With a song in his heart, Zippy returns to the land of Formstone

Baltimore composer Lorraine Whittlesey adapts the world's favorite pinhead to the musical stage

  • Lorraine Whittlesey, songwriter for "Zippy the Pinhead: the Musical," based on the comic strip by Bill Griffith, is shown at rehearsal with Ryan Brown, left, as Zippy, and D.S. Bakker , right, as Griffy.
Lorraine Whittlesey, songwriter for "Zippy the Pinhead:… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
November 06, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun

As a child, Lorraine Whittlesey was a member of TV's Peanut Gallery, helping make a star of an excitable, squeaky-voiced marionette named Howdy Doody. Next weekend, she'll be sitting in the audience at the Theatre Project, watching the world premiere of her musical based on a contentedly clueless comic-strip Pinhead named Zippy.

The symmetry of such a creative continuum isn't lost on Whittlesey. She laughs heartily at the notion that there's a straight line connecting Howdy, the loose-limbed child's puppet that played sidekick to Buffalo Bob Smith for decades, to Zippy, an often befuddling, if not befuddled, observer of modern society whose non-sequiturs have become unwitting pop-culture catchphrases.

"Oh, absolutely, I agree," she says one afternoon from her restored-warehouse home in Canton, just a few hours before heading off for another rehearsal of "Zippy the Pinhead: The Musical." Maybe, Whittlesey, 63, concedes, she hasn't advanced all that far in her career. Or maybe she just has an affinity for simple, good-hearted characters willing to accept the world for what it is.

"I'm pretty sure that there's been some sort of reference to Howdy in 'Zippy,'" she says. "Howdy is really and truly what got me hooked from the beginning. I guess everybody has things that really influenced them when they were small. Maybe there was something locked in the recesses of my mind that never really went away."

OK, it might be a stretch to contend that Whittlesey was destined to write "Zippy" because of something that happened when she was 6. But the fact remains that many have tried adapting Zippy and his disjointed reality, filled with inanimate objects that talk, time shifts that happen at a moment's notice and lots of condiments, to other media. Whittlesey, nearly alone, has succeeded.

"Her vision of Zippy is pretty much the same as mine," says Bill Griffith, who has spent nearly 40 years chronicling Zippy's exploits on the comics page. He worked for four years with Whittlesey to bring the character to the stage. "He's a walking subconscious, a funhouse mirror, reflecting and distorting everything around him, from pop culture to the larger human condition."

He's also pretty funny, in a surreal sort of way that you either appreciate or you don't. Zippy was dropped from the comics page of The Baltimore Sun two years ago, at least partly because of his poor showing in a survey of some 1,000 readers. But after his disappearance, scores of readers wrote or phoned in to protest, and a website was set up to demand his return. It hasn't happened, but many loyal fans are still hoping, Whittlesey among them.

"I like to tell people, 'It took a musical to bring Zippy back to Baltimore,'" Whittlesey says.

Or, as Zippy himself might have put it, "Are we having fun yet?"

Whittlesey, a native New Yorker who moved to Baltimore in 1992, had plenty of fun putting Zippy's life and wisdom to music. "I just thought this really and truly called out for a musical," she says. "Zippy just seemed to be a perfect combination of information and geek chic. That, plus the fact that there's a lot of philosophy involved, many scientific references and a lot of strange food references. It just needed to have that musical treatment."

So she worked closely with Griffith, bouncing ideas off him, making sure she stayed true to the Zippy zeitgeist. The resulting two-act play runs (with intermission) about 90 minutes and features nine characters, including the dourly cynical Griffy (Griffith's alter-ego and unwitting straight man to Zippy's skewed philosophy) and the malevolent Mister Toad.

The play itself is set in Baltimore, which turns out to be a stop for Zippy and Griffy as they head to Zippy's high school reunion in his hometown of Dingburg (which isn't on any map, but which Whittlesey says is 17 miles west of Baltimore). Seems the two have some time to kill, so they stop for a bite at a local diner and start reminiscing about the old days.

Setting "Zippy" in Baltimore isn't just a sop to local audiences, Whittlesey says. Over the years, many Zippy strips have been set in Charm City, at the Bel-Loc Diner and outside the Senator Theatre. Zippy has chatted with the Edgar Allan Poe statue and scratched his pointed head about that man-woman sculpture outside Penn Station (and listened uncomprehendingly as he/she tried to explain his/herself).

Griffith, it turns out, is a major fan of the city. "I visited Baltimore quite a few times over the years, and I have to say it was love at first sight," he says. "Formstone! Porches! Natty Boh!"

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

If you go

"Zippy the Pinhead: The Musical" opens Nov. 12 at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Performances are set for 8 p.m. Nov. 12, 13, 19 and 20; 3 p.m. Nov. 14 and 21. Tickets are $10-$20. Information and tickets: 410-752-8558 or theaterproject.org

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