For nearly forty years now, I've been carrying things around in my head that nobody else alive today is likely to remember, with the possible exceptions of my brother and one or two former members of Syracuse Little Theater. My mom, Dr. Ruth Anne Johnson Funk, was a composer and a lyricist, a director and a satirist. (She was also a clinical psychologist and an educator.) I still remember most of the songs and some of the dialogue from her 1960s musical revues, DeManleyville (1964), DeManleyville '65 and They'd Rather Be Right (1968). Here's a sample from one of the songs in DeManleyville / DeManleyville '65:
This was the Cold War era, remember. Joe McCarthy was no longer a major force, but there were still accusations that a peacenik (for example) was a Commie Pinko, or whatever term was in vogue that year. That first show satirized a few carryovers from the 1950s, including the Happy Homemakers ("We adore keeping house; it's the thrill of our lives/And we freely admit that we're all perfect wives") and the Beatnik Mama ("In matters intellectual, she's strictly nowhere.") Other targets for the satire were automation, bridge players and General Electric ("But now you've gone and transferred him/And your light in our heart's growing dim").
By 1968, the political and social climate had changed a bit. The former Beatnik Mama was now Rockin' with the Viet Cong. Mom included a slide show memorializing Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., accompanied by Requiem for the Masses by the Association. (One night a member of The Association showed up for the performance, and Mom was thrilled.)
They'd Rather Be Right included a new satirical song for each of the surviving major candidates: Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and George Wallace. The songs were The Newest Richard Nixon ("Has he changed since Checkers was a pup?"), Saint Eugene ("A man of monumental calm/Except on Viet Nam"), Lonesome George ("But would you let your daughter marry him?") and the Hubert Humphrey Blues:
When he's not on tv, I hit bottom.
Tell me, is it fair that Johnson's got him,
And Muriel is stuck with her cigar?
I would gladly share him with another,
singing praise to apple pie and mother.
Tell me how to shake this hang-up, brother,
For I've got the Hubert Humphrey blues!
--from They'd Rather Be Right (1968)
Here's a sample of the dialogue, from a sketch in which a female suburbanite is accused of being middle class ("Oh no! Not that!). I've been thinking about it since I wrote last night's entry about guilt that I'm not out saving the world:
Prosecutor: Do you lie awake at night on your silk sheets--
Defendant: Percale. I got them on sale at--
Prosecutor: In your silk sheets, knowing that thirty million people in America live below the poverty line?
Defendant: I gave to the Salvation Army.
Prosecutor: Thirty million people!
Defendant: And the Community Chest.
Prosecutor: Do you or do you not read William F. Buckley?
Defendant: Whenever I can find a dictionary. You're right. I'm guilty!
--from They'd Rather Be Right (1968)
Over the years there were also love songs, a song about the empty nest syndrome (I think that was in DeManleyville), and even a ballet about a lame little girl who was able to dance with her doll-come-to-life when the clock struck midnight. My doll, Tootles, played the inanimate version of the doll, and I, in a matching outfit, played the doll come to life. I was eight years old, and at least as clumsy as I am now. Trying to learn and perform the simple choreography just about killed me.
Now, here's the point of all this nostalgia. For all these years, I've treasured my mom's music and her comedy, with the possible exception of some material she wrote for my school drama club when I was in seventh grade. But looking back now, I'm suddenly finding I have a slightly different perspective. I've always thought of my mom as a Johnson Democrat - pro-Viet Nam War, pro-equal rights, but perhaps a little to the right of my own political views (and believe me, I'm not exactly a Deaniac myself). But thinking now about the out-of-date satire, I'm seeing underlying attitudes that I didn't notice at the time, and don't necessarily share now. I would have voted for Humphrey over Nixon too, as my mom did, but I don't quite approve of a sketch in which a teacher is arrested for saying a childish prayer.
Hmm. Weird. All these years later, I'm reassessing the legacy. I'd like to discuss the old satire and the old politics with my mom, but it's too late for that. She died in 2002.
Ruth Anne Johnson