Mister Mother Goose

Short Story by Willard Manus

“Pass the molasses, please.”
The request shocked the hell out of everyone at the table. Just an hour earlier, Jerry Mondale had been sounding off about the dangers of sugar consumption, yet here he was, smearing his chunk of fried chicken with large blobs of molasses.

Later, after they had retired to the front porch, Jerry came up with an explanation for his unexpected behavior.
“When I’m home and sticking to a normal regime, I stay clear of all things sugary. But when I take a break and come up to Fishkill, I indulge myself in a few things that are bad for me. It’s naughty of me, but what the hell, I’m only human.”
“What about the people who read your magazine? How would they feel about your relapse?”
“I’ve got a loyal bunch of subscribers,” he said. “I think they’d cut me a little slack.”
The magazine in question was Prevent–-The Natural Way to Good Health. It was packed with articles preaching the philosophy that an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure. Or, to put it another way, a diet comprised of organic food plus vitamins and supplements would ensure a long, healthy life.
“That’s also the message of my play,” Jerry explained when Lance Hinton and Kurt Burkle joined them. “Think of it as a drama of nutrition.”
‘But not a comedy?”
“There’s some humor in it, but no, it definitely is not a comedy.”

Lance frowned with displeasure. He had been tapped to direct Jerry’s play, which was called Mister Mother Goose and cried out for satirical treatment. But Lance had to defer to Jerry, if only because the latter was the financier in the partnership that had leased the Cecilwood Summer Playhouse. Lance and Kurt, who were both actors and directors, supplied the creative energy; Jerry the cash. As part of his deal with them, they had to produce one of Jerry’s original plays.
After much discussion about casting, costumes and set design, Lance and Kurt departed the meeting, citing a long list of things to do. It was left for Gus Wellins, the Playhouse’s publicity director, to finish conferring with Jerry.
Over glasses of Dragon Herb tea-–“it’ll do wonders for your nervous system,” promised Jerry–-they sat on the porch together, gazing out over the grounds of the Playhouse, a solid brick building that had once served as Fishkill’s only movie theater. It was a hot July day, bright with sunshine, alive with music: specifically the tinkle of a piano coming from a nearby room where a musical called The Boy Friend was being rehearsed. A 17-year old Brooklyn girl named Barbra Streisand was making her stage debut in it.
Gus made notes as he began to interview Jerry; the information he gleaned would go into his Mister Mother Goose press release. Jerry, a stocky, bespectacled man with a salt and pepper goatee, was pleased to answer his questions. “I’m a Gemini and like to gab,” he explained.

How had he got into the good-health business? “Well, after I got out of the navy in WW II, I started an electronics business in rural Pennsylvania,” came the reply. “I made a few bucks but was never really happy churning out radio and tv components, largely because of my unhealthy life-style: working long hours, drinking and smoking up a storm. After suffering not one but two heart-attacks, I finally wised up and began to change my habits. My research into healthy foods and vitamins saved my life, made me a new man.
“That’s when I decided to sell my factory and start Prevent –-the first magazine of its kind. Its nutritional message caught on with millions of people, all of whom were looking for new, unconventional ways to extend and enhance their lives.”
“If your message has been so well received, why bother with writing a play like Mister Mother Goose?”
“To begin with, I’ve always loved theater and had a yen to be a playwright, another Clifford Odets. But more importantly, I wanted to reach a whole new audience with my nutritional message.”
“But Cecilwood is a summer stock theater. How much of an audience can you reach in Fishkill, New York?”
“Fishkill is just a stepping-stone,” Jerry said earnestly. “My sights are set on New York, having a huge theatrical success there, getting the national media in my corner.”

Gus asked him for a brief description of Mister Mother Goose.
“The play is set in a Brooklyn slum, where a poor family is struggling to survive. The wife’s anemic, the father’s depressed, they have a son who’s a juvenile delinquent, a daughter who’s hooked on drugs.”
“Just your typical American family,” Gus said wryly.
Jerry ignored that. “Into the picture comes a beautiful young social worker. But she’s a special kind of social worker, bringing a nutritional message. She persuades the family to give up unhealthy things like fast food and sweet drinks.”
“Sugar is the main enemy, right?”
“Exactly! Miraculous things happen when the family finally gets the message and eliminates all carbohydrates from its diet, eating things like hard-boiled eggs and sunflower seeds instead. The mother’s anemia is cured, the father’s depression lifts, and the kids manage to turn over a new leaf in life.”
“Cutting out sugar helps the daughter get off drugs?”
“Absolutely. There’s a correlation between sugar and heroin, you know. Junkies call it the munchies.”
“Sounds a bit far-fetched, but please continue.”

