On Saturday mornings my big sisters and I would get as close as possible to our huge cabinet radio, so tall that only when we got to third grade could we see the words in Webster’s Unabridged International Dictionary, Second Edition, splayed open on its top. Our beloved ritual was listening to “Let’s Pretend”—at 9 a.m. when we lived near Boston in the late 1940’s and at noon after we moved to Seattle in 1950, due to the time difference between the two coasts.
Cast members’ voices acted out familiar fairy tales. I always imagined Cinderella or Snow White as a sylph in her costume: Cinderella in rags and smudged face, later in a ballgown and glass slippers; Snow White in a dress of wintry satin with lace and frills.
This was just before the days of TV (I had seen one once, big as our cabinet radio, its tiny screen showing a baseball game) and of Disney movies, so my fantasies reigned. There was a little boy who often played a role—Hansel was one—and I realized he was only a little older than me. I wanted to be on “Let’s Pretend” and be the only kind of star I knew about, other than the ones in the sky. I could imagine myself in crowns, wings, high heels, and luxurious long dresses—weren’t they called frocks? And if I had to be a child rather than a princess, I would make a perfect Gretel.
The show was sponsored by Cream of Wheat—our favorite at the time, and still a comfort food when I make it with raisins and milk. There was a jingle we all knew by heart at the time, but until I looked it up online a few minutes ago, my rendition had a lot of duh-da-dums in it. The studio audience got to call out “Cream of Wheat” at least once during the program. If I couldn’t be one of the cast, I at least wanted to be one of the kids singing and yelling!
Cream of Wheat is so good to eat
That we have it every day….
It’s good for growing babies
and grownups too, to eat.
For all the family’s breakfast
You can’t beat [ALL TOGETHER NOW] Cream of Wheat!
In the summer of 1953, when I was seven, it came to pass. We drove 3,000 miles back east to see grandparents and other relatives. In New York City, we took a Fifth Avenue double decker bus, ate in an automat, and went to the top of the Empire State Building, but the highlight for me was being part of the “Let’s Pretend” studio audience.
My memory is of being driven there in a big boat of an open convertible, a beautiful chartreuse green. Could that be right? Maybe it’s just another make-believe memory to go with how special the occasion felt.
We were seated (I was bouncing up and down) and coached on when to be quiet, when to clap, and when to yell “Cream of Wheat!” in unison. The actors entered—with the sound effects men in the background—and sat on high stools in front of their big black microphones. I don’t remember what the fairy tale was that day, though there were no children in the cast.
I was shocked that none of the cast were in costume. They looked like ordinary people, even a little dumpy. I don’t remember exactly what they were wearing, not house dresses, but loose clothes that left them free to gesture and speak from their chests. I was very upset and started crying because the princess with the beautiful soprano voice was large and as old as my mother, a scarf around her head. My sisters took it in stride, big wise girls that they were, but I was devastated.
Self-centered as all kids are at that age, it had never occurred to me that what the actors really looked like was not how they appeared in my imagination. I was glad I wasn’t playing Gretel because there was no way I could have pretended fear of a witch who wasn’t snarling or wearing a black dress and pointed hat.
The only thing I really liked after that sudden disillusionment was being able to yell “Cream of Wheat” on cue. There was my (indistinguishable) voice going out over the radio waves, almost the same as being a star. I still smile at that memory.
My mother felt bad that she hadn’t warned me. The day was gloomy after the dazzling morning. I don’t know if we drove away in that chartreuse convertible, but it might as well have been our basic black 1950 Ford, or even an old dump truck.
People say, and I generally agree, that listening to a story fosters the imagination unlike watching a screen when someone else (maybe even a committee?) has decided how a character looks. The mind’s eye is given free reign. But memory’s a funny thing. After decades of seeing Disney’s Cinderella, Snow White, and other big-eyed delicate heroines, those are the images that come to me when I think of these characters. I had to look far back in my little girl memory to unearth the fantasies that were once so clear that I was so disappointed not to see them incarnate in the “Let’s Pretend” cast.
I think of another time—probably one of many—when there was a conflict between my images and reality. As a child, I wanted to be an archaeologist, having announced my hobbies were archaeology, astronomy, and dolls. I read and re-read a 1940s book called, I think, Lost Worlds, about important excavations around the globe, illustrated by grainy black and white photos of the sites and finds. Then I graduated to the 1953 Gods, Graves and Scholars which was for grown-ups but had most of the same photos.
I didn’t become an archaeologist; that dirty hot meticulous work wasn’t for me. However, as an adult I visited Tutankhamen’s tomb (a photo of his statue, tinted blue, was on the cover of Lost Worlds). Ever since, I have had a hard time remembering what I really saw, rather than the black and white photos from my favorite books.
But that was as an adult. I knew ahead of time that the site would not look like the photos. I was spared the shock of seeing ordinary people in ordinary clothes playing the magical “Let’s Pretend” characters, and thus having an important piece of my childhood innocence shattered.