I feel sorry for tots today. Not because they've been born into a world that seems to inch closer to the brink of utter annihilation with each passing day. The tykes I'm talking about are still too young to appreciate that mess. No, I'm just saddened by the mind-numbing crap that passes for entertainment with the preschool set. You start your kid off on the Teletubbies and then wonder why little Dick and Jane begin huffing glue at age 6?
At least when I was a lad, Disney movies still had swell soundtracks, with songs by Peggy Lee and Louis Prima. The best the little buggers can hope for in 2001 is whatever drivel the once-great Randy Newman will pen for Toy Story 3 in his desperate bid to humiliate himself at the Oscars yet again.
Impossible as it may sound, I once worked at a day-care center, entrusted with the care of a dozen 4- and 5-year-olds. By that age, their souls were pretty much property of Mattel toys until puberty, but I still made my valiant effort to influence their development. For arts and crafts one time, I asked everyone their favorite color and favorite animal, then handed each child a corresponding crayon with instructions to draw whatever jungle or barnyard beast he or she had selected. If my wide-eyed charges could accept the notion of a purple duck or a green tiger, they were learning that things didn't always have to remain exactly the way we'd been taught they should be.
During the sole half-hour of television viewing permitted in the afternoon, the kids always wanted to watch He-Man or Transformers or some other wretched toy commercial passing itself off as a cartoon. I'd usually put my foot down, turn to the daily rerun of the old live-action Batman series, and try to gently explain the aesthetics of camp. Hey, any kid who before hitting kindergarten can grasp why guest stars like Eartha Kitt and Lesley Gore are important cultural icons should find learning to read and write a cakewalk.
Should I ever return to the world of child care, god forbid, my first act would be to sit the babes down and play them Jim Copp Tales, recently reissued on CD via Copp's own boutique label, Playhouse. Copp's miniature musical dramas may not be quite as subversive as the work of that other playhouse denizen, Pee Wee Herman, but they still land much closer on the spectrum to Roald Dahl, the darker side of Dr. Seuss, and the "word jazz" records of Ken Nordine than the pabulum spewed by that godforsaken purple dinosaur.
Copp, a former nightclub entertainer, and his best friend, Ed Brown, started their unusual enterprise in 1958. Equipped with little more than three microphones and a tape deck, the two used a variety of sound effects, music, and funny voices to capture Copp's unusual children's stories on vinyl. The confirmed bachelors pressed the records themselves and peddled them via high-end stores like FAO Schwarz. They closed up shop in 1971, but 21 years later, record collector Teddy Leyhe restarted the label with Copp's cooperation (he died in 1999) and began reissuing material from the Playhouse catalog.
The nine stories on Jim Copp Tales are so weird and wonderful, it baffles the mind. The heroine of "Kate Higgins," "the girl who wouldn't take her pill," pulls a vanishing act at bedtime that prompts her parents to trash the house looking for her hiding place, then gorges herself on midnight snacks, only to wake up "wishing she were dead." At various intervals in the rhymed tale, Copp inexplicably starts banging a tambourine and instructing listeners: "Everybody dance!" With a chiming music box as accompaniment, "Martha Matilda O'Toole" vividly details what quickly breaks down to the classic anxiety dream: Martha Matilda forgets to wear a dress to school . . . and that's not the worst part.
The highlight is "Miss Goggins and the Gorilla," in which a despicable fourth-grade teacher gets her comeuppance from an intrusive primate. In the CD booklet, which reprints Copp's line illustrations (which recall the simple style of humorist James Thurber) from the original elaborate album jackets, the "most ferocious gorilla you have ever seen" looks suspiciously like the Abominable Snowman after one too many grande quad lattes. Using primitive multitracking techniques, Copp and Brown layered their voices to create a cacophonous children's choir. And, as always, lots of rattling tambourines.
Copp's imaginative, one-of-a-kind creations are sweet but not syrupy. They don't shy away from negative feelings, and they acknowledge that little kids' worlds can be strange and scary. And that's good. Because any child who can wrap his or her tiny noggin around Jim Copp Tales or the other Playhouse reissues will soon be ready to skip right over Eartha Kitt and head straight for Salvador Dal???nd John Cage.
For more information, visit www.playhouserecords.com.