour, cuddled safe in Mother’s arms, they can hear the Little Folk of the Green Forest laughing and talking behind the shadowy tone-leaves of the Grafonola. Give the kiddies their own Bedtime Records—they love them so and quite unconsciously learn so many lessons of quaint woodland lore, wisdom, and gentle kindliness.
The Grafonola becomes a kind of labor saving device--the parent need not actually read the stories--but the bedtime story parent-child context is maintained. And the copy perfectly encapsulates the main Burgess story benefits--unconscious learning of nature, wisdom, and kindness.

These recordings appear to have been re-released in the 1950s, though I don't have much information aside from a single ad from 1950 that offers: "Peter Rabbit narrated by Thornton Burgess."

I own six of the ten sides and have embedded recordings of them below. I'll admit being a bit surprised when I first heard them. Burgess seems a bit stilted and impersonal and doesn't come across as a particularly fluid reader. This may have something to do with Burgess's pronounced New England accent or with pre-microphone studio conditions. Indeed, the 1960 Life profile describes him "shouting sturdily into a great horn while an orchestra played softly in the background." Accounts of his personal appearances, nevertheless, indicate that children loved his public storytelling. It is also worth noting that the stories told on the records are significantly shorter than their sources in print, edited for their use in the new medium.

1) Johnny Chuck Finds the Best Thing in the World

2) The Joy of the Beautiful Pine

3) Peter Rabbit Plays a Joke

4) Little Joe Otter's Slippery Slide

5) The Teaching of Reddy Fox

6) Little Joe Otter Tries to Get Even

Next: Thornton Burgess, traveling performer

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Radio Nature League Prehistory

In the June 1922 issue of The American Magazine, advertising hero Bruce Barton (the second B in BBDO), made a famous prediction about the future of radio:
[W]e may begin to picture for ourselves what radio will mean in our homes in the years to come. We shall all have receiving sets--there is little doubt of that. We shall come down in the morning to hear the newspaper headlines while we eat...and at six or seven, when the boys and girls have had their supper and are ready for bed, someone like Thornton Burgess may lift the transmitter in his home and broadcast a Bed-Time Story to a million youngsters all over the land. ("This magic thing called radio")
While Burgess never broadcast from his home (the Hotel Kimball studio of WBZ was about two and a half miles from his Springfield Washington Rd. home), his stories were already being read on the air, just two years into the radio era.

The earliest record I have is July 14, 1922. At 7:00 p.m., The New York Times lists "Final baseball scores and Bedtime Stories by Thornton Burgess" for WJZ, Newark. The Burgess story became a regular WJZ feature on Friday nights until mid-1923, when it moved to Monday nights at an earlier hour. Other stations followed suit with their own Burgess storytimes. The Hartford Courant, for example, announced on September 1, 1922 that its station, WDAK, would be sending out "the popular Thornton Burgess Bedtime Stories" every night at 6:10. There is no evidence that Burgess was directly involved in these broadcasts or even compensated (the Courant was running the "Little Stories for Bedtime" reruns during this era). [UPDATE: Burgess was directly involved.]

On May 25, 1924, The New York Times reports that arrangements had been made by WBZ to broadcast "Thornton Burgess' child and animal stories during the regular bed-time story period each evening." According to his autobiography, these stories were usually not read by Burgess himself but by a pair of "trained readers"--the "Dream Fairy" and the "Sleep Fairy." Burgess himself was granted a little time some evenings to talk about animals and host a guessing contest. By August, 1924, this apparently had become a very popular program. Here's an excerpt from a column in the Lewiston (ME) Evening Journal (8/14/1924):
It appears at present that Westinghouse station WBZ has been justified in broadcasting every night [6:30] except Sundays a short bedtime story for the children, besides other occasional features. The Springfield (Mass.) broadcasting station has seldom if ever omitted this story which is so welcome to the kiddies and the letters and cards of acknowledgment, so amusingly written by the children, are ample reward for having done so. The kiddies love these stories and the Fairy Band, the occasional guessing contest conducted by Thornton Burgess, nationally famous writer of stories for the young, and everything else radiocast for their benefit, and they are profuse in their thanks for the station.
There are listings for "Animal Guessing contests" on WBZ as early as Feb 19, 1923, but it is unclear whether Burgess was the host at that point.

