By the mid-fifties, Al Capp's newspaper strip was a part of American consciousness. Li'l Abner had been celebrated on
magazine covers, a feature film, comic books, a series of theatrical cartoons and more merchandise than you could shake a Shmoo at. Still, an
area that especially interested Capp remained unconquered: The Broadway stage. All that changed the night of November 15, 1956 when the musical
version of Li'l Abner opened at the St. James Theater. Its 693 performances there made it the most successful Broadway musical at the
time, ever derived from a comic or cartoon character (Annie later bested its record) and one of the few to have the blessing of the strip's
Critics called it a natural...but not long before, there had been a time when it looked like the Yokum child would never make it to the
Great White Way. In 1952, the stage rights were acquired by author-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. In a '71 letter to this author, he penned,
"I read [Capp's] comic strip and I thought, 'Here's a simple comic strip and yet, he manages to say so much, to encapsulate so many observant and
pithy ideas in so little space each day.' I saw Abner as a kind of Good Soldier Schweik, stumbling his way happily through a world of
ostensibly more sophisticated evils and machinations, triumphant because of his essential, naïve goodness."
Capp had been previously been approached by an array of producers and would-be producers. An option had briefly been held by
Richard Rodgers but he had allowed it to lapse and Capp was wary about entrusting the stage rights to someone who would not act on them. Lerner
had won a Drama Critics' Award in 1947 for Brigadoon and just taken home an Academy Award for the screenplay for An American in Paris
so Capp had every reason to expect a successful, quality production.
But the new rights-holder soon proved even less likely to bring forth a show than Rodgers had been, thanks to Lerner's perennial
Writer's Block. It plagued him on every show he attempted, before or after, but never as thoroughly as on Abner. He was recovering
from bouts of encephalitis and spinal meningitis and coping with the death of his father. "I struggled for months," he later wrote, "trying to
radiate optimism and yet knowing in the dark hours of the morning that I was munching on 'alien corn.'"
Lerner finally abandoned the project, turning his attention instead to a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's
Pygmalion. Rechristened My Fair Lady, it became the most acclaimed musical in the history of the American Theater.
Lerner's option on Li'l Abner expired in early 1955. Capp himself took a stab at cobbling up a script but soon abandoned the
challenge, deciding he was out of his element. Instead, he fielded inquiries and offers from at least a dozen producers before choosing an
offer for a Broadway show and subsequent movie from Paramount Pictures. One reason was the team that Paramount offered, including the famous
writing-producing (and, sometimes, directing) team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, choreographer-producer Michael Kidd and the songwriting skills
of Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul. The latter three had been responsible for the recent Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and its rustic
style was not far removed from what it would require to musicalize Dogpatch.
And there was an additional inducement for Capp: A choice role in a Paramount film. Panama and Frank wrote him into the Bob Hope
movie, That Certain Feeling, playing himself. "They came east to see me about six months ago," Capp told an interviewer while filming
his part. "They asked me who I might suggest to play the role of Al Capp. My first suggestion, of course, was Tyrone Power...they felt
more that they needed a sort of older Wallace Beery. We finally compromised on me because I would be cheapest and so I came out and did play
myself with only 46 years of rehearsal."
In late 1955, Paramount announced the acquisition of the stage and film rights to Capp's strip. Hollywood Reporter
reported that "the deal is said to involve over $300,000" but with no explanation as to what that figure covered.
During their incredible careers, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank were as inseparable as they were successful. They became lifelong
friends in 1933 while attending the University of Chicago and decided to form a team and attempt to become playwrights when they graduated in
1935. "The car had been parked pointing the wrong way so we headed for California instead of New York," Panama recalls.
There, they went to work writing jokes for Milton Berle (who would later serve as a titular producer on the unrelated, low budget 1940
Li'l Abner feature). It was Bob Hope who spoiled them by offering more money, stealing Panama and Frank away from Berle and beginning a
longtime relationship. They would later write (and sometimes, produce) several of Hope's movies, including The Road to Utopia, Monsieur
Beaucaire and The Facts of Life.
The film career of Panama and Frank began when, in 1941, they sold an original story entitled My Favorite Spy to Paramount for a
Hope film. In the next few years, they wrote, among other hits, Happy-Go-Lucky, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Mr. Blandings Builds His
Dream House and White Christmas. In 1954, they wrote, produced and directed a Danny Kaye musical called Knock on Wood.