“When word of the family’s rehabilitation spreads through the ‘hood, things begin to change in a significant way. People quit slurping Coke and Pepsi and scarfing cheeseburgers. That gives them the energy to get off welfare, find good jobs, clean up the slums, and become model citizens. It’s a miracle, a revolution!”
“Then what happens?”
“The sugar industry begins to suffer. Profits go way down. So they send a secret agent–code name, Mister Goose-- to try and infiltrate the ‘hood, stop the revolution in its tracks, persuade people to–“
”–start guzzling Coca-Cola again?”
“You got it!” Jerry cried. “That conflict is what gives the play its dramatic thrust, its power and suspense! Now go and write that up, will you-–put together a press release that’ll
help pack the house for every night of its two-week run!”
* * *
As publicity director, Gus could attend any rehearsal he liked, but he rarely took advantage of that perk. Most of his mornings were spent driving around Dutchess County and placing Cecilwood posters in the windows of shops and bars. Afternoons were spent on his own writing, with time off for a quick swim at a local pond with his wife Maria, the Playhouse’s business manager.

Thus he had little opportunity to track the progress of Mister Mother Goose. His only gauge was the behavior of Lance Hinton and Jerry Mondale when they met over dinner, which was taken in communal fashion in Cecilwood’s main house, a large, two-story wooden building with a wrap-around porch. All of the actors and crew lived here, with the exception of Kurt Burkle, who preferred the privacy of the battered Silverstream trailer he had rented for the summer.
Gus found it hard to read Lance Hinton’s emotions; he was from rural Missouri and had an ingrown, guarded personality–-except when he stepped on stage and suddenly came alive as an actor, exuding vitality and energy. As for Jerry Mondale, it was all too obvious what he was feeling. Normally cheerful and gregarious, he now sat at table in glum silence, chomping away on his molasses-covered fried chicken. Neither man so much as even looked at the other.
“We’re having big problems,” Jerry confided later. “Lance refuses to take my play seriously, keeps wanting to turn it into a comedy.”
“Lance is a good director. Maybe you should listen to his advice.”
“I’m not disputing his gifts, just the way he’s treating my play. I wrote it as a serious drama, a major attack on man’s greatest enemy, the sugar industry. It should hit with the destructive power of an atom bomb, blow that powerful institution to bits!”

Jerry’s outburst motivated Gus to start attending the rehearsals of Mister Mother Goose. It was not a happy experience. Even under the best of circumstances, rehearsals at Cecilwood were fraught with tension and angst. The actors, many of whom were appearing nightly in the newly-opened production of The Boy Friend, were struggling to learn a second play’s lines in a short space of time. To make things worse, they had to cope with Lance’s dislike of Mister Mother Goose. Not that he would ever cop to it; Jerry was, after all, his boss, the man whose largesse was making everything possible: the eight-play season, the generous paychecks. But try as he might, Lance could not hide his impatience with Jerry’s drama of nutrition.
Now that the play was up on its feet, with its dialogue being spoken by professional actors, Lance could see all too clearly how flawed it was, loaded with two-dimensional characters, burdened by a dubious, maybe even ridiculous premise.
Being unable to speak honestly to the cast took its toll on Lance, put him into a depression. His conscience kept nagging at him, making him feel artistically and morally compromised. But what was he supposed to do, commit hara-kiri here on the stage of the Cecilwood Playhouse by telling Jerry Mondale that his play was a great big pile of horse manure?
* * *

Lance then decided on a new course of action. Not only would he treat Mister Mother Goose as a comedy, he would turn it into a complete farce by putting the actors–-all of them–-on roller-skates. That’s right: roller-skates!
By going madcap–“the Marx brothers on wheels”–is how he put it--he hoped to disguise the play’s weaknesses, its shallowness, its didacticism. With a little luck, maybe the audience would be gulled into thinking that the preposterous play they were watching was preposterous in a good way, a funny and entertaining way.
Problem was, Jerry Mondale hated Lance’s new strategy. Hated it! His play was not a comedy, not a farce, goddammit! And he wanted everyone in the rehearsal room to know it.
That night Jerry, Lance and Kurt met after dinner in the latter’s trailer and tried to thrash things out. Gus and his wife, who were sitting on the main house’s front porch, could hear Jerry shouting “no no no” to everything being said.
The next morning, Jerry came to breakfast looking as if he had just fallen out of bed. His eyes were red and watery, his mouth a tight, resentful line. Ordinarily a lusty eater, he ordered nothing from the kitchen, just sat tapping out pills from a collection of plastic bottles. He explained what they were: vitamins, blood-thinners, cholesterol-killers, pills meant to boost his energy, shrink his prostate, regulate his heart-beat, improve his digestion, strengthen his eyesight and kick-start his sex drive.