Burgess admits in his autobiography that when he started in radio he didn't even own one. And his initial experience was not particularly positive. By 1924, Burgess was a reluctant but seasoned veteran of the lecture circuit (more on that in a future post). But radio was different. Burgess recalls that even the engineer in the studio didn't respond to his laugh lines. Ultimately it was his experience reading stories for records that proved the most valuable.

Next: Thornton Burgess the recording artist

Monday, March 22, 2010

Farmer Brown's Boy and the Founding of the Radio Nature League

Thornton Burgess was a radio pioneer. His "Radio Nature League," which began in January 1925, was not only one of the first nature-oriented programs in the history of broadcasting, it was one of the first real radio programs period. I have been fortunate to find full scripts of nearly all of the programs in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University and I am nearly done with the basic overview work. HGARC puts some restrictions on the use of their materials, so won't be able to quote as freely in the blog as I might (pending formal approval) in a publication, nevertheless, I can provide some basic factual information here. Marcel LaFollette's Science on the Air and Burgess's autobiography are the only published sources of information about the Radio Nature League of which I am aware.

Burgess was first invited to the studios of WBZ in 1924 to read his stories. In November of that year, he was given extra time to talk directly to his audience about nature. Here's an excerpt from a story in the Syracuse Herald (11/16/1924) announcing this move:
Thornton W. Burgess, nationally-renowned writer of stories for children, Syracuse Herald special writer, and a naturalist of recognition, contends that for the sake of truth, a group of theories about wild animals ought to be exploded...He has already given one talk on wolves in which his experiences in desolate open countries of the far North were recounted and many interesting comments about the wolf, who is supposed to be a treacherous animal, were passed by the naturalist.
Note the very early emphasis on (scientific) truth as well as a sympathy for predators that was yet to emerge in the conservation world generally.

On December 3, 1924, who should show up at the studio but Farmer Brown's Boy himself. Burgess writes about this in his autobiography:
Knowing that a large part of my unseen audience was of children, it occurred to me to try to give them a thrill. The one human character in my stories who was familiar to children everywhere was Farmer Brown's Boy. I had had many letters asking where he lived, what his name was, how old he was, etc. I found a boy of the right age who was not too self-conscious and wrote his part into the script. p. 304
Burgess introduces the show as usual and then pretends to be interrupted.
"I must ask you to excuse me for a moment. Someone wants to talk to me."
"Hello Mr. Burgess!"
"Well, well, well, see who's here! It is Farmer Brown's Boy! What do you want, laddie?"
"I want to know what is the largest animal in the world."p. 304
Burgess provides the answer to this (blue whale), and also the answer to a follow-up question about the smallest animal (common shrew), and then poses a math problem to FBB and his listeners: "How many shrews would it take to equal one whale." Burgess has decided that audience interaction will be as important to his radio program as it had been in his bedtime story and Green Meadow clubs. He invites answers to his math problem and also invites listeners to write with topics of their own. Farmer Brown's Boy is praised, not chided, for his interruption: "I like boys and girls who are full of questions because I know that they are trying to learn."(TWB collection, HGARC)

On December 31, 1924, Farmer Brown's Boy returned with a proposal. Why not start a radio nature league? [Here there is a critical gap in the HGARC collection. I haven't read this script, and only have a short reference to it in the script from the following week. It appears TWB also solicited feedback about the idea from his listeners.]

On January 7, 1925, Burgess reported about the great response to Farmer Brown's Boy's idea and made a formal proposal that laid the foundation for the Radio Nature League (TWB liked the word "league" better than "club" because it suggested people joined together for a common cause.) First, the mission of the club would be:
To do everything possible for the preservation and conservation of our desirable American wild life, including birds, animals, flowers, trees, and other living things and also of the natural beauty spots and scenic wonders of America.
This would become boilerplate, appearing as the heading of a weekly newspaper feature based on the radio program and referenced by Burgess periodically on the radio program itself. (It appears that the word "desirable" was an afterthought, judging by the mark-up on the original script.)

Second, membership would be free (at least initially) and could be secured by sending written agreement with the purposes of the league, along with name, age, and address to WBZ. The first person to join from a state (or Canadian province) outside of Massachusetts would be a "charter" member and would have his/her name announced on the air.

Burgess directly asked for 1000 members by the following week (it would make a nice birthday present for him). He would get twice that many. By the end of the program's first run in 1930, Burgess would claim a membership of 50,000.

