They paid no attention whatever… they were putting on a show of their own

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, March 31, 1934.

“What are we giving our children?” demanded Jim, leaning back with chin lifted in that fashion he learned sitting on barrels in the village store of his boyhood. “Are we giving them the old simplicities on which we were nursed? No, sir! We are giving them the radio, movies, newspapers, magazines that are filled with the pep of this third decade of the twentieth century. When you and I were children, the fastest thing on the street was that high two-wheeled butcher’s cart. If we wanted music, we had to make it. Newspapers were solemn, stuffy things consisting of solid columns of dignified print. The only pictures were a few ads of ladies in corsets, or ladies with wavy hair.”

“Don’t forget,” I put in, “the fellow that drove around each morning in a little cart, changing the carbons in the arc lights1 that swung high over all the street corners. Remember the squeak of the pulleys as he lowered the ropes the arc light was on? And we used to all come running when we heard the pulleys and pick up the bits of carbon he threw away. Big pencils for writing on brick walls. Eddie loves Mary, we used to write.”

“Personally,” said Jim, “I was raised far from any arc lights. But we used to write on walls, even in Birdseye Centre.”

“I really think,” I said, “that for all the evils of the twentieth century, there is less writing on walls now than when we were children.”

“Yes,” agreed Jim. “But don’t let details deflect us from our true course. What I say is, we are giving our children the full benefit of the high-pressure twentieth century, and then we expect them to be as child-like as we were!”

“I don’t allow my children to go to movies, anyway,” I stated.

“That’s funny,” said Jim. “I saw them there the night before last.”

“You were mistaken,” I said. “The night before last they were out at a little meeting of a club some of the boys of the neighborhood have organized. A harmless little club.”

“One of us is mistaken,” said Jim.

“Hmmm,” said I. “What was the show?”

“The Loves of Marianne, or something,” said Jim.

“Well, what else is there for the poor little things?” I cried indignantly. “The only show I saw until I was about twenty was a Punch and Judy show.”

To Rescue Childhood

“There’s an idea!” shouted Jim. “You’ve hit the problem on the head! What else is there for them to see? We are neglecting them. It is the selfishness of our generation that is the fault. If we provided Punch and Judy shows for children, they would be just as interested in them as we were, and just as interested as they would be in modern love triangles!”

“That’s it,” I said.

“Well,” said Jim, “I’m an artist. You’re a pretty fair actor. Why not let us build a Punch and Judy show and lead the way. We might start a revolutionary movement. Something to rescue childhood from the dangers our selfishness has flung them into. A movement that might spread all over the world!”

“I’m game,” I said. “I think I can remember most of the Punch and Judy action and dialogue. And if I can’t, I can make it up.”

“We can start in our own neighborhood, with our own children,” said Jim. “And if It goes, we can go about the streets of the city giving free Punch and Judy shows, attracting hundreds, maybe thousands, of kids. And rescuing them from dear knows what their parents carelessly let them get into.”

“Jimmie,” I said, “at last I believe we have got hold of something real and beautiful and high-minded!”

So we started immediately drawing rough plans on Jimmie’s drawing board.

We built a little frame skeleton booth about the size of a Sunnyside ticket booth: Over it we tacked canvas and painted it pretty colors. About half way up the front side of the booth, we left the open space, surrounded by scallops of canvas, which would be the tiny stage on which Punch would run the exciting and murderous course of his brief life.

With old socks, bits of colored cloth and plasticene, Jimmie and I fashioned Punch with his long nose, Judy with her round beet red cheeks, Mr. Toby the dog, Scaramouche, the policeman, the doctor and the hangman.

And for two days and two nights while the paint and putty dried, I studied my lines. Ah, what a dear, forgotten story! Ah, how like life itself is the career of Mr. Punch.

Jimmie painted up some signs and tacked them around the neighborhood, inviting all and sundry, from eight years of age down, to attend a benefit performance, admission, two pins, to be held in the Frise backyard Saturday.

We got the show set and were in the backyard by one-thirty, and as no children but our own were on hand, we sent them out to invite any children they might meet with on the streets and bring them in.

More Jeers Than Cheers

By two-fifteen we had seven other children besides our own and a nice little audience for the beginning of a great reformation.

“All great movements had a small beginning,” explained Jimmie as I got in behind the booth and cleared my throat and sorted out all the characters ready to my hand, with their little stubby bodies and the sticks that supported them.

