Back from Legal Never-Never-Land, Mary Martin's Magical Peter Pan Soars on the Airwaves Again

UPDATED 03/27/1989 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/27/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

It was a moment that millions of children would never forget The oversize shutters of the Darling nursery swing open and—wait, look!—Wendy, Michael and John glide out, still in their nightclothes, following the laughing young boy up, up, up! into the sky. Flight! Not even the Apollo astronauts who rocketed into space a decade later could top the elation that Peter Pan gave to a generation. First adapted for TV in 1955, the 1954 Broadway musical, based on Sir James Barrie's play and starring 41-year-old Mary Martin as the never-aging protagonist, postponed bedtimes across the country. By popular demand, a second version was broadcast in 1956. Then, on Dec. 8, 1960, as 21 million viewers fixed their fantasies on the familiar figure in leaf-green tights, the third Peter Pan was televised in "living color." This taped version was shown three more times, the last in 1973, before vanishing into an airless dead zone of legal complications and neglect

At least one viewer, though, never stopped clapping and wishing Tinker Bell back to life. This Friday (March 24), when Peter Pan reappears on NBC, it will be due to the efforts of Robert Riesenberg, 38, who saw the first TV production when he was 5. Several years ago Riesenberg, an advertising executive, took his wife and son to see Peter Pan at New York's Museum of Broadcasting. Among the kids, he recalls, were "a lot of men in suits who looked like they sneaked in."

Smitten again, Riesenberg made some calls and found out that the rights to Peter Pan—held up for years by the 1979 Broadway revival with Sandy Duncan as well as by various film options—had recently become available. He persuaded one of his clients, the Campbell Soup Company, to sponsor a rebroadcast then spent two years working out a deal with NBC; the estates of composer Moose Charlap and lyricist Carolyn Leigh; Jule Styne, who wrote additional music; and Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote additional lyrics; as well as London's Hospital for Sick Children, to which Barrie bequeathed the Peter Pan copyright Having cleared these hurdles, Riesenberg is now negotiating for videocassette rights. He plans to celebrate Friday's telecast by inviting a bunch of children oven "Maybe I'll put a klieg light over my front door."

Though Peter still won't grow up, the cast of Peter Pan inevitably did. On these pages, six members of the 1960 cast look back on their brief sojourn in a place where, as Peter sings, "dreams are born and time is never planned."

SHE'S STILL GOTTA CROW

Mary Martin's flight in the 1960 Peter Pan began with a run from Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where she was playing Maria in The Sound of Music, across the street to the Helen Hayes Theatre, where Pan often rehearsed late at night. "I nearly killed myself," says Martin, now 75. Actually, Martin came closer to killing herself when she was teaching her young co-stars how to fly. "I started really fast," she recalls, "and suddenly I'm out of sight, and I don't feel anything pulling me back. I'm heading for the wall, and like a shot, hit it." She broke her left elbow in two places. "The man who was supposed to pull me back was new, and he got so thrilled he forgot," says Martin, who ignored the pain and headed immediately back to her mark. "I said, "I have to fly again, or those children never will.' The next time out, there was a mattress at the top of the theater with a Sign, MARY MARTIN CRASHED HERE."

In previous incarnations of Peter Pan, Martin's own daughter. Heller Hailiday, danced the role of the maid. "She always wanted to play Wendy," says Martin, "so I said, 'Here's your chance.' " But Heller had already grown up. She told her mother, "I have to get an education." Halliday today lives in Connecticut with her family, while Martin's son, Larry Hagman, gained fame as the Dallas equivalent of Captain Hook. Since the 1973 death of her second husband, producer Richard Halliday, she has lived alone at Rancho Mirage, Calif. Her last stage appearance was with Carol Channing in the ill-fated Legends in 1987.

Talking about her rare encounters with the "kids" from Pan, Martin sounds a lot like the eternal boy. "Out of the blue, one of them will walk in after a show and say, 'Do you remember me?' And often I can't because they've changed so much."

NO RUFFLED FEATHERS

Joan Tewkesbury had played an Indian in Pan onstage, but just before the TV special was shot, she injured her knees in an auto accident. "I couldn't dance, so they made me the Ostrich," says Tewkesbury, 52. "I did a lot of squawking." That hobble out of the chorus, however, did not disable her career. She went on to write Robert Altman's 1975 Nashville, establishing herself as a screenwriter. Tewkesbury, who commutes between Santa Fe and Santa Monica, is now directing Faye Dunaway in a TNT network production of her script Cold, Sassy Tree. But for all her success, Joan says, "Peter Pan is the most exciting thing I ever did."