Next: Radio Nature League prehistory

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spring Break Hiatus

Back on in a week!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Evolving Environmental Consciousness of Farmer Brown's Boy


Here are the crimes of Farmer Brown's Boy:
  1. He shoots Reddy Fox (and threatens to shoot Johnny Chuck) [Books #1, #2]
  2. He chops down Unc' Billy Possum's tree [Book #4]
  3. He sets traps for Jerry Muskrat and Peter Rabbit (Peter gets caught)[Books #6, #7]
  4. He throws stones at Grandfather Frog (and catches him, planning to eat him).[Book #8]
When he catches Chatterer the Red Squirrel (corn stealer) in book #9 of the Bedtime Story series, however, he is surprisingly kind and nurturing. Chatterer is particularly confused, and this culminates in the scene (mentioned previously) in which Tommy Tit the chickadee proves that Farmer Brown's Boy can be trusted. By book #16 (Mrs. Quack) he is one of the staunchest defenders and students of the Smiling Pool set. What happened to change Farmer Brown's Boy?

Wayne W. Wright, in his Burgess bibliography, draws attention to yet another Burgess story cycle--Tommy and the Wishing Stone--for the answer. If read chronologically as part of the continuity, these stories, published in 1914 and 1915 in St. Nicholas, represent the turn from antagonism to empathy. (Indeed, some of these stories were published in 1921 under the title, Tommy's Change of Heart.)

It was around this period that Burgess had established the Green Meadow Club in the People's Home Journal through pledges of kindness to animals. Clearly Farmer Brown's Boy had become a poor role model.

The first explicit commentary on the behavior of Farmer Brown's Boy is in Book #8 (The Adventures of Grandfather Frog). Grandfather Frog has been captured.
But poor old Grandfather Frog couldn't be comforted...His legs smarted where the string cut into the skin, and his head ached, for you know he was hanging head down. No, Sir, Grandfather Frog couldn't be comforted. He was in a terrible fix, and he couldn't see any way out of it. He hadn't the least bit of hope left. And all the time Farmer Brown's boy was trudging along, whistling merrily. You see, it didn't occur to him to think how Grandfather Frog must be suffering and how terribly frightened he must be. He wasn't cruel. No, indeed, Farmer Brown's boy wasn't cruel. That is, he didn't mean to be cruel. He was just thoughtless, like a great many other boys, and girls too.
This was Burgess's conviction, that he maintained until the end, that children usually weren't cruel to animals for cruelty's sake and just needed their eyes opened to the suffering they were causing. And this was the job of the wishing stone.

Here's the first story in the Wishing Stone series, which establishes the premise. Tommy finds that when he sits on a certain rock in the Green Meadows and sulkily wishes he could be a meadow mouse (who doesn't "have anything to do but play all day"), he magically becomes one.
Of course he finds first-hand that the life of a meadow mouse is defined by hard work and the constant threat of predators. At the end, Danny Meadow-mouse has "one less enemy to be afraid of."

By the end of the series, Tommy has seen the world through the eyes of several different animals, both predator

and prey
.
and one by one the list of Farmer Brown Boy's enemies decreases.

From this point on in Burgess Bedtime Story series, Farmer Brown's Boy (he wouldn't be identified as "Tommy" for many years), becomes a positive role model for animal protection. [To this extent it is a shame that the first few books in the series, before Tommy's change of heart, have become the most enduring Burgess creations]. He posts signs around the farm (a la the Green Meadow Club) banning the hunting and trapping of animals, he studies their behavior when he can, and is frequently their savior. [My favorite moment is in a 1934 story when Tommy Tit, desperate to escape Butcher the Shrike, flies into the safety of Farmer Brown Boy's hands.]

Indeed, Farmer Brown's Boy eventually becomes more than a role model--he would become Burgess's mouthpiece.