During the writing, they paid a visit to New York where they caught a production of the Cole Porter musical, Can-Can. They immediately
signed its choreographer, Michael Kidd, for the upcoming Danny Kaye movie.
Michael Kidd had left Broadway a choreographer but he would return, a director. Kidd majored in chemical engineering at New
Utrecht High School in Brooklyn and City College but his first love was dancing. By 1942, he was one of the mainstays of the Ballet Theatre,
where his work drew critical acclaim and earned him the job of choreographing Finian's Rainbow for Broadway. This led to Guys and
Dolls — on stage and screen — and Can-Can, as well as the movies of Where's Charley? and The Band Wagon.
His masterpiece, however — and a high-point in the annals of movie choreography — was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with its
lusty, athletic dancing.
To supply the music and lyrics for the residents of Dogpatch, Paramount turned to Kidd's collaborators from Seven Brides.
Gene de Paul had written songs and scores for more than fifty movies by that time, including an Oscar nomination for a song in the 1942
Hellzapoppin' and songs for Disney's Alice in Wonderland and Ichabod and Mr. Toad.
Johnny Mercer was one of the most successful writers of popular lyrics in the music business. As of 1944, he claimed to have
written words to more than 5,000 songs with an amazing ratio of hits, including "Lazybones," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," "Laura," "Blues
in the Night," "That Old Black Magic," "Accentuate the Positive," "Autumn Leaves" and "Something's Got to Give."
Mercer and de Paul won Oscars in 1954 for their work on Seven Brides, arguably one of the great movie musicals of all
time. (In 1982, the respected producer, Larry Kasha, would adapt Seven Brides for the Broadway stage; one of Kasha's first jobs in show
business was as Stage Manager for Li'l Abner.)
Panama and Frank had never abandoned their dream of having a show on Broadway; this would be their chance and, as it turned out, only
attempt. They quickly set to work and accomplished in three months what Alan Jay Lerner had not been able to achieve in three years.
Immersing themselves in piles of old Abner strips supplied by Capp's syndicate, they quickly made two key decisions. One was to
adhere to a simple classic structure. Said Frank, "The one form of the theater which is distinctly and uniquely American is American farce, in
which there is a character called the Jonathan character...Jonathan plays always had a stock character who came down out of the backwoods and into a
big town...he was put on by the city sharpies and used because of some particular quality that he had which they needed. They used him for
their own evil ends until he, through native shrewdness, outwitted them and came out ahead and won the girl." Panama and Frank had used the
model before but never so effectively as in Li'l Abner.
The other decision, critical to the project's success, was to regress Abner history. Capp had allowed Abner and his beloved Daisy
Mae to wed in 1950. It was the single most memorable moment in the strip's existence, even making the cover of Life. Realizing
that, as Panama puts it, "Every musical needs a love story where the guy gets the girl," they chose to start their play with Abner and Daisy Mae
unwed and to close with a wedding, not necessarily paralleling Capp's storyline in the strip. They devised a plot which would incorporate many
of the running bits and characters of the strip. "A 'given' was that there had to be a Sadie Hawkins Day ballet," explains Panama. "We
promised Michael Kidd." They flirted briefly with incorporating the Shmoo character via some form of puppetry but decided the scenario was
already bursting with colorful characters without that.
The story they fashioned found Abner Yokum, as ever more interested in fishing than in the affections of Daisy Mae Scragg, involved in
a government plan to use Dogpatch for nuclear testing.
In the town square, beneath a statue of local war hero, General Jubilation T. Cornpone, the citizenry rallies to forestall the
annihilation of their copacetic home town. In the process, the government learns about Mammy Yokum's special Yokumberry Tonic — a wonder
drug (it seems) that builds muscular bodies such as Abner's. Scientists in Washington begin testing Mammy's potion to see if it does what it
purports to do, the concept being that Dogpatch can be spared if something "necessary" comes out of it.
