Sunday, April 19, 2009

THE GHOST OF LOLLYPOP BAY

The sort of show that would appeal to those who believe that men and women should have no contact until the age of 40, the unfortunately named GHOST OF LOLLYPOP BAY (1926) has, as its sole redeeming quality, music by Charles Wakefield Cadman. And it's frustrating because its authors should have done so much more with this opportunity.

Let's get the minimal story out of the way. On opposite shores of Lollypop Bay are two schools, one for young ladies, one for young gentlemen. The two have a very strict non-fraternization policy that, as you can imagine, is circumvented at every possible chance by its students.

During one summer afternoon, rumours pop up that a ghost has taken up residence at the Bay. It's first been seen by Dinah, a "coloured maid", and, of course no one takes that seriously. But when the headmistress Jemina Steel sees it, then everyone gets real concerned, not the least of whom is Professor Flint, a "bashful bachelor" who runs the boys' school. But the ghost — whatever its origins — serves to allow our minimalist plot to propel forward by pushing Jemina into the protective, semi-manly arms of Flint... as well as give the kids the opportunity to run off in just all directions... some of them in couples... and not same-gender couples at that.

But it's for good reason that no one takes Dinah seriously because, as it turns out, she was the "ghost" seen by Ms. Steel. Why, you ask? Because her boyfriend works for Flint and she and he had a spat which sent her to work for Steel and now she misses him but she cant go back to him until the two schools merge (I'm not sure about why on that one, but whatever...) so she put on this sheet and scared herself and her boss and... Oh, and did I mention that one of the girls thought it would be fun to play ghost and is now running around in her own sheet and winds up scaring Dinah for real?

Now, just as in any good 80s era slasher film, instead of going home and staying there, the various residents of these schools decide, in a moment of blind stupidity, that, even though everyone's scared out of their wits, they're staying for the night. The boys are sent to their school to get blankets, while the girls stay behind to set up camp (an interesting piece of proto-feminist thought, in a weird kind of way). Dinah and Mary, unbeknownst to each other, try to pull off a second scaring, which results in a near-miss of an unmasking by Flint... but before he can do it, a third ghost appears, and the sudddenly-macho Flint runs off in pursuit of this new interloper. In the excitement, Mary and Dinah escape unrecoginzed. They've no sooner done so than our third ectoplastic friend returns, carrying an unconscious Flint. As Steel lovingly "administers restoratives" to our hapless would-be hero, this third ghost unmasks, revealing himself to be Marcus, Dinah's on-again-off-again boyfriend. The whole ghost ruse was to scare her, with the intent that the real Marcus would "rescue" her, thus ensuring she'd come back to him. The headmasters announce their intention to marry and "blend" their schools, and the curtain falls.

Okay, it's the usual high school musical twaddle, which, were it by folks like the Clarks, might be acceptable: the synopsis certainly seems to embrace the nonsensical plots Estelle so dearly loves. But here's the thing: Charles and Juanita Roos were nothing like Palmer and Estelle Clark.

Charles Roos was from Los Angeles, but he'd grown up in the St. Croix River region with a skillset that included not only woodworking and raftmanship but also an intense curiosity about local native tribes. He met Juanita, and the two became professional as well as personal partners: Juanita was a gifted lyricist and composer in her own right. The two wrote several song cycles that spoke from the Native experience, and they also collaborated with composers such as Cadman and Thurlow Lieurance (who himself visited some 30 reservations and made some of the first recordings of Native music), on songs that celebrated Hispanic and Native culture.

I've already written about Cadman's background, which likewise had a strong foundation in Native musical forms... so how did these three enlightened souls come to write something as embarrassingly awful as LOLLYPOP BAY? It's not so much that BAY has the usual nonsense about people falling in love under a full moon and deciding, without so much as day's courtship, to run off and get married. It's that here you have a woman who was Hispanic and Native, her husband who was sensitive to the political realities of the time, and a composer who actively promoted the cultural contributions of other American-based cultures... and the three of them collaborate to create a thin little work that takes all of that and shoves it out the door in favour of something that's just as sexist and racist as anything else the genre produced in the 20s and 30s. In the world of LOLLYPOP BAY, everyone's white and privileged (except for those subservient darkies, of course) and more obsessed with finding a good marriage match than anything else. The people who wrote "Eight Songs from Green Timber", which was roundly hailed by both critics and performers, give us such stirring lyrics as:

It seems that I'm always in the wrong
That I'm bound to be misunderstood
The things that I do
I am quite sure to rue
Try hard as I will to be good

or:

Oh dear oh dear
Can this be real
You know what happens
When Flint meets Steel

or:

I suah feels somethin' in ma bones
Such as ma name is Dinah Jones
Boo! Dis am a spooky place!
Wish it had nebber knowed ma face!
When de dark'nin' shadders fall
"Whoo-oo-oo" I hears an old owl call
Og goodness gracious glory-be
Dis am no place foh a gal lak me

Gads.

Because I write about these as I receive them, it's a little surprising to see the saccharine LOLLYPOP coming after the bleak reality of TWILIGHT ALLEY. As I wrote there: as a general rule, you dont come to these things looking for deep political insight. But it's still saddening to see something that has "sell out" all but written into the cover artwork.

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