It is the wedding day of little Jennie Saucepan. Rik and Gik, whom we have met before, picnicking on a superhighway ("What's that sign say?" "Speed limit seventy-five miles per hour." "Wonder what that means?"), are ambling down a country lane. "Doesn't seem possibly Jenny Saucepan's old enough already to be gettin' married," says Gik.
"Aaah," says Rik, "she must be eight, eight and a half."
"I hear she's going to wear a wedding cake on her head – to make her look taller."
Rik suddenly realizes they lack a wedding gift; casting around for possibilities (Gik suggests a rock, or a fence post), the pair finally settle on a bullfrog ("And if she's already got one, she can exchange it"). But in attempting to catch the frog, Rik falls into Bottomless Pool and disappears – and so begins the saga of "The Wedding of Jennie Saucepan," the climactic tale on Schoolmates, eight in a series of nine singular, sometimes bizarre, you-could-almost-say "auteurist" children's records that were written, recorded, spoken, sung, played, designed and independently marketed between 1958 and 1971 by the team of Jim Copp and Ed Brown, a.k.a. Playhouse Records. (Rik, who has passed through the Earth, eventually telegraphs from China – pronounced "Chiny" – while riding in a "gin rickey-shaw.")
Originally available exclusively from selected "smart stores" – I. Magnin, Neiman-Marcus, F.A.O. Schwartz, Bloomingdale's, and so on – the albums are now unaggressively vended only by mail from the stacks of remaining inventory stashed in Copp's garage next to his master tapes and a few boxes of old press handouts. The notices these releases reprint are impressive, both for their substance and their sources: raves from Time, The New Yorker, Saturday Review and the New York Times, as well as from Redbook and Parents. "Copp and Brown," avers the Time review of Thimble Corner, "are to Kidiscs what the early UPA [creators of Gerald McBoing-Boing and Mr. Magoo] was to film cartooning," a sentiment echoed to the letter by the Times in its piece lauding Gumdrop Follies. The point is that these LPs represented – and represent now – an oasis of "intelligence" in the arid wasteland of children's entertainments.
Copp and Brown, though they strive always for clarity – speeches and songs are pronounced with the deliberate precision of a Rotarian orator – never talk down to their wee audience. Words such as bagatelle, bedraggled, burlesque, gauche, precipice, velocipede and inauspicious are freely dispensed, and with some relish. A toy soldier in one story is made French just for the sake of rhyming "sewer" with "Au secours." Much of their work merits comparison to the verse of Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and A.A. Milne and to the Rootabaga Stories of Carl Sandburg. But the attitude is less gee-whiz, less reverential of capital-C Childhood – closer really to Rocky and Bullwinkle or to Roald Dahl, who did not scruple to let a little boy's parents be eaten by a rhinoceros on the first page of his James and the Giant Peach. And though the albums contain some lovely word/soundscapes – a cloudy afternoon in the park turning to rain, an alphabetical drive in the country, a child trying to stay awake until dawn – the proceedings are generally antic (which is not to say "frantic"). And occasionally they are gruesome, as in the story of Little Claude, whose parents lock him in the attic and leave for the Caribbean (and drown), or when the Glup Family visit the Chicago stockyards, where they see and we hear the decapitation (by "slicer") of pigs and sheep and cows heading for slaughter on an "endless belt." ("But think what nice meat they'll make," says Mrs. Glup to little Glue.)
"We got awful criticism from people who didn't approve of the records," says Jim Copp, who wrote the stories, scripts and songs, composed and performed the incidental music and captured or created the many and myriad sound effects. (Co-performer and business partner Ed Brown, who died in 1978, designed the album jackets, a few of which can double as a board game or as a toy theater.) "There were the Christian Scientists, who didn't like any mention of sickness or death. There were people who thought it was terrible that Kate Higgins kicked her mother in the knee. And one group didn't like any mention of fires. But I don't think anything we did ever hurt anybody."
Copp began as a nightclub comic in the early 1940s, splitting bills at Manhattan's Cafe Society with the likes of Art Tatum and Billie Holiday, playing piano and telling "crazy stories," some of which later found their way onto the Playhouse discs. After a hitch fighting in the Second World War, he worked briefly again in New York, then returned to his native Los Angeles, where, for several years, he wrote and illustrated for the Los Angeles Times a snappy society column entitled "Skylarking with James Copp." Finally, with his friend Mr. Brown, he began to assemble the LPs that would occupy him full-time for more than a decade.
Working at home with three Ampex tape machines, a piano, pump organ and celeste, Copp, with Brown, conjured an improbably plausible, oddball version of Anywhere, USA, stretching from Thimble Croner to Somewhere East of Flumdiddle. Among the citizenry: the Dog Who Went To Yale (where he died of the croup); the Man in the Union Suit (a recurring deus ex machina); the Hen with the Low IQ; Mr. and Mrs. Destitute; the forgetful Martha Matilda O'Toole (whose adventure became a picture book in the late '60s); Miss Goggins, a shrieking, despotic fourth-grade teacher with a fetish for group singing, who appears on four of the nine LPs and stands as the most subversive of Copp's creations; and the terminally provincial Glups ("I thought all planes fly to Maine"), who rate two albums all their own, Journey to San Francisco with the Glups and Sea of Glup – my favorites. In the midst of all this there are frequent exhortations to "dance, come on, everybody dance... and bark like dogs."
To shop for children's records in the late '80s is, with few exceptions, to face a choice between the meretricious and the insipid: dull vinyl adventures of cartoon characters that should never have even reached television, on the one hand; too-well-intentioned troubadours singing bland songs of brotherly love and service industries, on the other (with second-rate retellings of the hoariest of fairy tales hanging in between). In most cases, the Mark of the Grown-Up is heavily apparent, for even the shoddiest of the toy/TV/film tie-ins tend to posit the rather mundane, orderly, morally cogent and perfectly unreal world parents would like their children to inhabit, rather than the world they actually do: a world of random mayhem, easy surrealism and sensory excitement. It's the difference, essentially, between "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Pee Wee's Playhouse," that bright anomaly in a field now dominated by psychologists, PACs and market researchers. Copp and Brown likewise steer the unpredictable, the zigzag course: They point their characters in the wrong direction, given them useless baggage, trap them in garbage, throw them off cliffs, off trains, feed them to cannibals; they call forth freak storms, floods and flat tires; they sink ocean liners; they set father against son and mother against daughter, then they stand back and watch the ruckus. And they do not always bother to smooth the waters afterward.
This rings true in a way that the too-careful, over-considered offerings of the present child-proof era cannot. Maybe that's one reason why these records are available only through the mail. Nearly 30 years after the first Playhouse release, and more than 15 after the last, Copp's creations remain potent and peculiar: "It seemed to me that when you do adult records they're going to be popular for a little while and then they're dead; [I thought] maybe if I did children's records, they'd go on and on."
And the orders continue, slowly but steadily to arrive.