TICK, TICK, RUFF, RUFF

Though his face was never seen, Norman Shelly took more curtain calls than any Pan player ever. Starting with a 1950 non-musical production starring Jean Arthur, and continuing through the 1960 telecast, he spent nearly every night on all fours or crawling on his belly—as Nana, the baby-sitting dog and as Captain Hook's nemesis, the crocodile. "I was an unemployed actor, and I needed the job," says Shelly. "To me it was a challenge. I worked very hard to get it right." To research the role, he says, he watched dogs in Central Park. "Then I went to the Central Park Zoo, but they only had an alligator—who wouldn't move."

Both roles had their difficulties. "As Nana," he recalls, "I had to carry a towel in my mouth and every once in a while it would fall off. Once on Broadway, I put my paw on it and flipped it onto my shoulder and that brought the house down. With the crocodile, I had to move along the ground and move my mouth up and down at the same time. But they did pad my stomach well."

Last seen on Broadway in Promises, Promises in 1968, Shelly, 67, is now practicing psychoanalysis in Manhattan. In some ways acting was good training for his current profession. "After all," he says, "an actor tries to understand the inner workings of a human being."

AFTER UGG-A WUGG-A WIGWAM

Her long blond braids are in the distant past, but the impish demeanor is pure Tiger Lily, leader of the Never-Never-Land tribe. Along with Martin and the late Cyril Ritchard, who played Captain Hook, Sondra Lee, 57, was one of the few cast members who appeared in the full Broadway run and all three television versions of Peter Pan. A native of Newark, N.J., she left home at 15 for Manhattan, where she lived in a rooming house with the comedian Wally Cox and a not-yet-famous Marlon Brando.

An accomplished dancer, Lee didn't think twice about executing Jerome Robbins's athletic choreography, which among other stunts called for her to leapfrog over three people and slide down a fire pole, because, she says, "when Jerry says, 'Jump!' honey, you jump." She remembers the highly theatrical Ritchard as being "the most delicious human being I ever met. During the pre-Broadway rehearsal period, his beloved wife, Madge, was dying of cancer. It was a great lesson to all of us—he managed to have great picnics for the kids."

Lee prefers the live productions of Pan to the 1960 telecast. "They had moments of subtlety, moments that are lost in this one," she says. "The shadow of a TV actors' strike put us under enormous pressure. There was no time for nuances."

Unfortunately, after this final performance as Tiger Lily, Sondra was typecast. "When I went for serious roles, they expected me to say, 'Ugg-a wugg-a wigwam.' " So she went abroad and danced with Les Ballets de Paris, then returned and joined Robbins's Ballets U.S.A. Now the twice-divorced Lee teaches acting in Manhattan. One of her students is Charlotte d'Amboise, who plays Peter in the new revue Jerome Robbins' Broadway. "Doing Peter Pan was the joy of my life," says Lee, "and the hardest role, because when you play fantasy, you have to believe the way a child believes."

WENDY GROWS UP

When Maureen Bailey tried out for the part of Wendy in 1960, she was a veteran of stage, radio and television—she had even been a TV weathergirl. "At 20, I was a little old for Wendy," says Bailey, now 48, "but I went to Bloomingdale's and bought a circular skirt so I could dance. I auditioned at the old Astor Hotel. That day, they asked me to go up to Mary's apartment. She said, 'Just call me Mary.' She was so easy to be with." The production, however, wasn't easy: "We worked day and night."

After taping Pan, Martin recommended Bailey to step into The Sound of Music. "I sang 'Sixteen Going on Seventeen' with Jon Voight," she says. Maureen gave up show business for family, moving to L.A. with her husband, actor Christopher Cary. But they divorced in 1969 and, to help support their two children, she got work as an acting and singing coach.

Then, in Summer 1986, her life, which had once seemed so charmed, was forever marred. Bailey's daughter, Kathleen, 20, drowned on a camping trip. Still grieving, she tries to focus on the future. "Mary indirectly helped," she says. "She's the eternal optimist. You pick up some of that."

ONE BOY LOST, ONE FOUND

Joey Trent, who played the Darlings' middle child, John, turned out to be the true Lost Boy: Even Patty Duke, once a close friend, hasn't heard from him since the late '60s. Kent Fletcher, meanwhile, found the next best thing to never growing up: He moved to Hawaii and became a scuba diver. Fletcher, 35, says that when he auditioned for the role of Michael at age 7, director Vincent Donehue asked if he wanted to be an actor. "I said I wanted to be a baseball player," he recalls. After Pan, he suffered the advances of the girls at New York's PS 41, then appeared in Lord of the Flies, before giving up acting. He's now looking for marine research work on Oahu.

Kent once took his niece and nephew to see Pan at the Museum of Broadcasting. "I thought it was hokey," he says. "But I have to admit that since doing the show I've had recurring dreams about flying. In the last scene we shot, we were flying over a field of lights. We were supposed to swing by and grab hands. I deliberately kept missing because I didn't want to stop. I cried afterwards because I knew I couldn't fly again."

—Tim Allis, Victoria Balfour in New York and Doris Bacon in Los Angeles

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