[Update: After reading the daily stories, I must say that the "turning point" chronology is a little muddier than represented above. Farmer Brown Boy's last deliberately cruel act comes in an episode from December 1913 ("Farmer Brown's Boy Does a Mean Thing") in which he tries, unsuccessfully, to destroy Paddy the Beaver's new dam. Recognizing Paddy's superior craft, Burgess has him say:
I take off my hat to you. You are too smart for me and I want you to know that this is the last time I'll ever meddle with your dam, and no one else will if I can help it.
This seems to be the turning point. Farmer Brown's Boy proceeds to post no trespassing signs in the Green Forest, thus creating a wildlife sanctuary. The next times we see Farmer Brown's boy, he is making friends with Chatterer the Red Squirrel, rescuing Mrs. Grouse from under the snow, and showing mercy to Granny Fox. The psychological dynamic that made Farmer Brown's Boy cruel to begin with is revealed to be this: That Tommy always wanted to be friends with wild animals, but when they rejected him, he rejected them back.
At first Farmer Brown's boy used to run after them just for one thing--because he wanted to make friends with them and he couldn't see how ever he was going to do it unless he caught them. After a while, when he found that he couldn't catch them by running after them, he made up his mind that they didn't want to be his friends, and so then he began to hunt them because he thought it was fun to try to outwit them. Of course, when he began to do that they hated him and feared him all the more. You see, they didn't understand that really he had one of the kindest hearts in the world, and he didn't understand that they hated him just because they didn't know him.
("Farmer Brown's Boy Tries to Make Friends," Jan. 1914) It is from this point that he is kind to Chatterer the Red Squirrel and gradually makes friends with the other little folks of fur and feather on his father's property.]

Next:Farmer Brown's Boy and the founding of the Radio Nature League

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The National Review and a Box full of Adages

The twenty Thornton Burgess "Adventures of..." books, starting with The Adventures of Reddy Fox and ending with The Adventures of Ol' Mistah Buzzard, are all in the public domain and eligible to be distributed freely online and published by anyone who wants to publish them. Dover published fourteen books in the series in the 1990s in paperback editions costing $1 a piece. More recently the National Review has published all twenty of the books with the original Harrison Cady illustrations in two somewhat more expensive hardcover volumes, titling them The National Review Treasury of Classic Bedtime Stories.

Here's their pitch:
If you are a parent or grandparent concerned about the quality of today’s children’s books, you will find National Review’s “Bedtime Classics” a reassuring safe haven. Graced by Burgess’s very unique literary talents — his witty poems are as wonderful as his stories are captivating — both volumes of The National Review Treasury of Classic Bedtime Stories are refreshingly old-fashioned: the tales are clean, wholesome, fun, innocent, and instructive. These are the type of horizon-opening stories that one would look back upon, as an adult, with fond and cherished memories. This is doubtless one book that you will really want to share with a deserving child.
Nothing about nature study here; the focus is on moral instruction. Note the explicit endorsement of his "witty poems."

Burgess began writing his bedtime stories during an era when explicit moral instruction was a common feature of children's literature; this is one of the things that does indeed seem old-fashioned when reading his books today. The day's lesson was typically articulated in the form of a few lines of rhyming verse at the beginning of the story (and sometimes sprinkled throughout). Here are some examples, taken at random from Little Stories for Bedtime:
Experience will teach you what
No other teacher can.
But heeding what your mother says
Is much the better plan.
"The Boldest Little Mink Learns a Lesson" (1917)

Beneath a coat of ebon hue
May beat a heart that's kind and true.
The worst of scamps in time of need
Will often do a kindly deed
"Black the Crow Takes Pity on Bowser" (1919)

What seems a wrong and nothing less
You yet may have good cause to bless
--Rusty the Fox Squirrel
"Rusty has another visitor" (1920)
Burgess found the composition of these rhymes time-consuming (often taking longer than the stories themselves) and actually proposed to his readers that he stop doing them (they complained and he continued). It is clear, however, that at the end of the day he was proud of them. In the Thornton Burgess collection housed in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, one can find folder after folder of pages labeled "Adages." Hundreds of pages and on each page a dozen or so of these rhymes.

While the morals are explicit, Burgess took pains not to sermonize directly (around certain issues--boys and guns in particular--he couldn't help himself). Instead the morals were directed at the animal characters. Here's Burgess's theory, from an article he wrote for Natural History:

The animal tale becomes both a means of getting human morals across and a means of getting children interested in nature.

The link between Burgess and the National Review may seem problematic on its face. Modern readers expect certain constellations of values; we expect environmentalism to be linked to socially progressive views. This is not true historically. Hunters were some of the first environmentalists; environmentalists could be intolerant xenophobes. It is clear that Burgess was indeed rather "traditional" when it came to moral values; for him these values were embodied in Boy Scout wholesomeness. So there is an extent to which I don't think Burgess would disapprove of the way the National Review is selling his stories. At the same time, there is the curious lack of any mention of the nature lessons that Burgess considered a key component; could it be that the National Review is concerned that it might be perceived as promoting environmentalism?

