It was early 1955. The New York record producer, Arthur Shimkin, for whom I’d done a couple of animated musical shorts when I was directing the UPA/New York animation studio, heard of my developing newspaper strip and asked me to come up with a script for a musical production of it for a Simon & Shuster “Little Golden Record,” one of those little 6-inch yellow plastic discs made for kiddie record players. Not a big deal, yet Shimkin brought in truly top talent for the date.
He got the pop American composer Alec Wilder, and Broadway lyricist Marshall Barer to write songs, Mitch Miller’s big orchestra and chorus, who often backed up Frank Sinatra, and the great comic actor Art Carney to sing and act the lead voices… and all for a children’s musical record to be based on "Terr'ble Thompson!".
The story that I wrote with my colleague Bill Bernal is silly and simple of course, and not one that I actually used in the strip. Carney played the historical circus man, PT Barnum, whose elephants are stolen, and also my standard villain, "Mean Morgan," who stole ‘em. The kid who played Terr’ble Thompson must be a granddad by now. I’m sorry I don’t remember his name.
The resulting "Terr'ble Thompson Musical" recording was a short, but slick professional production, recorded “live” on tape, according to the technology of the time. I got an acetate disc copy of the session as a souvenir, and that was what convinced United Features that I had a potentially successful comic strip, and they gave me a contract.
So there I was, in national distribution by United Features Syndicate, along side of "Li'l Abner" and the budding "Peanuts." I worked day and night and weekends on it, still continuing as creative director of UPA/New York. The signs were good for the strip to develop. But I was soon faced with a painful choice. In 1956 I was anointed Creative Director of CBS-Terrytoons. I had to sadly give up my barely budded strip - a boyhood dream come true - and so the Little Golden Record was never issued, and the master tape seems to have spun off into Neverland.
In 2006, when Fantagraphics amazingly decided to publish a book, restoring my virtually unknown and thoroughly forgotten 50-year-old comic strip, the memory of that fabled “Terr’ble Thompson” musical version resurfaced in my aging brain. But it was 50 years after the event, and I wasn’t sure that the recording still existed.
It was hard to convince anyone that it actually happened, especially as I could not find any copy of it. The poor acetate disc I received as a souvenir after the session, also vanished, somewhere in my disorderly mass of memorabilia.
I desperately hoped that somewhere the tape of that recording must still exist in someone's archive. I hoped it could be the icing on the cake of the Fantagraphics book, not only for my own satisfaction, but for a chance for people to hear some catchy, but unknown little songs by Alec Wilder and Marshall Barer, and of course the super-rare performance by Art Carney.
An intensive internet search was undertaken, but nearly everyone who took part in the recording had died. A search of the preserved personal archives of Alec Wilder and Marshall Barer came up empty. Mitch Miller was 95 years old and suffered a stroke just before I found how to contact him. He remembered nothing of the session, just one of hundreds he did.
The trail led as far as the Sibley Music Library of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. The director, James Farrington, wrote me that “the recent bibliography of Alec Wilder's works contains listing of this work, but not the tape. I began to believe myself that the thing existed only as one of my concocted stories.
As one last try, I began threading through some tapes I’d once made for my son Kim, copying various jazz recordings I’d made in Prague during my early years here, and sometimes adding other recordings of interest. Just as I was about to give up, thinking of all the other things I was supposed to be doing with my time… there it was! Not a great copy, but listenable, and quite possibly the only one existing “in the entire-whole world,” as Terr’ble would say.
Remembering what miracles of modern sound restoration techniques did for my 1949 home recordings of John Lee Hooker, I brought the tape to the Prague sound studio I use for my film work, to see what ProTools could do. It took two hours of tweaking to make the nine-minute production listenable. My sound colleague Ondej Muka brought it from the dead. Miraculous! Not great sound of course. Some over modulation is there; nothing can cure that. But it’s now clear enough to hear, and now you can.
• Adapted from the comic strip idea by Gene Deitch
• This disc story written by Gene Deitch with William Bernal
• Songs by Alec Wilder and Marshall Barer
• Musical arrangements by Jimmy Carroll
• Voices of Mean Morgan & P.T.Barnum by Art Carney
• Performed by Mitch Miller’s Orchestra & Chorus of singers.
• Produced by Arthur Shimkin for Simon & Shuster’s Little Golden Records.
Recorded in New York City, 1955 (exact date uncertain)
Bonus Track: "Where Can You Hide an Elephant?"
Flog! reader Rob Geller, after listening to the Terr'ble Thompson MP3s on our site, has unearthed another TT gem that had been lost to the world until now. Rob writes:
I thought you might be interested to know - if you don't already - that apparently not everything from the Terr'ble Thompson sessions was permanently shelved after all. Just last week, mere days after downloading your mp3, I was surprised to discover the song "Where Can You Hide An Elephant?" on a Golden Records LP entitled Puff the Magic Dragon and Other Songs (Golden LP 149 196?). Although the cover lists the song as "When I See an Elephant Fly" (from Dumbo), the record actually contains "Where Can You Hide An Elephant?" instead.
Interestingly, the Golden Records version is longer by 17 seconds due to an instrumental break and a line of (out-of-context on this record) dialogue at the very beginning ("Don't ask us Mr. Barnum"), both of which were apparently cut from the Terr'ble Thompson tape.
I've attached an mp3 of the song for your amusement/enlightenment. It's a definite upgrade in sound quality.
Left: In 2007 Gene Deitch stumbled across a forgotten envelope buried in his home, containing old photostat copies of the very first manifestation of the Terr'ble Thompson strip concept. These prototypes are pretty rough compared to what the strip became, but the basic idea was there and they're obviously historically important, especially insofar as this dates the genesis of TT as far back as 1948, several years prior to what we previously believed. Enjoy this never-before-seen comic strip artifact.
Right: Elaine Hetschel, one of the main contributors of dailies for our Terr'ble Thompson collection, has come up with a new TT discovery, an advance ad for the strip from a 1955 Minneapolis Tribune. Too late to include in our book, but another interesting and rare artifact that we're sharing with you here.
Click each thumbnail to see the full images:
Also by Gene Deitch (click cover for complete product details)