The 1956 holiday season was a’borning when Li’l Abner made its Broadway debut, beginning a successful run of six hundred ninety-three performances. Once it became clear the show was a hit, print outlets wasted little time before presenting millions of readers with coverage of Dogpatch-on-the-stage that often featured photos of Abner‘s energetic dancers and comely leading ladies. In Part 1 we touched upon the lengthy genesis of the musical, which within the industry had a reputation for being the most dangerous production on The Great White Way. (If the risk of injury wasn’t enough. the cast’s many dancers did their stepping amidst the droppings of the various animals on stage during the Dogpatch scenes!) We also featured Frazetta/Capp illustrations of the story’s four main female characters and photos of the actresses who brought them to life, thanks to a feature from the May, 1957 issue of Playboy.
But Playboy was not the only major magazine to give Li’l Abner page-space: Life‘s January 14, 1957 issue presented a cover story on the Yokums’ theatrical adventure. The image below fronted the article, creatively titled “Li’l Abner – Broadway and Dogpatch”:
Standing in front of Salomey the pig is Mammy Yokum, a role originated by Charlotte Rae. Then thirty-one years of age, Rae had previously appeared in two other Broadway offerings and had appeared in a handful of television anthology programs; many remember her best from her 1980s work as Mrs. Garrett in the TV comedies Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life. In a mid-’90s interview, Rae said of her character, “I came to like her very much … [Abner] was a brilliant, wonderful show.” Wonderful or not, Rae departed mid-run for a new opportunity. Mammy’s bright yellow boots were then filled by actress Billie Hayes, whom you may recall as “Witchiepoo” in 1969’s H.R. Pufnstuf children’s show.
Portly Stubby Kaye, who would mark his fortieth birthday before the show closed, had previously worked with Li’l Abner‘s choreographer, Michael Kidd, on the original Guys and Dolls and was known for bringing down the house night after night with his two numbers from that production. Perfect for the part of Marryin’ Sam, he is shown above performing his song, “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” about Dogpatch’s “glorious” founder, which critics uniformly cited as one of Abner‘s major high points. Kaye rang down the curtain on his career in 1988, when he was cast as Marvin Acme in the hit motion picture Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
While concepts from the comic strip — such as the Shmoos, Gat Garson, Tenderleif Ericson, the Kigmies, and scores of others — did not make the leap from the newspaper page to the Broadway boards, no Abner play would be complete without a Sadie Hawkins Day race, which Life featured heavily in their article (click below for a larger image).
When the race begins Abner (foreground) and Dogpatch’s other eligible men are literally running for their bachelorhoods, while Daisy Mae leaps into action. At the far left Apassionata Van Climax — in town under orders to land and marry Abner in order to further the schemes of her sugar daddy, General Bullmoose — is so confident of victory she disdains participating and turns her back on the race. Dogpatch’s other unmarried gals are considerably more eager — and less subtle! — than Apassionata, as the pictures below indicate.
So far we have touched on the major players except the title character himself. Who was cast as everyone’s favorite hillbilly hero, Li’l Abner Yokum?
Finding an actor to fill those often-patched overalls was no simple task. The show’s braintrust auditioned a steady stream of actors, including Andy Griffith, and grew desperate enough to inquire if Elvis himself might be available and willing to take on the role. They eventually focused on Dick Shawn (a decade later, he was a focal point of Mel Brooks’s wonderful film comedy, The Producers), but before Shawn could be officially signed, choreographer Kidd and Norman Panama and Melvin Frank (Abner‘s frontmen), saw Peter Palmer, winning soldier of an Army Talent Competition, command the stage on an episode of Ed Sullivan’s Sunday television variety show.
“That’s Abner,” Kidd is reported as saying to his cohorts.
It took a bit of wrangling — a deal had to be done with the Pentagon to bring about Palmer’s Army discharge two months early — but the six-foot-four twenty-four-year-old fan of Al Capp’s comic strip did indeed bring Li’l Abner to life.
As shown above, Abner’s eyes were blocked to prevent him from being “stupefied” by the irresistible beauty of Stupefyin’ Jones (Julie Newmar), but circumstances never blocked Palmer from playing his part, night after night. Never once did he miss a performance. He was quoted as saying, “The kids in the show taught me what professionalism was. I learned that the only conceivable excuse for not being on stage and doing your part was if you were dead.”
Li’l Abner‘s Broadway run ended on July 12, 1958; a road-show version featuring much of that Broadway cast ran from September of 1958 to just after New Year’s Day, 1959. The play’s financial backer, Paramount Studios, then launched a movie version of the play, which was released two weeks before Christmas. Many actors reprised their theatrical roles — Palmer as Abner, Kaye as Marryin’ Sam, Carmen Alvarez as Moonbeam, Billie Hayes as Mammy Yokum, and of course Julie Newmar as Stupefyin’ Jones — but a certain number of cast changes were inevitable, most notably Stella Stevens (fresh off a Playboy pictorial of her own) replacing Tina Louise as Apassionata Van Climax and newcomer Marjorie Hellen taking the role of Daisy Mae from the then-pregnant Edie Adams. You say you never heard of Marjorie Hellen? Could be you recognize her better by the stage name producers Frank and Panama convinced her to adopt: Leslie Parrish.
Li’l Abner was a success on Broadway and in motion picture houses across America, but its greatest success remains on the newspaper page, where it held sway for more than four decades in the sometimes-infuriating, often-brilliant stories orchestrated by one of the true masters of the comic strip form, cartoonist Al Capp.