Next: The evolving environmental consciousness of Farmer Brown's Boy

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tragedy and Burgess



Thornton Burgess was frequently asked about his handling of predator-prey relationships in his Bedtime stories, an area in which he seems particularly vulnerable to the charge of "nature-faking." This is Burgess's standard response, from his autobiography (p. 222)
...[S]tark tragedy has no place and at all times is to be avoided in stories for little children. At best tragedy comes into real life too soon. At worst the active imagination can, and is very likely to, make a fearsome thing doubly fearsome....There are enough pleasantly exciting things to write about...So all my familiar characters...are of necessity ageless. They may be in seemingly hopeless peril but will escape. My little readers know they will and would not have it otherwise....
He goes on to cite correspondence from readers thanking him for this decision.

This question had emerged onto the national stage in a 1922 Outlook editorial titled, "When Does Old Man Coyote Eat?"
It poked good-natured fun at my stories because Old Man Coyote, Reddy Fox and other predatory folk among my characters always just missed catching the dinners they were seeking."(p. 223)
Burgess responded in a letter to the Outlook editor that got wide attention in the press:
I could not afford to have any of my characters killed or it would be a case of when do I eat.
This is a revealing nod to marketing reality vs. natural reality. Decades later Burgess would get wide publicity when he declared categorically that Reddy Fox would never catch Peter Rabbit.

[UPDATE:

Here's the actual 1922 Outlook column:



Here is TWB's reply.
]

The idea that there is no predation depicted in Burgess's Bedtime Stories is a myth (as seen in the unfortunate fate of Tommy Trout as early as 1910 in Old Mother West Wind). In the later years of the newspaper feature the body count could get quite high. Reddy would catch Mrs. Quack's children, Butcher the Shrike caused great carnage among the sparrows and field mice, Lightfoot would lose a fawn to wild dogs, and Beauty the Wood Duck would lose many children to the likes of Billy Mink. In some cases Burgess would use tragedy as a way of drawing attention to human destructiveness (particularly hunters, trappers, and neglectful cat and dog owners); in other cases, the deaths had a moral for children--don't be careless or foolish and listen to your parents.

Next: The National Review and a box full of adages

Monday, March 8, 2010

Johnny Chuck in Japan

For a full 52 weeks in 1973, children could watch "Yama-nezumi Rocky Chuck" at 7:30 on Fuji TV.

Here is the opening


Here is a series of clips from the program, including the end theme, "Rocky and Polly."


From 1969 to 1972, Kinnohoshisha had published translations of the twenty Burgess Bedtime Storybooks (collected from the newspaper feature and originally published between 1913 and 1919 in the U.S.). The TV program "Rocky Chuck" directly followed that the translation project, shown during a time slot devoted to animated versions of popular works of world literature. The original name, "Johnny" was used in the books but changed to "Rocky" for TV; "Yamanezumi" (lit. "Mountain Rat," but really "marmot") was used because Japan has nothing directly comparable to a woodchuck.

This program is a remarkably faithful adaptation of Thornton Burgess bedtime stories, featuring the characters, settings, and narratives of the originals (including "Peter Rabbit Changes his Name"). There are some significant differences, largely in the depiction of animal species--"Bob White," for example, is depicted as a quail, and Rocky lives in the forest, not in the Green Meadows (as a good woodchuck should).

It was a popular show among the children of the era in Japan, and it has a wide nostalgia cult following. (It shows up occasionally in re-runs on Japanese satellite networks.)

Here, for example, is an extensive Japanese fansite.

And here's a relatively recent TV performance of the theme song by the original singer, Mitsuko Horie (she had recorded the original as "Micchi and the Chatterers")


As you might expect, there were associated character goods available. I'm particularly fond of this one, reminiscent of some of the Quaddy toys.

Please note that this is a perfect example of what Burgess pledged to never allow: Johnny (Rocky) Chuck riding a bike.

The program was dubbed into English (and other languages) and distributed by "ZIV International" in the late 1970s. As far as I know, it wasn't shown on US television, but was widely seen in Canada via TV Ontario (this suggests some copyright issues in the US). It was called Fables of the Green Forest and has acquired its own Canadian cult following.

Here's the English-language opening


YouTube supplies at least one full episode: "Johnny's Secret Door," which I can't embed, but will link to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Except for some unfortunate voice direction choices (Peter Rabbit is initially voiced like Bullwinkle), this is a very watchable show. It maintains much of the original Japanese soundtrack and pacing, and includes the occasional nature study note (in the above case, a brief description of the layout of a ground hog den). It also conveys the tension of the Burgess stories, the characters in constant danger from the likes of Reddy Fox and "Mean" Weasel.

