Bewildered Barry Polisar sings a song of censorship


September 14, 1990|By Randi Henderson | Randi Henderson,Sun Staff Correspondent

Silver Spring A woman from a children arts group in Virginia called Barry Louis Polisar this week to book him for a concert -- but she was a little hesitant.

"I'm not going to get in any trouble with this booking, am I?" she wanted to know.

"Well, it took me 15 years to get in trouble," responded Mr. Polisar, who over the past decade and a half has built a reputation for himself as a children's singer, songwriter and author.

But he's never gotten a fraction of the attention he has received in the past two weeks since his work was banned by Anne Arundel County schools.

Once known to young fans as the zany and irreverent performer who advised them in song to "Never Cook Your Sister in a Frying Pan," Barry Polisar has now joined the ranks of banned artists such as rappers 2 Live Crew and the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

"I think that the banning of my work would not have occurred had there not been this larger picture," he said thoughtfully, sounding not at all like a man who raves in songs about topics such as nose-picking, underwear, girls with beards and sadistic big brothers. "It's trickling down to an absurd level."

The woman from Virginia did go ahead and book the show. But Mr. Polisar predicts that hesitancy like hers will probably plague his career for the foreseeable future.

It's an unusual twist for a career that began with a casual request from a friend.

While an education major at the University of Maryland College Park, Mr. Polisar fooled around some with a guitar and took an occasional stab at writing folk songs. A teacher friend heard him singing, was impressed with his uninhibited style and asked if he would entertain her class.

In the month she gave him to prepare, he wrote a few songs, including what would become one of his classics, "I'm a 3-Toed, Triple-Eyed, Double-Jointed Dinosaur."

"The kids were giggling and laughing," he remembers about that first performance. He also remembers hearing a teacher yelling as he left the school. That inspired another song, "I've Got a Teacher, She's So Mean," which so enchanted all his teacher friends that they were soon begging him to perform for their classes.

Barry Polisar has never looked back.

To judge from his material, he doesn't think there's much of anything that shouldn't be sung about. Since he became the father of twins -- Evan and Sierra -- three years ago, his idea factory has worked overtime. "Diaper Rash (A Monster Song)" suggested itself as he powdered little rears, for example.

Those who object to his songs, he said, are "mainly people who don't have kids or who aren't in contact with kids. People who have kids or work with them realize that all I'm doing is holding a mirror up to children."

Anne Arundel County school officials, who decided several months ago that Mr. Polisar's recordings and books were "unsuitable for use as instructional material," have stopped answering questions about their decision.

One administrator, Bruce Horner, explained to The Sun last week, "If children have problems with parents or siblings, it could aggravate those problems."

The banning by Anne Arundel County schools will take only a couple of dates off Mr. Polisar's performance calendar, which is booked at least six months in advance. Although he performs 200 to 300 concerts a year around the country, his schedule is flexible enough to allow him to "co-parent" the twins with his wife, Roni, who is a part-time conservator at the Smithsonian Institute.

Despite the publicity he's getting -- from local radio talk shows to "Entertainment Tonight," the nationally syndicated television show -- he doubts he will profit from the controversy.

He said he did not seek publicity. A friend called a couple of newspapers and alerted them to the ban, and since then it's been like a snowball rolling down a hill.

While Mr. Polisar shakes his head in bewilderment at these events, his surprise is tempered by his sense that "this is what's been happening subtly for 15 years. Censorship has been on the periphery of my work for a long time."

His nine albums, six books and two videos have sold nearly a quarter-million copies. Nonetheless, he said, "There are bookstores that won't carry my stuff. It's hard to call it censorship, but the effect is the same. There's a growing trend in bookstores to just ignore things that are different and can't be pigeonholed."

Locally, Mr. Polisar's books and tapes are available at the Children's Bookstore, Greetings and Readings, Waldenbooks, B Dalton and Gordon's, although a number of these stores did not currently have any in stock.

His material also is available through public library systems.

"I used to think it was just conservatives who didn't like my work because it challenges authority with all its warts," Mr. Polisar said. "But I'm finding my own generation is growing up conservative: People are saying my stuff is too negative, that I sing about things that shouldn't be sung about."

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