Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Norman Rockwell - or, How an American Painter Who Died Seven Years Before I Was Born Is Making Me Doubt Everything I Think I Know About My Past

When I was much younger – 5 or 6 years old, I believe – I was in a musical. It was at a local college – Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, California – and, of course, I only had a few rather minor roles. The musical must have happened in 1990 or ’91.

I don’t remember now exactly how I came to be involved in the play. I think maybe my parents made some sort of connection through church friends and subsequently got me hooked up with it.

If memory serves, I believe the musical at Crafton was called Norman Rockwell’s America, or something very similar. Every scene started with a still reenactment of one of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. The models would then come to life and act out a full scene revolving around the painting. It was a clever idea, at least.

I was in three such scenes. I didn’t have any speaking roles; all I had to do was hold still for a few minutes before the painting came to life. I also did a small dance in one scene.

If you’re curious, here are the three images I portrayed:

(The Runaway, 1958)

I’m 100% sure that this is one of the three pictures I modelled. 

(Family Home from Vacation, 1930)

Again, I’m 100% sure this is the right image. I remember that I was “sleeping” on some sort of a bench, and that I had a white box with a toy frog seemingly about to escape. I especially remember the frog because the director let me keep it after the show was over. 

(Family Grace, 1938)

I have to say I’m only about 75% sure this is the right image. What I remember is that I was sitting with a family around a dinner table praying. I very clearly remember feeling like it was the most boring of the three. I’d have guessed the family was larger, though, and that there was a turkey involved.

That said, Norman Rockwell has another very famous painting, Freedom From Want, which has a larger family and a turkey. However, they aren’t praying in that image, and, perhaps more notably, there’s no little boy whom I could have portrayed – hence why I think Family Grace is more correct.

I also can remember a few random lines of lyrics from some of the songs:

The main theme must have been called Norman Rockwell’s America, which featured the line,

Norman Rockwell’s America 
– let’s give three cheers for this great nation

One song, I imagine, must be called Gossip, Gossip, or something similar.

Gossip, gossip, mean old thing
Most unhappiness it brings
If you can’t say something nice
Then “don’t talk at all” is my advice
Yes, “don’t talk at all” is my advice

There was also a song called At the Hop, which featured a lot of na’s or la’s or bah’s or something along those lines. This is the song I danced in (and, if I remember correctly, which broke off of the scene based on the painting The Runaway). I believe the main line was

Let’s go to the hop, oh baby, let’s go to the hop

And, of course, there was a song about the Saturday Evening Post (the magazine which debuted many of Norman Rockwell’s paintings), which featured the chorus:

Oh, I love the Saturday Evening Post
It’s the magazine I read the most
I think you will discover
If you look beneath the cover
It is more than any other magazine comes close

No clue why/how I still remember these random lines 25 years later. They just stuck, for some reason.


Just this week, I was thinking about this musical again. Though it was about 25 years ago, I wondered if it was perhaps one of those things that someone recorded at the time then uploaded onto Youtube many years later for nostalgia’s sake, or perhaps to make fun of someone else who was in the musical when they were younger – someone like me, hopefully.

After a bit of searching, I couldn’t find any such video on Youtube. That’s okay; I knew it was a long shot.

Now then. All of the background I just explained is merely a prelude. Here’s where my story gets much more tricky:

Not only could I not find any such video of the musical on Youtube, I actually can’t find any evidence of the play existing at all.

After many hours of searching online, I haven’t been able to find a single scrap suggesting that this musical is even a real thing. Here are all of the interesting/relevant items I have discovered, though:


There is, in fact, a musical based on the life and work of Norman Rockwell called ROCKWELL. This musical premiered in Vermont in 1992 – at least one year after my musical of memory.

The same musical was then “re-premiered,” so to speak, with the new name Perfect Picture. This re-premier debuted in 2013.

(Interestingly, the full name of the new version is Perfect Picture: …but was all of this real? What a peculiar name for the topic, especially given my current predicament over this memory I am trying to research.)

Also, in addition to the dates not adding up, the track listing shares nothing in common with my musical 25 years ago.

Definitely not related to my musical. 


Clearly, this approach wasn’t leading me anywhere on my quest to find this illusive musical I was in. I decided that my next step, then, was to work backwards from the music/lyrics that I remembered. And so…

It turns out that At the Hop was actually a famous pop song from 1957 by Danny and the Juniors, which my musical clearly just licensed for the play.

Similarly, Gossip, Gossip is actually entitled, Gossip, Gossip, Evil Thing (not “mean old thing,” as I thought I remembered), and was a calypso song from the 60’s or 70’s by Jester Hairston. It, too, must have simply been licensed for my musical.

Though I can’t find any song entitled Norman Rockwell’s America with the exact line I provided above, I discovered a song called Celebrate America with the line

Celebrate America 
– let’s give three cheers for this great nation

- the only change being “Celebrate” instead of “Norman Rockwell’s.”

This song was written by Mark A. Brymer, but not for the sake of a musical. If this is indeed the same song – and either the words were changed for my musical, or else I’m simply remembering it wrong – then, once again, it must have been licensed. (I can’t seem to find the year Brymer’s song was written/published; it seems to be the right age for the musical, though.)

And, finally, if there’s a song about the Saturday Evening Post magazine, I can’t find any evidence of it online.


Back to searching for the musical itself then, since the music was a dead end.


Ah, but what’s this?

It turns out there is, in fact, a musical called Norman Rockwell’s America, which was written by Alex Mandel!

At last! This must be it, right?

…there is just one small problem, though:

Alex Mandel’s Norman Rockwell’s America first premiered at the Theatreworks New Works Festival in California in 2014.

Yep: two years ago.

And yet I was in a musical called Norman Rockwell’s America about 25 years ago.

All this to say, here are the options I have come to:

  1. Alex Mandel is a plagiarizer, but somehow successfully erased all traces of the play he plagiarized. How very sneaky of him.
  2. The musical I was in was simply some locally-written affair. (Maybe a college student’s assignment? – it was performed at a community college, after all.)
  3. I’m really bad at researching things online and have misunderstood everything I’ve discovered and just don’t know the right places to look for the information I need.
  4. I’m a time traveler and just don’t realize it.
  5. My memory is simply playing tricks on me yet again.

Personally, I’m leaning towards some sort of mixture of #’s 2, 3, and 5.

I’m kind of hoping it’s # 4, though.


Randy McCoach said...

Very nice post. And thanks for the memories of Norman Rockwell paintings. I think there was pancake house here in town with adorned by Rockwell posters.

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