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1955 and 1956 Peter Pan: Finally a Legit Release

Mary Martin as Peter Pan

Mary Martin as Peter Pan

About twenty-seven years ago I directed the musical version of Peter Pan at the F.M. Gaudineer Middle School in New Jersey. As my students had grown up without ever seeing the oft televised video tape of the Broadway version starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard, their only association with the boy who wouldn’t grow up was the animated Disney film. Not much further educated about Pan than my students, I was introduced to the musical version in 1960, the year of the first broadcast of the video-taped version. Prior to that it had been telecast “live” in 1955 with the original Broadway cast and again in 1956 with most of the same cast intact except some of the children who had grown too tall. In the early seventies I played Peter at Hunter College,

Even before we started, I decided that my film students would document our production with excerpts of rehearsals and finished numbers as well as a look at the history of the play via photographs and recordings of various stage productions going back to 1904 when Peter was first introduced at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London. As it was the dawn of the internet, my best bet for digging up facts and reviews of the play during its performances of the first three quarters of the 20th century was at the Lincoln Center Library for Performing Arts, the Museum of the City of New York, and the New York Public Library at forty-second street. I was also able to track down a copy of a rare book, Fifty Years of Peter Pan, by Roger Lancelyn Green, which provided in great detail the creative process of producing that first stage version in 1904. It didn’t take long for me to realize that a new book should be written about the stage and screen versions of Peter Pan with special emphasis of the troubled journey that Mary Martin’s version encountered from its inception in California to the New York opening in 1954.

Kathleen Nolan as Wendy

Kathleen Nolan as Wendy

With a score by Carolyn Leigh and Morris (Moose) Charlap along with Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Syne for extra measure, the production was brilliantly adapted and directed by Jerome Robbins for a limited run on Broadway to be followed by a ”live” broadcast on N.B.C. That evening, March 7, 1955, Peter Pan became not only a television tradition for baby boomers but also a legendary event epitomizing the best of the golden age of Broadway adapted for the golden age of television.

For the documentary film we produced at my school, N.B.C. graciously granted permission to include excerpts from the 1960 version which I had purchased on the black market. Our production was greeted with the most enthusiastic audiences I have ever encountered at a school play; not necessarily due to the production values but rather a reintroduction of an old friend of the baby boomers whom many thought they would never see again. A few years later, with much fanfare, a slightly truncated version of Peter Pan with Mary Martin was rebroadcast winning the highest ratings of the year for N.B.C. Shortly after, the production was released uncut on home video in the form of VHS tapes and laser discs, followed shortly after on DVD. Looking better than ever, the DVD quickly went out of print and now commands up to $200 except for pirated versions which you may also find on eBay for twenty bucks or so. But what about the kinescopes of the first two telecasts?

Over the years I have purchased the two “live” broadcast versions of Peter Pan in various formats but all suffered in video and audio clarity. Rumors persisted that one company or another was going to official release them but I gave up all hope a few years ago. Then, last week, while searching eBay for a Christmas gift (I buy all year round) I discovered that the 1955 and 1955 telecasts were released by VAI, a company responsible for introducing other great musical comedy television specials from the past. The programs were called specials because that’s what they were. And indeed, the DVD of Peter Pan that I just received in the mail from Amazn.com is indeed special. While suffering from the technology of the period—kinescopes were black and white films created by filming the telecast monitors in the studio during the actual performances resulting in unfocused edges of the screen and occasional horizontal waves—the elements for this transfer are far superior to any I have seen in the last twenty years. The picture quality is quite good, better than many other kinescopes of the period, while the audio is surprisingly excellent.

Unknowingly, I ordered the regular DVD version from Amazon.com thinking I was getting the two broadcasts plus supplemental materials I had read about in the reviews. I just purchased the Blu Ray version for a few more dollars of which I shall write about next week. The DVD comes with an insert that includes photos and excellent notes by George Dansker, from which I was surprised to learn that there were even intentions of performing another “live” broadcast in March of 1958. However, Dansker errors in his assertion that “Peter Pan made history as the first Broadway musical to be transferred intact to the television screen, directly from its theatrical run.” The musical was adapted for television with a few minor cuts in the script, notably, the very funny Hamlet story as told by Wendy. Even the 1960 version excluded that fine piece of business written by Comden and Green. The television script, is available for reading at Lincoln Center.

Mary Martin and Sondra Lee

Mary Martin and Sondra Lee

I find it rather curious that the DVD offers not the first telecast of Peter Pan but instead boasts its 1956 edition as the “historic telecast.” Really? The 1955 telecast was the historic first. However, judging from my past viewings of the three versions of this television classic and watching then again this weekend, I do find that this second version is the best! True, it is not in color but the performances are delightful and fresh with most of the kinks of the first telecast solved. Compare “Flying” in both kinescope versions and you will see what I mean.  And then there is Kathy Nolan, giving a far superior performance as Wendy than her predecessor, Maureen Bailey, and Sondra Lee as the cutest Tiger Lily on the block.

The Blu-ray version also includes a rare N.B.C. telesales promo which was telecast “live” and in color for the closed circuit televisions of the sponsors and N.B.C. affiliates. In the short, we hear from the N.B.C. president, Mary Martin, Peter Foy (who created the flying effects), and best of all, Cyril Ritchard, who not only changes into Captain Hook on camera, but also performs a number from the show. Then there is a sweet but too short interview with Heller Halliday, the daughter of Mary Martin and co-producer Richard Halliday, not to mention sister of Larry Hagman, who reminisces about working with her mother.

But the real reason for purchasing the DVD  or Blu-ray is Mary Martin, giving an extraordinary performance worthy of its legendary reputation, finally captured to be played ver and over again. There have been other performances in the productions of Peter Pan that have gone down as legend, notably Nina Boucicault’s in 1904; Pauline Chase for about 14 years starting in 1906; and Jean Forbes-Robertson in the late twenties and early thirties who can also be heard in a 1940 recording on HMV records as well as a Sepia Records CD; Eve Le Gallienne was featured in a radio performance preserved at the Library of Congress, and Jean Arthur on two different Columbia Records original cast albums. We are so fortunate to have a permanent record of the musical version Peter Pan, as close to the original performed on Broadway as possible. The beautifully produced Blu-ray should prove of great interest, not only for baby boomers, but also for theatre historians and those who love musical comedy at its best.

—For an in-depth look at the stage and screen history of Peter Pan please consider purchasing my book, Peter Pan on Stage and Screen: 1904-2010, which is an updated and much expanded version of my first book, The Peter Pan Chronicles.





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