Next: Tragedy and Burgess

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Peter Rabbit in Dreamland

"Peter Rabbit in Dreamland" was a "musical extravaganza and pantomime" run on three different New York City stages in 1915 and 1916. I don't know much about it apart from two stories in the New York Times and some entries in Michael W. Dowhan's Burgess bibliography. Jason Rogers in his book on the New York Globe mentions a Globe-sponsored "Peter Rabbitt" (sic) show that ran for a week. I suspect "Peter Rabbit in Dreamland" is that show.

Here's the description in The New York Times:
Peter Rabbit and his large family, Danny Meadow Mouse, Happy Jack Squirrel, Old Man Coyote, Reddy Fox, Mrs. Bob White, and many others of Mr. Burgess's animal characters scampered about through woodland scenes, revealing in action and rhyme many secrets of the forest.

The story of the daily doings of the Rabbit family was punctuated by songs and evolutions by the chorus. The latter was made up of several hundred boys and girls, some of them just tall enough to toddle across the stage. There were children dressed as wood nymphs, as candy sticks, there was a chorus of bedtimers, another of baby buntings in night drawers and a chorus of sun girls.
Professional "pantomimists" handled the principal roles, including Walter Stanton, a British import. For at least one run, the show also featured a "fashion parade for little girls in which 125 girls will promenade wearing costumes from shops which cater to this class of trade."

H.S. Tibbs wrote the book and lyrics while Ted D. Ward (who had some previous success with his Hawaiian songs) handled the music. In 1916 sheet music and piano rolls were available of the following songs: "Peter Rabbit Hop," "Fashionette," "Bedtime's Drowsy Boat," "The Candy Kid," and "A Toy in the Land of Dreams." Two songs--"Peter Rabbit Hop (Foxtrot)" and "Fashionette"--were recorded by "Prince's Band" for a 1916 Columbia Records release.
 photo prmusic_zps85e5540e.jpg
Ad in New York Globe
Judging by the Times description and the song titles it is fairly evident that the show had more to do with bedtime stories generically than it did with the naturalistic spirit of Burgess's animal adventures. I suspect Burgess and Cady had little to do with it except for supplying characters, settings, and perhaps a tiny bit of story. [UPDATE: There is a program of the show in the archives at the Thornton W. Burgess Society; Burgess was surely involved in some aspects of the production] Nevertheless it stands as an early promotional effort leveraging and bolstering the Burgess property (and the New York Globe); the proceeds from the show were donated to charity but the music from the show was aggressively merchandised.

Next: Johnny Chuck in Japan

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Cady's Peter Rabbit


Panel from Cady's Peter Rabbit Sunday strip (1922)

Peter Rabbit was the iconic Burgess character. While other artists offered versions of Peter Rabbit (see the one below by the original Boston Globe artist for Little Stories for Bedtime (1913))

it was Cady's version that stuck. As seen below, however, even Cady's would change over time.

Here is the original (1913) approach: waistcoat and bowtie, not particularly cute, uses his paws like hands. He is also white, and would be painted white in full color versions, even though he is supposed to be a brown cottontail.


In a few year (1917) he would be simplified, with larger eyes, but maintained his waistcoat and exaggerated pear-shape. (Jimmy Skunk, for a while at least, would be able to walk around sans clothing).


Things change dramatically in the 1920s. Peter is cuter and he has acquired his distinctive comma-shaped eyes.

1922


During the 1930s, he becomes more slender, with longer ears.


Sometime in the mid 1940s, he loses his suit and gains some pants.


He would retain the single suspender look and gain a little weight during his final decade.

I think it goes without saying that Cady's Peter Rabbit, regardless of the appearance changes over his 40-plus years, was thoroughly anthropomorphized as well as domesticated (a tame white rabbit, not a wild brown one). It also made him a distinct and license-able character (remember the Quaddies).

Indeed, in the 1920s when Cady had the chance to make Peter Rabbit his own, he moved far away from Burgess's natural settings. From 1920 to 1948, Cady wrote and drew a Sunday Peter Rabbit strip that was more or less a domestic comedy in "funny animal drag." Below are a couple of examples from 1922 (click on them to read).







