Our ninth Li’l Abner volume saw the dreams of Daisy Mae Scragg come true on March 29, 1952, when she at last became Mrs. Abner Yokum. The dreams of Abner‘s creator, cartoonist Al Capp, were considerably more grandiose in scope — he was in the midst of working out a deal to bring a top-flight musical version of his comic strip to Broadway. It would take him three more years to make his dreams a reality.
Capp’s quest for The Great White Way began shortly after the end of World War II, when the project attracted Richard Rogers, of Rogers and Hammerstein fame. Rogers’s claim on the material expired the same year Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae were wed, and Al attached the musical to an enthusiastic Alan Jay Lerner (whose credits already included Brigadoon on stage, plus the Oscar-winning script for An American in Paris on screen). For a variety of reasons, Lerner’s efforts to mount an Abner production failed to get off the ground. It was 1955 before Lerner officially bowed out, leaving Paramount Pictures to consummate a deal with Capp. In a mid-20th Century example of multi-media synergy the studio financed the Broadway show and followed it with a movie version of the play. Capp finally achieved his goal, and for more than two decades — until 1977’s Annie eventually eclipsed its run — the Li’l Abner musical’s six hundred ninety-three performances made it far and away the longest-running Broadway musical based on a comic strip,
The thriving newspaper and magazine industries were eager to fill column-inches with coverage of the play after it launched to mixed-but-generally-favorable reviews on November 15, 1956. Hollywood pros Melvin Frank and Norman Panama honchoed the production (it was their sole Broadway venture), with choreography by Michael (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) Kidd, music by Gene de Paul, and lyrics by songwriter and co-founder of Capitol Records Johnny Mercer — but the print outlets were more interested in the play’s cast members than in the behind-the-curtain talent.
Playboy‘s May 1957 issue contained a feature focused, not surprisingly, on the show’s female headliners. The image above, coupled with a brief text introduction attributed to Capp, fronted the piece. In-character photos of four of the actresses were accompanied by pen-and-ink renditions of the characters they played; these pieces were drawn by young Frank Frazetta, who worked as an assistant to Al Capp at the time (Capp finished each of these Playboy drawings by supplying the face of the woman in question).
Twenty-year-old Carmen Alvarez assayed the role of Moonbeam McSwine, and it appears to have been the apex of her career, since only a handful of other roles are listed in her credits. The same cannot be said for her lady co-stars.
The upscale redhead decked out in red is Apassionata Van Climax, played by Tina Louise, who of course is best known as “the movie star,” Ginger Grant, on TV’s Gilligan’s Island (far from her favorite role, based on years of behind-the-scenes writing about that series). Though only twenty-two years old on Li’l Abner‘s opening night, Tina had already appeared in other Broadway productions and was making her first television appearances as well. “I saw her as Judy Holliday-ish,” the actress said of her character, the gal-pal of mover-and-shaker General Bullmoose. Frazetta and Capp clearly saw Apassionata as having a different use for furs than did the stage production’s costumers.
A decade before wowing small screen audiences as Batman’s original Catwoman, then twenty-three-year-old Julie Newmar had only one brief scene in Abner as “Stupefyin’ Jones,” the girl with a figure so amazing it stupefies any male who sets eyes on her. Like Tina Louise, Julie already had theatrical credits on her resume prior to Abner, having appeared the previous year in the original Broadway production of Silk Stockings, and it seems her role as Stupefyin’ Jones stupefied some theater-goers, too — Norman Panama and Melvin Frank always claimed Newmar’s presence helped sell more than a few tickets to the show.
Assaying the part of Daisy Mae, comedienne, actress, and singer Edith “Edie” Adams was a natural; she was quoted as saying, “I was a fan of Al Capp’s comic strip. His characters weren’t just spouting platitudes; they were satirical symbols.” She was also the wife of that pioneer of television comedy, Ernie Kovacs, and she gleefully played along with and played “straightman” for several of his projects. Having signed on early, Edie was less than thrilled when she got the play’s script, which provided little meat for the Daisy Mae role and left her feeling like “an ornament,” as she would characterize it. Still, she was a pro and dealt with both her dearth of “playable dialogue” and the intense physical requirements of the production. Of all the lead players, Edie was fated to spend almost every scene barefooted, executing demanding dance numbers without supporting footwear and sometimes amidst the leavings of the various animals who were also on stage to lend Dogpatch its properly rustic appearance. Adams was awarded a Tony Award in the category of Best Actress in a Musical, but by the time she left the show her feet had grown one full size. Always quick with a quip, husband Kovacs noted this condition by remarking, “Many an actress has gotten a swelled head playing a starring role, but Edie’s the first to get swelled feet.”
Playboy was not the only print outlet to try attracting readers with a story about Li’l Abner‘s Broadway success. Next time in this space we’ll offer up a look at the coverage Life gave the play in its January 14, 1957 issue, discuss other aspects of the production, and feature a few other cast members — some of them are even male!