My Christmas card this year was an unmitigated disaster.
Every year I create a card that’s intended for a quick look that will make the recipient smile. Whether it’s a drawing, a photograph, or a graphic, it’s essential that the image be instantly readable. You’re not supposed to have to puzzle out what it means. (Sort of like a theatre lyric, which must be immediately comprehensible.)
My last couple of cards had gone over very well. Two years ago, I’d drawn Santa and his reindeer coming in for a landing on the White House, only Santa had the face of Obama, and this brought a smile to his supporters. Last year, my wife and I had dressed in silly costumes for a photo entitled “Don we now our gay apparel.” Friends said “I thought there was no way you could top last year’s card, but you did. Can’t wait for next year’s card.”
Er, yes… What to do? December rolled around and I was still at a loss for an idea. Until there was a news event that, in a way, combined the themes of the last two cards: the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. If I could come up with an image that referenced that happy event, people looking at the card would feel a surge of joy over the good news.
So my idea was to have same-sex soldiers celebrating with a kiss. And the caption would read “Merry Merry” which would reinforce what the drawing was saying in two ways: “merry” and “gay” are synonyms, and “merry” and “Mary” are nearly homonyms. The next step was to draw two merry Marys kissing. (Though not preparing to marry, which is a third near-homonym but not yet legal, nationally.)
To look at models for my artwork, I turned to the internet. Would you believe that if you google “women kissing” you can see 6,670,000 pictures? So, I stared at those for a while. But the pose I liked best was actually a heterosexual couple
and I figured I could simply lengthen the man’s hair. Next, I carefully looked at uniforms soldiers wear, copying insignia on sleeves, etc.
Holiday travels took me through four airports, and, at each, I happened to see armed forces females and was struck by how accurate my drawing was. I was tempted to whip out my card and show it to a pair of them, but worried they’d think I’d assumed they were lesbians. You see, in my mind, the card was abundantly clear: same-sex soldiers kissing to celebrate Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Unfortunately, it was received with abject puzzlement. Nobody could tell what the hell my drawing was about. People assumed one of the kissers was a man with long hair. Or they took the camouflage fabric as an artistic abstraction. One friend wrote
“I have enjoyed every Christmas card you have ever sent – even shared the humor with friends. This year’s card reminds me of paintings in a museum – what does it say to you – and it doesn’t matter who else it speaks to.”
Unmitigated disaster. The image was supposed to read, instantly, like a magazine ad.
How does this relate to musical theatre writing?
There’s a difference between verisimilitude, the appearance of reality, and documentary truth. My airport experience led me to believe I’d accurately depicted female soldiers. But what my card required was a recognizable rendering, not actuality.
Which brings me to my research for Such Good Friends. I had a scene in which a famous comedienne appears before the House Un-American Activities Committee. I looked at what really happened. Here’s Judy Holliday testifying:
Senator Watkins: Did you not have any friends that were Communists?
Miss Holliday: Never.
Mr. Arens: Alvin Hammer, however, refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee as to whether or not he was a Communist?
Miss Holliday: That is correct.
Mr. Arens: Adolph Green and Betty Comden, with whom you were associated in the Revuers, have Communist-front records; do they not?
Miss Holliday: No.
Senator Watkins: Are you sure of that?
Miss Holliday: I am as sure of that as I can be of anybody that isn’t me.
Senator Watkins: You know them well?
Miss Holliday: I know them well, and I know them to be completely unpolitical people. They are terrific hard workers, and that is their life.
Mr. Arens: Adolph Green, your friend, was a sponsor of the Committee for the Reelection of Benjamin Davis?
Miss Holliday: I certainly never knew that.
Mr. Arens: Betty Comden, your friend, was reported to be a sponsor of the Committee for the Reelection of Benjamin Davis; was she not?
Miss Holliday: I never knew that, and I really doubt it. I don’t know whether I am supposed to say that, but I doubt it.
Mr. Arens: Betty Comden was one of the entertainers at the Madison Square Garden rally of the Spanish Refugee Appeal of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, September 24, 1945, as shown in the Daily Worker for September 24, 1945?