Round pills, oblong pills, tiny pills, white pills, pink pills, multi-colored gels–-Jerry popped them all down, one after another, helped by gulps of mineral water. It took him longer to work his way through those pills than it did for the entire company to finish breakfast, and he was still at it when Gus and Maria left the dining room, repeating his motions like a mechanical man in a penny arcade.
* * *
Jerry stopped attending rehearsals after that, just took long walks in the nearby woods, munching on handfuls of
sunflower seeds as he went. Sometimes he was joined by his wife Donna, who had come up from Pennsylvania to be with him, but mostly he wandered around by himself, brooding. Gus fully expected him to return to the Playhouse, gather everyone around him, and announce that he was withdrawing his financial support, not just of the production of Mister Mother Goose but of the theater company in general.
Jerry surprised him, though. Disappointed and angry as he was, he did not give vent to his feelings. He not only allowed Mister Mother Goose to open, but sat through every performance of the play over the next two weeks, watching from the back of the theater as the actors whirled around the stage on wheels, decked out in circus-like costumes, shouting out their lines, making a mockery of everything he had written.
* * *

Did audiences like Jerry’s play? Well, yes and no. At first they laughed at the play, at its cartoon-like characters and bizarre actions, but as the performance continued the laughs began to dry up. By the end of Goose’s run, attendance had dropped way off, sinking beneath the fifty per cent minimum needed just to cover expenses.
Fortunately, though, the next production of Orpheus Descending was well received. The full houses more than made up for the lost revenue on Mister Mother Goose, thereby enabling the Playhouse to finish its season in the black, no mean feat for such a large company.
Thus Lance, Kurt, Gus and Maria were able to return to Manhattan with their heads held high, feeling that all the work and hassle had been worth it.
This was not the case, however, with Jerry Mondale. He went back to Pennsylvania in a bleak mood that no amount of Dragon Herb tea could alleviate. He was still determined, though, to make his mark as a playwright. To prove it, he went out and bought a shuttered building in Greenwich Village and turned it into a 150-seat theater, one whose design and equipment were state-of-the-art. He called it the “Mondale Center for the Healing Arts” and soon mounted his first production of, you guessed it, Mister Mother Goose.

This time, though, he hired a director who would do his bidding. The play was performed as a drama, a tragedy really, thanks to the way the sugar lobby ultimately crushed the social worker under its iron heel.
A few reviewers showed up but unfortunately they didn’t like what they saw and proceeded to trash the play in print. Ticket sales plummeted, but the indefatigable Jerry Mondale refused to give up. He decided on a new course of action. He would offer his play free of charge to the public.
That’s when he called Gus Wellins and asked for his help in publicizing the fact that New York’s newest off-Broadway theater would no longer charge admission. “How could people stay away if they know that?” Jerry asked. “Where in the world can you see live professional theater for nothing? Not only that, audiences will get a sample copy of Prevent Magazine with every performance they attend.”
Gus regretfully turned Jerry down. Much as he admired the man for his grit, courage and idealism, he couldn’t see anything but more failure and humiliation in store for him. He did offer him a bit of advice, though. “Change the name of your theater. Call it the Manhattan Free Theater and see if that will do the trick.”

Jerry thought it over and decided the idea might work. The change of name didn’t help, though. Audiences still refused to come see his plays, all of which had a nutritional message, of course. That was all Jerry cared about, helping people to enjoy a happy, healthy life. That was what drove him, inspired him, filled him with courage and fire.
That’s why it came as a shock when Gus learned of Jerry’s demise a year later. By then the Manhattan Free Theater had closed and Jerry was no longer trying to use the stage to alert mankind to the dangers of fizzy drinks and fatty cheeseburgers. He put all of his passion and energy into his magazine and its brand-new book-publishing wing.
One title after another was issued by Mondale Press and many of them found their way to the top of the best-seller lists. As much as theatergoers had hated Jerry’s nutritional dramas, readers loved what he had to say in his books. They also eagerly bought the vitamins and supplements that he now offered for sale via mail-order.
The 57-year-old Jerry Mondale not only became hugely successful but famous–-the man you associated with good health, organic food, and long life. He was often interviewed in the mainstream press, even on prime-time television.
It was on one of those network shows–The Johnny Carson Show, to be exact–that Jerry met his end. Right in the middle of a speech about how a healthy diet and lifestyle had saved his life, Jerry’s head jerked back, his eyes bulged out, and he passed out right on camera, in front of the nation.

An autopsy revealed the cause of death: Mister Mother Goose had suffered a sudden and massive heart-attack.