I rolled up the little curtain.

Cheers, Jimmie leading.

“Hallo, hallo, hallo!” I began, in the squeaky voice of Mr. Punch, popping the little, gentleman on the stage with his club under his arm.

“Louder!” came small voices from without. “And funnier!”

“When is Judy coming back with the baby?” I cried, walking Mr. Punch up and down agitatedly.

Mr. Toby, the dog, popped on. In a moment, Mr. Toby had Mr. Punch by the long red nose and a terrible tussle ensued, which ended by Mr. Punch belaboring Mr. Toby with the club unmercifully, amidst what I thought was a pretty good imitation of a dog fight.

“Haw, haw, haw!” came from without. It was more jeering than cheering.

Scaramouche enters. Is beaten and flung out of the stage. Judy and the baby are both beaten and flung out. I was giving them plenty of action, but the applause was mixed.

Then the policemen enters, slowly on heavy feet.

“I didn’t send for you.” cried Mr. Punch, in the time-honored repartee that I remembered across the years.

“No, I’m sent for you,” retorts the policeman.

“But I don’t want a policeman!” cries Mr. Punch shrilly.

“But a policeman wants you,” says the cop in a deep voice.

And of course Mr. Punch leaps on the policeman and beats him with the club, and flings the policeman off the stage, with a kick.

Outside I could hear tumult and children shouting, and Jimmie speaking to them loudly and commandingly. I peeped out around the canvas booth.

“Aw, nerts,” one of the small boys was saying. “That’s the bunk. It’s the cheese. It isn’t even as funny as Charlie Chase2!”

The children were clustered around Jimmie, paying no attention to the show.

“Here!” I shouted. Even my own boys paid no attention.

“We want Clark Gable3!” shrilled several little girls all together.

“What do you think we are?” shouted another small boy with candy goo all around his mouth. “A bunch of babies? Hey?”

Just the Form Changes

I popped back in the booth and stuck my head over the stage and said:

“Ladees and gentlemen! The most exciting chapters in the life of Mr. Punch are now to be presented. He is arrested and taken before the hangman! The hangman!”

But they paid no attention whatever. They were rearranging some quilts that were out airing on Jimmie’s clothesline. I went out and consulted Jim.

“It’s all right,” said Jim, “they have just decided to put on a show of their own.”

The quilts were drawn together for a curtain. Boxes, chairs and boards were rushed from the back kitchen and from Jim’s cellar. After a violent quarrel, the actors were divided from the spectators, and all in three minutes, they were putting on a show.

The curtains parted.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said a six-year-old, standing on the boxes, “we will now present a play called the Loves of Marianne. Certain incidents in this play have been taken from Flying Down to Rio4 and Eskimo5, and the final scene is from Dinner at Eight6.”

He drew the quilts together, and after fifteen seconds, the curtains parted and the show was on.

There were two stabbings and five love scenes in the first minute. All the men were villains and all the ladies were heroines. There was a marriage and one aeroplane ride in the second minute. The Germans attacked with machine guns in the third minute. Count von Richthofen flew over and carried off two of the best-looking heroines in the fourth minute.

And the quilts were drawn to, amidst deafening cheers both from in front of and from behind the quilts.

My boys came over sympathetically.

“See?” they said. “See, daddy?”

“See what?” I demanded.

Jim took my arm.

“Let’s go inside,” he said.

We sat in the living room and listened to the sounds of act two.

“Punch and Judy,” I declared, “has got all the elements of modern drama in it. Wife beating, child beating, murder, the gunman, the escape from the police, the gallows. It is exactly the plot of nine-tenths of the movies you see to-day.”

“There isn’t much difference in the plot of drama from generation to generation,” said Jim. “It is just the form of presentation that changes.”

Which wisdom was emphasized by shrill cheers from the backyard which indicated that act two was ended.

Editor’s Notes:

  1. Arc lights were used in early street lights in cities after gas lamps. They gained popularity in the 1880s. They were much taller and brighter than modern street lights, so fewer were needed. ↩︎
  2. Charlie Chase was a movie comedian. ↩︎
  3. Clark Gable was an actor and popular among the ladies. ↩︎
  4. Flying Down to Rio was a 1933 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, ↩︎
  5. Eskimo was also a 1933 film. ↩︎
  6. Dinner at Eight is also from 1933. ↩︎