Miss Holliday: To my knowledge she was not.
Mr. Rifkind: To your knowledge, you mean as far as you know.
Miss Holliday: As far as I know, she was not.
Senator Watkins: You were intimate at that time, were you not, with her?
Miss Holliday: Yes.
Senator Watkins: Had been for years?
Miss Holliday: Yes.
Mr. Arens: Betty Comden was one of the sponsors of the Communist May Day Parade in 1946, which was the annual mobilization of Communist strength?
Miss Holliday: I am sure she didn’t.
Mr. Arens: And Betty Comden also has signed at least one statement of the National Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions; has she not?
Miss Holliday: She may have. That sounds much more possible than any of these other things. I know this woman, she has no interest in things like that.
Mr. Arens: You also signed some other statements by this Committee, the National Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions; did you not?
Miss Holliday: Yes.
Mr. Arens: You signed an ad about “We are for Wallace”; did you not?
Miss Holliday: Yes.
Mr. Arens: That was in 1948?
Miss Holliday: Yes.
Mr. Arens: That was subsequent to the time that the National Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions had been officially found to be a Communist-front organization; was it not?
Miss Holliday: You mean that was before that; is that what you mean?
Mr. Arens: No, it was after that.
Miss Holliday: And it was public knowledge?
Mr. Arens: Let us strike that from the record and start over again. I put it to you as a fact that on October 28, 1948, you were a signer of an ad “We are for Wallace,” sponsored by the Communist-front organization of the Arts, Sciences and Professions?
Miss Holliday: I was a signer of an ad sponsored by the organization, which I did not know was a Communist front
And here’s what I wrote – something that seems real and feels real, but isn’t.
You know why we asked to see you here today?
Of course! You’re fans of the Dottie Francis Show and you wanted to meet me.
Well, of course we’re aware of your accomplishments –
Oh, Congressman! – Can I call you “Congressman?” – You flatter me so.
Are you now, or have you ever been, a member –
There’s just one thing that I ever was a member of. A club for comedians called The Pranksters. On East 19th Street.
Miss Francis –
You can call me Dottie.
Miss Francis, this committee has heard testimony that you were present at a fund-raiser for an organization called Committee for the Negro in the Arts. Do you recall attending?
Can’t say that I do.
Or at the Relief Fund for Russian Orphans meeting, also on East 19th Street?
People see a star and remember forever. A star can’t remember every single show, every party she’s been to.
But you’d go to different parties and entertain?
I HAD TO BE
THE LIFE OF THE PARTY
You wouldn’t even know if these were political gatherings.
NO ONE BUT ME
RIGHT THERE, CENTER STAGE
You would sing ‘em a song–
I’D TELL ‘EM JOKES
BUT NOT STAY AFTER
BOW TO THE FOLKS
BEFORE THEIR LAUGHTER
I’D SLIDE OUT.
I WAS QUITE THE RAGE
Miss Francis, what can you tell us about The Pranksters?
IT WAS A CLUB
AND NOTHING SUBVERSIVE
We have, here, a list–
PICTURE A PUB
POPULATED BY CLOWNS
Could you name some of these “clowns” you met at The Pranksters?
DARTS WOULD FLY
AND SO WOULD QUIPS
What sort of relationships?
A lady doesn’t tell such things.
Then can you explain how your signature landed on this petition calling for the unionization of—
(Cutting him off)
Mr. Congressman, sir: You have my autograph! And I was planning to offer you one once this interview is over.
Miss Francis, I’m not––
So many people want my autograph! I come out of a stage door, and always find a big crowd shouting “Sign this! Sign this!” I try to give as many autographs as possible. You’re saying one ended up on some political piece of paper?
I don’t know much about politics. In those days, like clockwork, every four years I’d cast a ballot for Roosevelt, just like everyone else.
Well, I didn’t.
That’s hardly patriotic of you.
(LAUGHTER is heard. Gavel banging gets it to fade.)
Enough! I’ve heard enough!
This took much less time than I expected. Thank you all so much for such a lovely conversation!