Epilogue: When Harrison Cady retired in the late 1940s, the Peter Rabbit strip continued, drawn by Vince Fago. Fago's early versions (below left) strongly resemble Bugs Bunny; I wonder if readers protested and forced him to return to the Cady version (below right).


[UPDATE: Here's an even earlier (1912) Cady Sunday strip featuring a Peter Rabbit-like character]

Next: Peter Rabbit in Dreamland

Friday, March 5, 2010

Harrison Cady

Harrison Cady illustrated Thornton Burgess's newspaper bedtime stories from 1913 to 1960. The match was first made by the People's Home Journal; Cady illustrated the first Burgess submissions in 1911 and then became his regular illustrator in the magazine until its demise in 1929. It is Cady, even more than Burgess, perhaps, who is responsible for the popularity of the Burgess characters.

Cady had been a successful illustrator and cartoonist before meeting Burgess. He did editorial cartoon work, for example, for Life (the two below are from 1908).





He was best known, perhaps, for his amazingly detailed Beetleburg cartoons. Below are a couple from St. Nicholas (1912)





He also tried his hand at children's book illustration. I am particularly struck by the image below, from Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Troubles of Queen Silver-bell (1907) which ties together the world of fairy and the "folks of feather and fur" and provides a preview of Cady's "clothed animal" approach to representing the Burgess characters.



The People's Home Journal provided Cady with his largest canvas for Burgess story illustration, even giving him the occasional cover. In the earlier years, the Cady illustrations are remarkably detailed but show hints of the geometrical line-work that would characterize his later illustrations. They also still hadn't completed the transition out of fairy world--as indicated in the concrete representation of "Old Mother Nature" below:

Here's a selection of Green Meadow Club illustrations (patched-up photocopies of Library of Congress microfilm)




The last image shows an early version of Peter Rabbit, Cady's most iconic character (and the star of a later Cady Sunday comic strip).

Cady's newspaper illustrations are much smaller and simpler, given the space and printing limitations of the medium. (Some newspapers evidently saw the illustrations as a space filler, only printing them on occasion). Here's a couple from the later decades of "Burgess Bedtime Stories:"


You can see, at least in these two illustrations, less concern for putting clothes on animals, particularly birds. While Cady greatly added to the value of Bedtime Stories as a commodity (his illustrations were the basis for the Quaddies property), his clothed animal approach became a liability when Burgess desired to be seen more as a naturalist.

Next: Cady's Peter Rabbit

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Little Stories for Bedtime vs Burgess Bedtime Stories



As Thornton Burgess explained in his autobiography, the newspaper bedtime story was already a common feature before he started writing "Little Stories for Bedtime." The field was already full of competitors, including Howard R. Garis's "Uncle Wiggily" stories. Burgess's success would attract bedtime story writers with a slightly more naturalistic bent, such as "Blanche Silver" and her "Good Night" stories.


As Burgess states ruefully in his autobiography, however, his greatest competitor would be himself. When Burgess had signed his initial contract with Associated Newspapers, he had inadvertently given them perpetual reprint rights to his stories. When contract renewal talks failed in 1919, Associated Newspapers retained the copyright to "Little Stories for Bedtime" while Burgess continued telling new stories in "Burgess Bedtime Stories," now distributed by the New York Tribune syndicate. Associated Newspapers offered their Burgess stories for a deep discount, further eating away the market for the new series.

The Boston Globe appears to have stopped running Burgess stories in September 1919. Instead of simply re-running the old stories, it offered a boldly imitative replacement feature--"Barton Bedtime Stories," starring "Nibble Rabbit."

While the feature's author, John "Barton" Breck, would write enough stories to fill at least one book, "Barton Bedtime Stories" would disappear after a couple of years. The Boston Herald, meanwhile, would run the new Burgess series.

Until the end of Burgess's writing career, thus, there were two Burgess story series in American and Canadian newspapers. "Burgess Bedtime Stories" offered new stories until around 1960 (as Burgess neared retirement he would offer some repeats himself) and "Little Stories for Bedtime" ran the first seven years of Burgess in a continual repeat cycle. During the Great Depression, newspapers looking to economize would often switch to the cheap version of Burgess. Making things even more complicated was the inclusion of "Little Stories" in weekly pre-printed supplements distributed by the Western Newspaper Union to local papers in the 1930s. Adding the fact that newspapers did not always run the feature as scheduled, sometimes running stories up to six months late, on any given day in American and Canadian newspapers one could find half a dozen different Burgess stories.

Next: Harrison Cady