Posted by: HAT | October 31, 2014

Food for Fantasy

A still from the 1918 film Little Orphant Annie with Annie telling a story to a group of children

A Halloween-y scene in an early version of Annie

Hi, Gang!

Fantasy is an indispensable ingredient of utopian expectation. I’m not saying that discerning the boundary between fact and fantasy doesn’t matter; I’m not saying that every fantasy is potentially realizable, or worth realizing; I’m not saying anything about priorities. But without a capacity for fantasy, for imagining alternatives, there is no hope. And fantasy, like every other living thing, needs food.

Since today is Halloween, it seemed appropriate to recall the spooky poem “Little Orphant Annie,” by James Whitcomb Riley, “the Hoosier poet.” Little Orphant Annie is a teller of tales, so, a feeder of fantasy, which may be one of the things that endeared her first to Riley and later to his readers.

Fantasy is never without its footing in the “real world,” either, which may also be worth reflecting on. I’m not saying fantasy can be reduced to this or that real world kernel, of course, any more than cake can be reduced to flour. Still, without the flour, it wouldn’t be cake. Riley’s Annie was modeled on the real-life character Mary Alice Smith, who worked in Riley’s home when the author was a boy. Thank you, Mary Alice Smith, for that cup of flour.

It’s funny how way leads on to way when it comes to fantasy, or anything for that matter. Little Orphan Annie has had a long run, and the way that run has been related to American popular culture and history, and to what people find nourishing in times of world war and great depression, all the way to her latest movie gig with its riffs on the sociology and symbolism of race in the US, is fascinating, and alluring, and way beyond the scope of a quick Friday morning walk in the figurative woods. I’ll save that one for another day.

I’m drawn to a somewhat less public trail. Back in 1918, the spooky poem was made into a silent film. The film starred Colleen Moore in the title role of Little Orphant Annie; it was one of her first roles. Colleen Moore’s Q score is “who?” these days, but she was rich and famous once, and she donated the flour for this legendary cake:

Once upon a time, a little girl saw a doll house, one so wonderful, so magnificent, it was a hitherto undreamt dream of a doll house. She could imagine having that wonderful doll house, playing with it, being that tiny, playing in it. She imagined happiness. Times were hard, but that memory became the stuff of a hundred dreams, a thousand, until she came to wonder, where did that memory, that dream, even come from? Had she just imagined it? No one she knew had a dollhouse like that, or could remember anyone they knew who would have had. The little girl grew up. She went to college, in a far away city, where there were many poor children. She joined one of those volunteer groups that do nice things for poor children, like tutor them in homework and take them on field trips. One day, one of the field trips took them to a museum, and in the basement of the museum, she came face to face with – you knew this was coming, right? – the doll house. The very one, the one she had remembered and almost concluded was a figment of her imagination, only look, it had been real all along. It was, the way she always told the story later, like a miracle.

The dollhouse turned out to have been Colleen Moore’s “Fairy Castle,” which lives in the basement of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, and which toured the United States to raise funds for poor children’s relief in 1935, when the little girl would have been 4 years old. Her name was Jo Gregg then, but by the time she told that story she was Jo Thiessen, and she was my mother.

My mom used to apologize for “not being the kind of mother who bakes cakes for her kids to come home to.” But I think she was wrong about that.


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