PETER PAN

U.S. Special Presentation

Peter Pan was a popular melding of American television and Broadway theater, first broadcast on NBC in March 1955 and repeated annual for many years thereafter. It formed part of an ongoing series titled Producers' Showcase, a loose rubric for high-quality dramatic presentations put together by producer Fred Coe for the network about once a month between 1954 and 1957.

The impetus for the telecast was the popular Broadway musical Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin in the title role and co-starring Cyril Ritchard as Pan's nemesis Captain Hook. Based on the 1904 J.M. Barrie play of the same name, the Broadway production was staged by Jerome Robbins. When it ended its theatrical run, Coe arranged to run a version of it, modified for the small screen, on NBC on March 5, 1955.

The production fitted neatly into two of NBC's strategies for establishing its identity as a network. First, it was what NBC vice president (and programming chief) Pat Weaver called a "spectacular"--a special, high-quality event that publicized the network and drew programming power away from individual sponsors, which generally could not afford to foot the entire bill for these expensive shows. Second, it was hailed by the network and by critics as a splendid forum for the color television system the network and its parent company, RCA, were hawking.

The teleplay loosely followed the familiar original Barrie play, moving from the nursery of the Darling family in London to the island of Neverland, a magical and mythical place to which the eternally young Peter Pan lured the Darling children. His special interest lay in Wendy, whom he and the other "lost boys" wished to adopt as their mother. Before the play's end, Peter had to defeat the dastardly Captain Hook, a humorously effeminate villain played with panache by Ritchard, and return Wendy and her brothers to their home.

The program's sets, particularly the Neverland set, were simple yet colorful, and audiences and critics enjoyed the close-up view it provided of the Broadway play. Robbins' staging blended lively and tender moments, engaging the audience from the play's beginning. The production gained prestige not just from its famous stars but from the addition of Lynn Fontaine as the program's narrator.

Peter Pan proved an immediate and spectacular success, garnering an overnight rating of 48 and inspiring Jack Gould of the New York Times to speculate that the program had provided "perhaps television's happiest hour." The production was remounted, live, in January of 1956 and was rebroadcast annually for years thereafter. It was singled out in the 1955 Emmys as the best single program of the year, and Martin was named best actress in a single performance.

The teleplay's popularity is easy to account for. It presented a charming and imaginatively staged version of a classic children's tale, drawing in both adult and youthful viewers. It also gave Americans a fantasy-filled forum in which to debate gender in the postwar years.

The teleplay's message about adult manhood and womanhood, that they were states to be avoided at all costs (Peter didn't want to grow up, and Wendy was unhappy when she did), played into a growing discomfort with preset gender roles. And both its hero and its villain were highly androgynous.

The message and the androgyny were, of course, present in the original Barrie play. They were enhanced, however, by script changes and by the intimacy of the medium on which the play was broadcast. Peter Pan on television resonated with the color and the confusion of its era--and encouraged audiences to fly to Neverland for years to come.

-Tinky "Dakota" Weisblat


Peter Pan

CAST

Peter Pan................................................... Mary Martin Captain Hook/George Darling..................... Cyril Ritchard Mary Darling ........................................Margalo Gillmore Wendy Darling .......................................Kathleen Nolan John Darling....................................... Robert Harrington Michael Darling...................................... Joseph Stafford Liza....................................................... Hellen Halliday Smee .......................................................Joe E. Marks Tiger Lily .....................................................Sondra Lee Slightly........................................................ David Bean Tootles......................................................... Ian Tucker Ostrich............................................... Joan Tewkesbury Crocodile................................................ Norman Shelly Wendy (as adult) .......................................Ann Connolly Nibs...................................................... Paris Theodore Noodler ...................................................Frank Lindsay

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER  Richard Halliday

PRODUCER Fred Coe

DIRECTOR Jerome Robbins

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

NBC
Two Hours; 7 March 1955

FURTHER READING

Hanson, Bruce K. The Peter Pan Chronicles: The Nearly 100-Year History of the "Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up." Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol, 1993.

Martin, Mary. My Heart Belongs. New York: Quill, 1984.

Rivadue, Barry. Mary Martin: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood, 1991.

"2 Peter Pans Fly to Video." Advertising Age (New York), 11 June 1990.

 

See also Coe, Fred; Special and Spectacular