Word of the tonic leaks to General Bullmoose, a caricature of the worst of American business, who seeks to fulfill his simple childhood
wish-dream of possessing all the money in the world. That means getting control of (and the formula for) the tonic. To that end,
Bullmoose schemes to get his concubine, the breathy, well-endowed Appassionata Von Climax, married to Abner...after which event, the suicide of Abner
will be "arranged." Bullmoose arranges for her to enter the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race in Dogpatch, where the women chase the men and can
marry whatever they catch. Appassionata and Daisy Mae both compete to snare the fleet-footed Abner, while Daisy Mae also attempts to not
catch the amorous Earthquake McGoon, proudly self-described as "The World's Dirtiest Wrassler."
Via skillful cheating (arranged by the master of the paralyzing whammy, Evil-Eye Fleagle), Appassionata nabs the young Yokum and he is
spirited back to Washington for the nuptials. Learning that Abner's life is in danger, Daisy Mae agrees to marry the dirty wrestler if he will
use his brute strength to help rescue her beloved. He heartily agrees and, with the aid of McGoon (and most of Dogpatch), Abner is saved and
Bullmoose gets what's coming to him.
But the tonic, it turns out, is a disaster. True, it makes men tall and muscular (like Abner) but it also drains them of all
romantic interest (like Abner). The plan to nuke Dogpatch is reinstated...but it is later called off — this time, permanently —
when it is discovered that the statue of Jubilation T. Cornpone in the Dogpatch town square is a national shrine and, therefore, protected under
It therefore remains for Earthquake McGoon to call off his wedding to Daisy Mae — which he does, after seeing the legions of
Daisy Mae's relatives who intend to move in with the happy (?) couple. No such in-law fears trouble Abner however; he finally overcomes his
romantic inhibitions to marry the comely Daisy Mae in a very happy, smartly-choreographed ending.
Capp had minimal involvement in the script and none whatsoever in the casting or rehearsals. He said, in a 1956 newspaper
interview, "They were all manufacturing an Abner musical comedy which is to precede an Abner movie. I was to serve as a consultant for all of
them and I'm a telephone consultant. You're within reach of a phone in barbershops in California, in rest rooms, in restaurants. There's
nowhere there isn't a phone and I have consulted...like having Mercer call me and say, 'How would Earthquake McGoon express amorous interest in Daisy
Mae, and what word would he use?' And I'd suggest 'tangle' and this would complete my work for the day."
Shortly after completing That Certain Feeling, Panama and Frank relocated to New York to begin casting. Kidd joined them
there and the casting directors, working with Capp sketches, began seeking out the required types.
The quickest bit of casting came over the role of Daisy Mae. The popular singer and comedienne Edie Adams heard about the project
and had her agent contact the producers.
Long a fan of the comic strip, Adams had even won a contest in her high school days, dressing up as Daisy Mae for a Sadie Hawkins Day
dance. "I was a fan of Al Capp's comic strip," she wrote in her autobiography, Sing a Pretty Song. "His characters weren't just
spouting platitudes; they were satirical symbols."
Intrigued as others were at its musical possibilities, she had tracked the rights as they passed from producer to producer. When
she heard that the version by Panama and Frank would be directed by Michael Kidd and that it was definite for Broadway, she began a fierce campaign
to win the role. She was especially excited that Johnny Mercer, "one of my heroes," would be handling the lyrics.
Adams' husband, comic genius Ernie Kovacs, was friendly with cartoonist Milton Caniff. She had Ernie phone Caniff to phone Capp
to watch an appearance she was making on Ed Sullivan's TV program. She was impersonating Marilyn Monroe, and that did not seem far
removed from Daisy Mae. Then the following week, she met with Panama, Frank and Kidd. "I again carefully dressed myself as I imagined
Marilyn would if she wanted to play this part. Top-to-toe beige: hair, curvaceous sweater-dress, stockings, shorty gloves, bag and shoes.
They took one look and the part was mine. I didn't even have to sing for them." She was billed as Edith Adams.
Edith Adams would soon wonder if she'd made the right decision. Alone among the participants, she found the script insufficient,
especially her part. "Daisy was an ornament," she later wrote, "hanging on Abner's arm in every scene, no matter what the action. In a
possible acting range of ten, poor Daisy seemed to reach no more than a three." Throughout rehearsals, she contented herself that, when Al Capp
arrived and added his input to the production, his magnificent satirical flair would appear. But when Capp arrived for the show's Washington,
D.C. tryout, he added nothing and she had to content herself with her role, as written. "To have a leading role and carry a show with no
playable dialogue written for you was more than an acting challenge."
