Peter Pan in the Backyard by
(354 Stories)

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My older brother and I were both artsy kids. We both still sing and I was a Theatre major in college. As children in Detroit, we loved to listen to classical music and I followed him around like his shadow. We both loved the same movies and shows on TV.

We looked forward to the annual live performance of “Peter Pan”, starring Mary Martin on our black and white TV. We marveled as she soared above the children and sang and “crowed” with gusto. Rick got the recording and we learned all the songs.

We had a wonderful swing set in our back yard and soon we recruited the neighbor kids (and there many, all living in a two block radius) to act out the show on the swing set. My brother was always Peter and I was Wendy. We flew from the trapeze; higher and higher, leaping off to a safe landing below, (“I’m flying, flying, flying…look at me, way up high, suddenly here am I, I’m flying”). The recruits were never as into it as Rick and I were. There was no script. Rick was the auteur. He directed as well as acted. Maybe he was a bit bossy, but it was his vision.

There were no real costumes and no record of these early summer activities. No adults came to see our performance. I am not sure we ever got our act together to get through a whole show, as the others would lose interest and stop showing up for rehearsal. But we sure had a lot of fun.

When NBC put on their live production starring Alison Williams, of “Girls” fame, a few years ago, it had been decades since I had heard any of the music, or thought about the show. During an opening scene, Mrs. Darling sings the lullaby “Tender Shepherd” to her children. From the depths of my memory, I knew every word and began to cry as I sang along. The power of that memory was so pungent and sweet for me, it overwhelmed me. For a brief moment, I was that little girl, living in Detroit, watching a wondrous production with her family, when everything was safe and less complicated. And we tried to reproduce that feeling in our own backyard.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: swing set, Rick Sarason, brother in charge, neighborhood, Peter Pan
Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Love this, Betsy. Watching Mary Martin as Peter Pan every year was a highlight of my childhood too. How great that you and your brother “flew” off the swing set. Of course you were Wendy and he was Peter, and the neighbor kids were less into it than you were.

    I saw Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan at the Music Circus in Sacramento, and while she wasn’t Mary Martin, she was still great, especially on the gymnastics aspects, like flying and swordfighting. On the other hand, I was disappointed in Alison Williams, I didn’t find her believable at all.

    And I always cry as I sing along with “Tender Shepherd” too.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Cool that you saw Cathy Rigby. I’m sure her flying was great. I agree, Alison Williams couldn’t compare, but compared to Carrie Underwood trying to do Maria in “The Sound of Music” the previous year, she was downright fantastic! And no one could touch Cyril Ritchard for his flamboyant villiany, at once scary, but also funny and maybe not really scary, once you had seen the schtick, year after year. Truly a wondrous memory from childhood.

  2. Marian says:

    Betsy, this was sweet and put me right in your back yard. I love your creative use of the swing set!

  3. John Zussman says:

    I too loved the televised “Peter Pan” broadcasts, for which my parents let me stay up late, so your story took me back. And I also loved “Tender Shepherd,” and taught it as a round to my inner-city music students in 1967, as I described in my story The Chaney Clocks. I never performed it as a kid, however, and I salute your brainstorm to use a swing set as a flying apparatus.

    As an adult, however, I had a chance to perform some of the songs with Mary Martin herself! She and Janet Gaynor were critically injured in a car accident in San Francisco in 1982, and were nursed back to health at the trauma center at SF General. Two years later, she gave a benefit concert for the trauma center at Davies Symphony Hall, and my friend Louis was recruited to be music director. He, in turn, recruited me and about 30 other singers for a men’s chorus to back her up. We had a blast sing “Nothing Like a Dame” (wearing sailor hats), “Never Never Land,” and other signature songs. Mary, like the trouper she was, sang “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” (among others) and even had rigging set up and “flew” up to the balcony—at age 70! The show, which also featured Florence Henderson, Larry Hagman, and John Raitt, was a great success. In rehearsal she was very gracious to those of us who came up and genuflected. Louis then became her music director and performed with her on the road for several years. How many dreams did she fulfill that night, of kids who had watched her fly on that small screen in the ’50s!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      John, how marvelous that you got to perform with Mary Martin! And it sounds like a terrific show. I am green with envy and think you have the makings of a wonderful story here. Love the image of you guys in the sailor’s caps doing “Nothing Like a Dame”, and Mary graciously speaking with all of you. As a little girl, I saw Florence Henderson in the first road show of “The Sound of Music” at the Fisher Theatre. Then my mother bought me an “official” SoM dress (it had stitching on it that made it look Austrian and had a tag with Mary Martin’s image playing the guitar with the original kids from the cast attached to the dress; it is, I believe the design on the album cover). I proudly wore that blue dress to Sunday School and showed EVERYONE the tag. “Edelweiss” was the last song written by Hammerstein. Though simple, I find it quite moving and would always include it when I sang at my mother’s nursing home, which I did several times a year, even after she died.

      • John Zussman says:

        I saw that production too! In fact, at the benefit I told Florence, “You were my first Maria.” Hope it didn’t make her feel old.

        At the end of “Dame,” we were all supposed to throw our sailor hats in the air, but I was so focused on the music I forgot. By the time I saw them all flying above the stage, it was too late. I guess I do have the makings of a story here.

        • Betsy Pfau says:

          Of COURSE you saw that production, fellow Detroiter! A little gossip for you. We hadn’t moved to Huntington Woods yet and one of the Nederlander brothers (who, at the time owned the Fisher Theatre, I think) lived across the street. His son “Skippy” (I have no idea what his real name was) was a friend of my brother’s. They may have even been in Cub Scouts together. Anyway, just before we saw the show, while it was still in rehearsals, we ran into Skippy on the street. He got to watch all the rehearsals and told us that Florence’s train got caught in the scenery during the wedding scene and brought the whole piece of scenery down on her head! We were little kids (I was 10 when we moved to HW and this was well before then). Rick and I roared with laughter, never thinking that someone might have actually gotten hurt.

  4. Isn’t it frustrating when your pals aren’t into make-believe? At that age, I just didn’t understand. Why didn’t EVERYBODY want to make stuff up? Sweet depiction of childhood fantasy. Thanks!

  5. Patricia says:

    Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be able to see this!!

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