Winsor McCay was the Leonardo and the Michaelangelo of the animators.
He was a phenomenal draftsman and a memorable showman. GERTIE THE DINOSAUR was the first animated character with a personality.
She was also part of the first interactive entertainment show: doing (or not doing) tricks as McCay gave orders and cracked a whip. The spectacular finale had McCay riding out of the theatre on Gertie's back.
A drawing from GERTIE THE DINOSAUR with cartoon drawing of McCay entering the shot is being auctioned on ebay at this time for about three thousand dollars. It is worth it, and if I had the money, I'd buy it.
But Gertie wasn't McCay's main claim to fame. He was also the author of a fantastic comic strip, LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND.
John Canemaker, the author of the splendid McCay biography, told me that McCay literally drew his dreams. He worked in a stream-of-conscious fashion, laying out his speech balloons before lettering them (a serious error in modern cartoons.) He also would letter the words "Hem" and "Um" as characters looked for something to say.
I won't go into the story of LITTLE NEMO here since you can find out much more about the man at sites like this, and I want to get to the point of the article.
Winsor McCay was also the first cartoonist to ever have his creations staged in a show on Broadway.
LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND was produced in 1907 by the vaudeville producers Klaw and Erlanger. It was a popular show that played for three years before closing because of the unweildy sets. The show featured a cast of hundreds, many exotic locations, and had too much scenery to tour with.
It had something else: a score by Victor Herbert.
That is to say, it had a score by the first successful Broadway musical composer. Even a hundred years later we are familiar with Herbert's MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS. I always thought he was Viennese but he was pure American Irish.
And some nice people in Michigan were recording all of his work.
And yes, their recording schedule included LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND. This music was being performed for the first time in over ninety years.
So I purchased a double CD of the recording and tried it out yesterday.
A musical of 1907 is not the musical of today, but the plot of NEMO may be charitably described as incoherent. It's just as riddled with dreams and non sequiturs as the original comic--and if you are not familiar with the comic (as the organizer of the Comic Opera Guild proved to be) it's hard to see what all the fuss was about.
This is the sort of show that needs sets and probably they were pretty spectacular. NEMO cost three times as much as a typical show of the period.
The music is pleasant. One or two numbers might have been hits. ("Won't You Be My Playmate" and "The Valentine Song" stick in the ear long after the record is over.) And some of the comic interpolations by Doctor Pill are still amusing.
There are topical references and a strange fascination with money. The Princess constantly tells her friends she has lots; songs frequently refer to money, women on shopping sprees, and how you have the right to shoot on sight if anyone makes a loud noise in Slumberland. There are several martial tunes in the jingoistic spirit of the time and even a song about the Old Continentals sung by none other than Lady Liberty (not the statue, but the allegorical figure.) The scenes shift from Nemo's palace to the Cannibal Isles to a pirate ship to Morpheus' court and then to the land of the Weather. One of the more amusing songs occurs here, sounding very like something from the Gershwin's STRIKE UP THE BAND. Dr. Pill's patter songs are heavily influenced by Gilbert and Sullivan but they are good in their own right.
The showstopper must have been the Central Park scene, done entirely with music. Actors enter the set, their numbers growing as the music builds--nursemaids, policemen, strolling beaux, and one small child who brings the whole thing crashing down by picking a flower and getting arrested by the cop. It is impressive enough on two pianos; it must have been devastating with a full theatre orchestra.
The performances on the disc are often more enthusiastic than anything else though one woman has a sweet soprano voice and a few other singers acquit themselves well. I wish they'd miked the show a little better since some players are off mike for nearly the whole show.
Two pianos handle the score. I could but wish that they'd gotten a full orchestra to perform WON'T YOU BE MY PLAYMATE.
The records may be purchased here.
Could NEMO be staged today? What did I make of it, finally?
It's the first of the 'children's spectacular' shows. One pirate character even complains that he can't swear because 'this is a kiddie dream and I am a kids' pirate."
Like the comic strip it was based on, it was glittering eye candy with a very confusing message--a literal message from the land of dreams.
Winsor McCay ended his career drawing pointless editorial cartoons for the Hearst papers. He was too shy and frightened to cut off from his big boss and go out on his own (he may have been right, since animation changed rapidly during the Twenties and McCay's gentle fantasies were increasingly out of date.)
We are left with a few wonderful animated films and the gorgeous Nemo comics.
And thanks to the Comic Opera Guild's Victor Herbert festival, it is possible to hear a pale reflection of the magnificent show that NEMO must have made on Broadway 99 years ago.