An equally formidable challenge came from the physical demands of the show, particularly the fact that, apart from one party scene,
Daisy Mae was barefoot throughout. This was hard on the feet...and potentially messy, given the number of chickens, dogs and pigs who filled
the stage in the Dogpatch scenes. The other dancers (who got to wear shoes in most scenes) were forever whispering warnings of animal droppings
to one another. All the dancers experienced injuries — it was said to be the most dangerous show on Broadway to perform — but Adams
wound up with perhaps the most lasting: By the time she closed in the role, her feet were a size larger and she had to throw out a dozen pairs of
Italian shoes. Her husband Ernie commented, "Many an actress has gotten a swelled head playing a starring role but Edie's the first to get
But if finding Daisy Mae was easy, obtaining an Abner proved impossible for a time. Actor after actor auditioned for the role and
the casting directors continually broadened their search area, seeking someone who was tall and muscular and who could sing. "We started to
panic," Panama later recalled. "No matter how good the rest of the show was, no matter how good the rest of the cast was, we knew that without
a strong Abner, we were dead." After an exhaustive search that involved auditioning Andy Griffith and inquiring on the availability of Elvis
Presley, they settled on the best available candidate, actor-comedian Dick Shawn.
"We weren't completely satisfied with Shawn," Panama remembers. He lacked the brawny musculature that Kidd, Panama and Frank all
felt was essential to the role, especially given the show's plotline. Shawn agreed to spend time at a gymnasium and costume designer Alvin Colt
began to plan how the actor's physique might be enhanced with padding and shoe lifts.
Shawn's manager reminded his client that a hit show could mean a year or more of solid work and suggested that Shawn take a vacation
before rehearsals commenced. The actor departed for the Bahamas, thinking he would begin work on the show upon his return.
The following Sunday evening, Kidd, Frank and Panama were watching Steve Allen's TV show on NBC. A commercial came on and, on a
whim, Frank changed the channel over to see what was on Ed Sullivan's competing show on CBS. The threesome heard Sullivan introduce a young
soldier who had won the All-Army Talent Competition. A handsome enlisted man took the stage and proceeded to sing "Granada" in spectacular
"That's Abner," Kidd gasped. Indeed, apart from his blonde hair, the singer looked more the part of Abner Yokum than Dick Shawn
did...and his singing was vastly superior. The next day, a secretary spent several hours on the phone, tracking down the future star of Li'l
Abner. His name was Peter Palmer.
Born in Milwaukee and reared in St. Louis, Peter Palmer became a Missouri All-Star football tackle and attended the University of
Illinois. There, he became the first music major to win a letter in football and probably the only gridiron hero to sing the National Anthem
before games. Fresh out of college, he won a Chicago radio contest and that led him to Hollywood where most of the major studios butted heads,
trying to sign him to contracts. Instead, he enlisted in the service.
Palmer's appearance on Ed Sullivan's program was but one stop in a tour of military installations. "When I got home," he
recalls. "There was a message from my wife in San Antonio. She had all these messages from some producers in New York. We didn't
have a phone so they'd called our neighbors.
"I called them back collect and Mel and Norman got on the phone — one was on an extension — and they said they were
producing this show and they asked, 'Do you know who we are?' And I said no. And then they said, 'It's going to be directed by Michael
Kidd. Do you know who that is?' And I said no.
"They asked me if I knew the comic strip and I said yes, it was my favorite. It really was but it had never occurred to me that I
might someday play Abner.
"They paid for tickets so my brother and I could fly to New York. I was in my Army uniform and they had me read for them and sing
and take my shirt off so they could see if I had real muscles, which I did." Palmer was 24 years old at the time. He was 6'4" and weighed
220 pounds. With his hair dyed black, he looked like he'd stepped right out of an Al Capp drawing. Panama and Frank had to call in favors
in Washington to arrange for Palmer to receive his discharge two months early so he could join the cast.
Soon after, Dick Shawn returned from the Bahamas to the news that he didn't have the role he'd thought he had. He was angry but
he eventually made the best of the situation by using it in his club act. "Dick and I became friends," Palmer recalls. "He'd kid me about
it all. He'd sometimes do ten minutes in his show about how he was laying on the beach in the Bahamas while Peter Palmer was taking his
job." (Shawn reportedly told several people that Palmer was infinitely better in the role than he would have been.)
