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Beyond tomorrow: A history of Little Orphan Annie
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Beyond tomorrow: A history of Little Orphan Annie

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

Annie
February 12-14
Paramount Theatre


If a curly-haired, redheaded character (with no pupils) appeared in a red dress, there would be no doubt as to what persona was being represented. If that character sang one word, "tomorrow," you would be hard pressed to find anyone not recognizing the reference. Little Orphan Annie and the odd assortment of characters that surrounded her leapt from a comic strip page into the hearts of millions. Half a century later, she became a commemorative postage stamp and the inspiration for a Broadway musical blockbuster, spawning not one, but two musical sequels and forever creating a musical motto that will stay in your head until the end of time.

Little Orphan Annie, created by Harold Gray, first appeared in comics on August 5, 1924. Based on a poem by James Whitcomb Riley, Gray's character escapes from an orphanage and becomes lost in adventures which eventually lead her to Oliver Warbucks, a hard-working millionaire with a heart of gold. Warbucks is immediately charmed by the waif, and insists on her calling him "Daddy." Unfortunately, Mrs. Warbucks and Annie do not get along, and so the comic strip deals with the young orphan's adventures with and without Daddy Warbucks.

A bevy of odd types come in and out of Annie's life. She eventually meets Sandy, her dog and only pal aside from her doll, Emily Marie. Ten years after the comic's creation, Punjab, the 8-foot native of India, was introduced as Daddy Warbucks' manservant. Another character called The Asp would come in Annie's life, as would an odd eccentric man with a Santa-like beard called Mister Am, a character who would later make allusions to being God.

For over 10 years, Little Orphan Annie came alive through the magic of radio. Beginning in 1930 (with Ovaltine as the sponsor), the program started as series of 15-minute installments. The opening jingle became so familiar that it is still often quoted. During World War II, Annie helped the front at home. Initiating the Junior Commandos, the Little Orphan Annie radio show inspired millions of listening children to collect scrap metal and newspapers, and became one of the largest efforts of wartime recycling in United States history.

But Annie hasn't always been known as a helper who sings an optimistic verse. Gray's criticism of FDR's New Deal program came through consistently in his comic strip. While keeping children riveted, Gray introduced kidnappers, murderers, spies and saboteurs. There is a strip where Warbucks dismisses kidnappers to his henchmen with the ominous words, "Wouldn't think of bothering the police with you boys." On another Sunday, Annie turns a blind eye to the group lynching of a war profiteer with the explanation, "It's better sometimes to let folks settle some questions by what you might call 'democratic processes.'"

Nearly 50 years after the birth of Little Orphan Annie, Charles Strouse (composer), Martin Charnin (lyrics, director) and Thomas Meehan (book) collaborated and created the musical Annie. Allegedly, when Charnin first approached Meehan about the musical, the writer's response was "Ughhh, I hate it." But he came around, and the stage production was set. While searching for something to cover a two-minute scene change, the authors came up with a small song for Annie to sing; "Tomorrow" became a smash hit and went on to being recorded by such singers as Barbra Streisand, Grace Jones, and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. Just 14 years old, Andrea McArdle played the title role, with Dorothy Loudon as Miss Hannigan, the dictator of the orphanage. Despite the mixed reviews at first, the show opened at Alvin Theatre on April 21, 1977, played for over six years on Broadway, was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, and won seven, including Best Musical.

Little Orphan Annie first made her celluloid debut in 1932. She appeared again in 1938, but then remained with radio until her stage resurrection. Following the success of the musical, John Huston released his film version in 1982 starring Carol Burnett as orphanage matron Miss Hannigan, Albert Finney as Warbucks, and Ann Reinking as Grace, Warbucks' assistant. Not to be outdone, the Walt Disney Company broadcast a version in 1999 starring Kathy Bates as Miss Hannigan, Audra McDonald as Grace, and Victor Garber as Daddy Warbucks.

While many stage productions have been made from comic strips, Annie remains the most successful. Famous children who played the lovable orphan on stage include Andrea McArdel, Sarah Jessica Parker, Allison Smith, and Alyson Kirk, to mention only a few. The role of Miss Hannigan has boasted Dorothy Loudon, Carol Burnett, Kathy Bates, Sally Struthers, June Havok, and Nell Carter, among many others.

Annie has long been referenced in movies and TV shows, and has fully entered the public consciousness. Parodies have run wild, from the infamous Playboy "Little Annie Fanny" to the long-running Forbidden Broadway series, where an "over-the-hill" Annie appears (complete with ratty red dress, cigarette and shot glass) complaining, "I'm 30 years old & tomorrow," and begging for a sequel.

While two sequels have been penned by the original collaborators, neither have been successful. The first, Annie Warbucks, takes place immediately where the original left off, and proposes the plotline of Daddy Warbucks being given 60 days to marry someone or become ineligible to adopt Annie. The show closed after only 200 performances. Another sequel was dreamed up called Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge, but this also failed to recapture the magic of the original. An all-children's version was produced (with an even squeakier clean book) called "Annie, Jr."

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