On This Day in 1949: Helen Hayes Broadcasts Mixed Messages to Mothers, Midgets, and Miners

Well, it sure seems a lot smaller these days! The globe, I mean. Picture it, if you will: Wales, a secluded cottage, last Saturday. There they stood, unannounced and unexpected, in the middle of our garden: three strangers from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One of these visitors claimed that her great-grandmother used to live in this very house some 150 years ago. Notwithstanding her disappointment at the many changes to the original interior (could we not have done without plumbing for the sake of authenticity?) we all had a nice chat, swapped stories and pictures. Turns out, Wales and Pittsburgh have more in common besides a long history of coal mining.

As is often the case in my daily diggings-up of US radio drama—and my stubborn attempts at relating the out-of-date to our present everyday—I was reminded of this connection as I browsed through my library of radio recordings. I came across a peculiar play called “No Room for Peter Pan.” It aired over CBS in the US on this day, 8 May, in 1949, on the Electric Theater, an anthology drama series starring the celebrated stage actress Helen Hayes. The Electric Theater—named after its sponsor, America’s Electric Light and Power Companies—was staged before the “live studio audience” Hayes had expressed herself to be so glad to do without; but the laughter of the crowd gathered to watch the performers may very well have been genuine, given the queer situation in which Hayes, playing an Irish coalminer’s wife in Colliertown, Pennsylvania, found herself.

What to do when your son is determined to become a miner, work you know to be not only dirty, but dangerous? You’d rather not have him grow up to go below ground before his time, even if it means that your son won’t grow at all. How lucky is this troubled mother to discover that her son, Danny, is a midget or, as the learned physician from Pittsburgh states in his official diagnosis, a “Peter Pan dwarf” (a term better suited for lily and aster varieties). So, to keep the blossoming lad out of the mines and “above the ground, as the Lord intended,” his loving parent vows to turn him into a sideshow attraction: “He’ll be a midget in a circus.”

Danny catches the eye of Mr. Bailey, owner of the Greatest Show on Earth, who is only too glad to take him on. Just then, the protective mother learns that Danny may yet continue to grow, if given the proper medication. To keep him out of the mines, she refuses to let Danny receive the prescribed injections. So, Danny is forced to tour with the circus and learns to like it. He becomes rather disdainful of his poor family home, but is soon cured of his airs when he learns about a mining disaster in which he, as a kid small enough to reach the trapped colliers, may prove his manliness.

The shot of self-esteem is followed by Danny’s first injection. Trouble is, Danny is fearful of the “dirty needle.” His mother is at hand with another sage piece of advice: “You don’t want to stay a midget, do you, lad? You don’t want to give up your growth for the amusement of lazy people. Maybe in the mines you’ll be in danger, but you’ll be living with dignity, like a man.” Seems mom has grown up at last, ready to let her son go and move on—up in height and down in the mines—as he had desired it, all along. As if he hadn’t proved his worth already as a life-saving pint-sizer, doing as his mother bade him.

This play (a script of which may be found in the collection of radio and television composer Wladimir Selinksy, at the New York Public Library) sent out some confusing messages about physical individuality, social conformity, and the nature of life; but, being broadcast on the second Sunday in May, it nevertheless improved on the tired sentiments found on those cards that will give postal workers another backache this weekend.

Meanwhile, unexpected visitors notwithstanding, I’ll be back out in the garden, watching things grow or wilt under my haphazard care, pondering the challenge of arriving at just the right moment to heed advice or ignore it.

One Reply to “On This Day in 1949: Helen Hayes Broadcasts Mixed Messages to Mothers, Midgets, and Miners”

  1. My lunchtime browsings through your timeless archives brought me here. It\’s funny that I never listened to this broadcast yet, though I know I have it on my list (I remember stumbling across the title recently).In the early 80\’s I had an LP of Helen Hayes Theater, and especially enjoyed \”Lady of Letters\” – I found it quite entertaining and amusing.

    Like

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