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Lessons from Dogpatch

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[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Peter Palmer, center, is directing Li’l Abner with a predominantly young cast. Palmer originated the role on Broadway in 1956, then played the country bumpkin in the first national tour and in the 1959 movie.

By JOHN FLEMING

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


Being Li'l Abner for 693 performances on Broadway gives you a few stories to tell the young'uns in a Tampa Bay production.

Peter Palmer has a million show business stories, and he loves telling them. "I'm at the age where nobody can tell me to shut up anymore," said Palmer, who turns 70 this year.

Last week, over a hot dog at Mel's in Tampa, a few minutes from his Temple Terrace home, Palmer talked about a career on Broadway and in Hollywood that defined overnight success.

In early 1956, Palmer was a clerk-typist in the U.S. Army, winner of a talent contest who sang Granada on The Ed Sullivan Show. Six months later, the onetime football player at the University of Illinois was playing the dimwitted title role in Li'l Abner, a hit musical.

"I came out of the Army making $190 a month," Palmer said. "All of a sudden, I'm on Broadway and making $400 a week -- a lot of money back then."

Palmer went on to play all 693 performances of Li'l Abner on Broadway, plus starring in the first national tour and the 1959 movie. In a way, he has never lived it down.

"I loved Li'l Abner. It spoiled me rotten. It made it very difficult for me in everything else I did," he said.

"I was Curly in the 20th anniversary production of Oklahoma! I was Carol Channing's leading man. I was in Brigadoon on Broadway. But the one role people remember is Abner."

In the Tampa Bay area, Palmer is remembered for starring, with his wife, Aniko Farrell, in countless musicals and romantic comedies at the Showboat Dinner Theater when it was a thriving institution. The theater had a long, agonizing decline and finally shut down for good in 1995. It was demolished two years later, leaving a vacant lot on Ulmerton Road.

"You know, I drove by the other day, and I just had to cry," Palmer said.

Some 45 years after Li'l Abner premiered, Palmer's career has come full circle, except now he's directing the Gene de Paul/Johnny Mercer musical in a dinner theater production, with a predominantly young cast. Mike Mathews plays Abner and Joy Nash plays Daisy Mae in the show that opens Friday at Crystal Playhouse Dinner Theater.

"I've got these fresh faces looking at me, and they hang on every word, and that's wonderful," he said. "I do tell stories, and they even hang on those."

Palmer doesn't have any illusions about Li'l Abner -- "It's not a particularly well-written show" -- but it was part of the high-water mark of American musical theater, coming along around the same time as My Fair Lady, West Side Story and The Music Man.

Based on the Al Capp comic strip, it also starred Edie Adams as Daisy Mae and Stubby Kaye as Marryin' Sam, who had the show's big number, Jubilation T. Cornpone, an ode to the South's most hapless general.

Capp wasn't involved in the musical, but Palmer remembers the cranky cartoonist taking on his critics, such as gossip columnist Dorothy Killgallen, the Liz Smith of the time, who had an impressive double chin.

"Capp created a character in his strip that he called Dorothy Killjoy," Palmer said. "He found her guilty for defamation in Dogpatch Court, and the penalty was death by hanging. For the next three weeks, they tried to hang her, but because Dorothy Killjoy had no chin, the noose kept slipping off. That was pure Al Capp."

Palmer has fond memories of the troupers in the Li'l Abner cast. "You know how much you learn doing 693 performances on Broadway? I learned 10 things a night. I had Howard St. John and I had Stubby Kaye and I had Joe E. Marks, who taught me everything I know about comedy because he had been in burlesque and vaudeville."

He passes along that experience to the youngsters he's directing now.

"At one point, I lost all my laughs, and Howard told me, "You're not listening anymore. You're just saying the lines. Listen.' So I hung on every word, and I got every laugh back."

Another time Palmer forgot his lines. "When that happened, Stubby came over and put his arm around me. How could I go wrong with guys like that?"

Forgetting lines is an actor's nightmare, but it's also inevitable in a long run. "After a while you do start to think about where you're going to dinner. I've only done it a couple of times, thank God. What happens is, you think, "Did I say that? That line didn't sound familiar,' and then you're lost. It's the most frightening feeling in the world. It's like being on the ceiling."

Despite his long career, Palmer is destined to be remembered for his first hit, a legacy that he regards with understandably mixed feelings.

"I was supposed to be the next great heldentenor, but I got waylaid in Dogpatch," he said. "In many ways, I'm sorry I did. In other ways, if I had to live my life over again, I'd probably do it the very same way."

PREVIEW

Li'l Abner opens Friday at the Crystal Playhouse Dinner Theater, 11225 U.S. 19 N, Pinellas Park. Dinner and show: $20-$35. (727) 573-1717.

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