Setting the rest of the cast was easier. Stubby Kaye had made his name on Broadway with his role in Guys n' Dolls.
Every night, he stopped the show with "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" and was later called upon to recreate his performance in the film version
with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. Michael Kidd was the choreographer of both and, when he proposed Kaye for the role of Marrying Sam in
Abner, there was instant agreement. Mercer and de Paul took it as a personal challenge to write a song for Sam that would have the impact
of Stubby's Guys n' Dolls number and, with "Jubilation T. Cornpone," they were not unsuccessful. Stubby (his real first name remains one
of the great secrets of show business) was 5'7" and weighed 250 pounds when he did Abner. Peter Palmer recalls having to go through
Stubby's dressing room several times a night to get to his own. "He'd sit there, stuffing down candy bars for energy, moaning, 'I can't seem to
lose any weight.'" Kaye's show business career continues to this day, his most notable recent credit being a showy role in Who Framed Roger
Earthquake McGoon, the self-styled "World's Dirtiest Wrassler" had actually been a wrestler in college before turning to acting.
Bern Hoffman had made his Broadway debut in 1944 in the first show for which he ever auditioned, The Merry Widow. He later played
opposite Mae West in Catherine Was Great and originated the role of Joey Biltmore in Guys n' Dolls. He was playing opposite Andy
Griffith in the Broadway production of No Time for Sergeants when he heard about the Abner show from his Guys n' Dolls co-star,
Stubby Kaye, and had his agent submit him. Like many members of the Abner cast, he would relocate in Hollywood for the movie version and
would opt to reside there. At the time of his death in 1979, he had racked up more than 900 movie and TV appearances.
Howard St. John made his Broadway debut in 1925 in Nocturne. His acting career included more that thirty plays and thirty
movies, the latter including Goodbye, My Fancy with Joan Crawford, The Tender Trap and Fate is the Hunter. He won critical
acclaim for his role as an alcoholic attorney in Born Yesterday, a role he also played on Broadway. His part in Abner as the
filthy-rich General Bullmoose was a rare opportunity to play broad comedy and, in an interview shortly before his death in 1974, he said he regarded
it as a high-point in his life.
Charlotte Rae began her show business career in New York doing satirical songs and poems on the club circuit. Her Broadway debut
came with Abe Burrows' Three Wishes for Jamie, a short-lived musical. She followed it with Threepenny Opera and then did her
darnedest not to win the role in Abner that would represent her greatest stage success. "I auditioned for it but I didn't want to
play Mammy Yokum," she later explained. "When they offered me the part, I asked my lawyer what I should do. He said to ask for a
ridiculous amount of money. I did and I wound up playing Mammy Yokum. I came to like her very much...it was a brilliant, wonderful
show." Rae would later gain even greater fame with showy roles in movies (including Hair and Woody Allen's Bananas) and with
several long-running TV series, including Diff'rent Strokes and Facts of Life.
Joe E. Marks, her Pappy Yokum, had been in show business since 1910 as an actor and variety performer. For over twenty years, he
was a star comedian in burlesque, often co-billed with the likes of Bert Lahr and Leon Errol. His other most famous role was as Smee, Captain
Hook's craven sidekick in the Mary Martin version of Peter Pan.
Ted Thurston, who played Senator Jack S. Phogbound, was a former opera singer and synagogue cantor. Li'l Abner was but one
of twenty-five Broadway productions; his resume also included Kismet, Paint Your Wagon and Most Happy Fella, the last of which he left
for his role in Abner.
Al Nesor, who played Evil-Eye Fleagle, was a veteran of burlesque and the Borscht Belt circuit as both a dancer and comic. He had
played Benny Southstreet in Guys n' Dolls and a gangster in a 1955 revival of Kiss Me, Kate. Following his role on stage and
screen in Abner, he appeared in several movies, including No Way to Treat a Lady and the legendary Santa Claus Conquers the
William Lanteau, who played Available Jones, always regarded his "Abner" role fondly, citing it as one of his two favorite
characters. The other was as the caretaker in On Golden Pond, a role, like Available, that he originated on the stage and repeated for
the film version. He worked steadily in television until his death in 1993 at age 70, including a recurring role on The Bob Newhart Show
and a recently-completed role on Cheers.
Stanley Simmonds, playing Dr. Finsdale, had logged two-year runs in Silk Stockings, Call Me Madam, The Chocolate Soldier and in
the national company of High Button Shoes, playing the role originated on Broadway by his look-alike, Phil Silvers. He was also Silvers'
stand-in for the Sgt. Bilko TV series for a time.
The role of Appassionata Von Climax, General Bullmoose's well-kept lady friend, went to Tina Louise. Abner was her third
Broadway show and the role came about while she was starring in an episode of the TV anthology, Producers Showcase. Her agent sent her
to read for the role in Abner. She later recalled, "I had to do it on my lunch hour and I was rushed. Everything went wrong.
I brought along my own bongo and piano players but when I sang, I started off in the wrong key and got all fouled up." Panama, Frank and Kidd
thought her reading was funny, though. "I saw her as Judy Holliday-ish," she would later say of Appassionata. "By the time we got to
Boston, she was more childlike than flip...and that's the way she remained." Louise would later gain fame as glamour girl Ginger Grant in the
TV situation comedy, Gilligan's Island.
Perhaps the most publicized member of the cast had not a single line or song...nor did her role even figure much into the plot.
What Julie Newmar did have — Panama and Frank would later credit it with selling a lot of tickets — was the most spectacular figure on
the Great White Way.
Born and originally billed as Julie Newmeyer, she made her professional bow at age 15 as prima ballerina for the Los Angeles Opera
Company. Hollywood snatched her up for movie musicals and she was featured in many, including Seven Brides, where she worked with
Michael Kidd. Her Broadway debut came in Silk Stockings and, when she heard about the Abner musical, she went to see Panama and
Frank, suggesting that, at 5'10", she could play Long Sam from the strip. And she could have...but the playwrights had omitted that character
from their scenario. Instead, they cast her as Stupefyin' Jones. "She was just spectacular," Panama says. Though she already had
considerable stage and screen experience, her "stupefyin'" presence catapulted her further into stardom.
Kidd cast energetic, young dancers (including Dee Dee Wood, Tony Mordente and Marc Breaux, all of whom would become top choreographers)
and rehearsals commenced. Kidd approached directing actors with the goal of letting them discover their own approaches. "Michael Kidd
left me alone a lot," Palmer remembers. "He was leading me down a tunnel, keeping me from bouncing off the walls. If I went too far, he
was there to pull me back but, basically, he let me discover how to play the part, which was to play him as a perfectly normal twelve-year-old who
happened to be in the body of an eighteen-year-old. I started to find ways to convey who Abner was. Like, one day in rehearsals, I got
the hat that I was going to wear in one scene. It was the scene where Tina Louise is standing there in this low-cut dress with her boobs
sticking out. At one point, everybody is looking at them and I took the hat off and put it across my heart and everybody laughed so it stayed
While Broadway history is littered with tales of shows undergoing major rewrites during out-of-town tryouts, the troubles of
Abner were mostly a matter of length. According to Palmer, "What debuted on Broadway was pretty close to the script we started with, only
cut. When we debuted in Washington with it, the reviews were good but the show went from 8:00 to a quarter-to-one. The main reviewer
said, 'It's great but take a lunch with you.'"
Much of the trimming involved the elimination of songs. "You'll notice Mammy Yokum doesn't have a number in the show," Palmer
notes. "They wrote several of them — I think there must have been four or five — but they kept getting cut. Charlotte Rae
didn't quite get the part she was playing. She kept asking Michael Kidd, 'What's my motivation?' And every time she asked that, she'd
lose a number in the show. Several solo turns for Appassionata were also written, rehearsed and then jettisoned.
Two songs which actually got before audiences were cut between Washington and New York: "The Way to a Man's Heart" and "It's a Nuisance
Having You Around." When Mercer and de Paul had finished the latter, Paramount's music department had pegged it as a sure-fire hit and arranged
for Rosemary Clooney to record it. (Mario Lanza recorded "Love in a Home," the big Abner/Daisy Mae tune.)
But one song was lengthened: Stubby's "Jubilation T. Cornpone" number in Act One left the audience cheering for more. Mercer
quickly penned verses for an encore and to reprise the song at the end of the show. (Another tune, "There's Room Enough For Us," was added
three weeks after the Broadway opening.)
As noted, Capp first viewed the musicalization of his characters in Washington. There was great tension preceding his
arrival...and dread of what could occur if he hated what he saw. The worries were unfounded; Capp voiced his approval of everything and made
only the most minor of suggestions. "Mostly, he pointed out things that were different from the strip," Panama recalls. "But he made it
clear that though the strip was his, the show was ours and he was only making suggestions."
Following the Washington tryout, Li'l Abner moved to Boston where notices were largely negative. "The main critic panned
the show...said it was terrible," Palmer remembers. "There was a lot of panic. Mercer and de Paul came in and said that what the show
needed was more songs so they disappeared into a hotel room and came out with two new songs the next day." One of those was apparently
"Necessity," a second act turn that everyone thought was sensational. But Musical Director Lehman Engel argued that it stopped the storyline at
a point where there audience was eager to see matters resolved. Panama, Frank and Kidd had to agree and the song was reluctantly abandoned.
By the time they moved to New York, everyone was happy with the show...well, almost everyone. Edie Adams still unhappy
with the size of her role. Says Palmer, "She was great to work with — a real professional — but she had first billing and she felt
her part wasn't large enough." To appease her, a new song for Daisy Mae and Marryin' Sam — "Past My Prime" — went in, the night
before the show opened for previews on Broadway.
Finally, on November 15, Li'l Abner opened. Critical reaction was mixed. Brooks Atkinson, in the all-important
New York Times verdict wrote, "If everyone in Li'l Abner were as talented as Michael Kidd, everything would be as brilliant as the
ballets, and probably the world would be gayer, too. But it is difficult to make a fluent musical romance out of some characters who may have
hearts of gold but are not very bright in the upper story."
Walter Kerr, in the Herald Tribune, observed, "It's all done with zip and zingo, and I guess you could say the show was a
rip-snorting, ring-tailed roarer, all right."
Notices were generally favorable for the songs, dancing and the actors but even the negative reviews conceded the show had
audience-pleasing elements. The Sadie Hawkins Day ballet, which closed Act One, drew unanimous praise.
Still, Edie Adams remained so negative about her role that she thought it a waste of time to attend the Tony Awards, despite her
nomination. She would ever after be thankful to friends who persuaded her to attend; she took home the award for Best Actress in a
Musical. To this day, it remains one of her fondest honors and she credits the Broadway community with recognizing the handicap which she
perceived her role to involve.
The show ran for almost 700 performances in New York and many more in subsequent tours. Palmer never missed a performance: "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." Throughout a long run, many actors face the challenge of keeping their work from getting sloppy. Palmer had the
opposite challenge: "I tried to play Abner as physically awkward. One of the big scenes in the second act was the ballroom scene. After
My Fair Lady, every musical for years had to have a ballroom scene. In the scene, Abner has to dance ballroom-style and after we'd been
running for six months, Michael Kidd came back to see it again and he took me aside after and said, 'You look like you know what you're doing.'
I had lost that awkwardness so he rehearsed me in dancing worse."
The only significant change during the Broadway run was in the role of Mammy Yokum: Charlotte Rae departed for another show and she was
replaced by the feisty, energetic Billie Hayes.
Broadway was followed by a national tour and then, in 1959, by a Paramount film that closely mirrored the play, even to the extent of
using most of the New York cast. The film (to be discussed in a future volume) stands as a good, permanent record of the stage production...but
it is by no means the end of the story.
In 1961, amateur and regional rights were made available, meaning that any group that wanted to stage the show in their town could
procure the rights (and musical score) for a fee and royalties. Paramount was unprepared for the explosion: The show, with its youthful cast
and modest sets and wardrobe requirements, proved to be a huge favorite with local and community theaters. To this day, it is always appearing
on some stage somewhere — and there is talk of a major Broadway revival, as is perhaps inevitable.
At the core of it all is Al Capp's simple, almost primal concept...the same endearing characters that have endured, long after the
newspapers of their birth have crumbled. It all may have started life as a comic strip...but by the time Pansy Yokum's boy Abner was the Toast
of Broadway, the backwater town of Dogpatch had become a part of Americana.
Special thanks to Norman Panama, Peter Palmer, Edie Adams, Billie Hayes, Charlotte Rae, Elliott Caplin, Russell Myers, Stanley Ralph
Ross and Dana Snow for assistance with this article and the one to follow on the feature film.