Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Peggy Lane Theater Stories

I'm interested in some pretty random things, and one of them is vintage series books for children and young adults. My favorites when I was a kid were the standard Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys series, and I also quite liked Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. I still own all of my childhood copies of Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, and I've begun collecting those and some other series books in a small way, although my main vintage collecting interest is yet something different that I'll talk about another time. I also belong to a couple of fun Facebook groups in which members share anecdotes about their collecting and reading in these areas.

Most Americans of my generation know that Nancy, Frank, and Joe were Grosset & Dunlap's best-known protagonists, while other folks may also be familiar with Cherry Ames, who apparently held every possible nursing job in the country, and Vicki Barr, a flight attendant who also solved mysteries. Cherry had 27 mystery adventures, while Vicki Barr had 16, and maybe someday I'll make a real effort to complete and read those sets. But here I'm going to talk about Peggy Lane, an actress with only eight books to her name, which makes her a little bit easier to tackle. These books are not mysteries -- the official series titled is "Peggy Lane Theater Stories" -- but each book usually has a "problem" to solve, and there's often a mild hint of mystery or a slightly sinister subplot. They're credited to "author" Virginia Hughes, but were likely written by multiple ghost writers, as was Grosset & Dunlap's practice.

(Many plot spoilers below) In Peggy Finds the Theater, Peggy talks her parents into allowing her to try acting for a year in New York. Convincing them is meant to be a large hurdle for Peggy to overcome, but it's actually pretty darn easy, and once convinced, her parents manage to arrange an audition for her (!) at the best dramatic arts school in New York City. They've even lined up a reputable boarding house for Peggy that is run by a retired actress and is full of amazingly friendly and noncompetitive aspiring actresses. The head of the drama school admits Peggy, even though it's only two weeks before the term starts, on the basis of her answer about why she wants to be an actress -- he doesn't even want her to read for him, so she technically doesn't audition at all. And since her parents don't think she should have to carry too much luggage from Wisconsin to New York, she even gets to buy everything new when she arrives in the city.

Right off, we can see the main similarity to Nancy Drew -- everything comes easily to this young woman! Over the course of the series, she'll experience difficulties in perfecting a role, or in dealing with clashing personalities or small domestic mysteries, but never does Peggy truly have difficulty getting a job. This is due in part to her immediate friendship with Randy Brewster, an aspiring playwright. In the first book, Peggy solves the book's "problem" by literally finding a theater, without which Randy can't put on his first off-Broadway play. Available theaters are very hard to come by, but Peggy thinks to check city records and look for buildings that were originally built as theaters but are now unused and unoccupied. She finds one at which men surreptitiously unload freight each night under cover of dark; the building's owner is so grateful to Peggy and friends for uncovering this smuggling operation that he offers them the entire building at low rent to use as they want.

In book two, Peggy Plays Off-Broadway, Peggy has a role in Randy's first play in the newly renovated Penthouse Theater that she found in book one. Her role is supporting but significant, but her main concern in this book is to discover why Paula Andrews, the brilliant and cooperative young actress in the lead, is clearly ill and miserable. When Paula collapses from malnutrition, Peggy learns that Paula is determined to open in at least one stage role without people knowing the identity of her famous actor parents, because she is convinced she will never be judged on her own merits. Because she's run out of money, however, she's starving herself. Peggy's dilemma is whether to break Paula's trust by contacting her parents, but she finds a way to do it that makes everyone happy. (I note that the "runaway rich girl" plot is not uncommon in fiction from this time period.)

In Peggy Goes Straw Hat, Peggy accepts the role as the contract ingénue for a summer stock theater. In this book, Peggy deals with a fellow actor who is not exactly a diva, but who puts herself first before the company. Peggy also deals with a movie theater owner determined to tank the summer stock theater because he views it as competition. I found this book a bit disappointing, mainly because it didn't have the charm I've come to expect from vintage young adult books about summer stock theater. It didn't help, for instance, that Peggy's group performs in a high school auditorium rather than a converted barn, which was something of a staple in summer stock and is much more romantic. I was also a little frustrated that Peggy is miserable about one role in which the nuances elude her, until she is so numb and dejected that she plays it without feeling anything at all, and somehow gives the best performance of her career to date.

Peggy next joins a touring company of a successful Broadway show, in Peggy on the Road. The play has three generation of women in it, and Peggy is there primarily to understudy the important role of the granddaughter, although she also has a very small speaking part in the regular cast. Her main focus in this book, however, is first locating a reclusive Vaudeville star whom the producer hopes to lure out of retirement to play the grandfather (how does it fall to an understudy to take on such tasks, I wonder!), and then navigating the muddy waters when it turns out that the man clearly has a past relationship with the play's diva-like star, who does everything she can to make both him and Peggy quit the production.

The fifth book, Peggy Goes Hollywood, is perhaps one of my favorites. Notice it says "Peggy Goes Hollywood," not "Peggy Goes to Hollywood." This is because Peggy, naively listening to her rather strange agent, buys the glamorous wardrobe and agrees to contrived publicity dates with a famous screen actor. Because she's not focusing her efforts on her paying job as part of a repertory theater cast, Peggy is actually fired, and she initially doesn't get the screen role she tested for because the movie producer assumes she's a glamour girl and not a serious actress, based on all the superficial publicity she's getting. Eventually she gets her head screwed on right, and with some help from influential friends manages to salvage the situation.

In the sixth, seventh, and eighth books, Peggy begins to travel, in part based on the advice of that famous screen actor from book five. She first goes to England in Peggy's London Debut, sailing across the Atlantic on the Queen Victoria. Fortunately, Randy by now is a fairly successful playwright, and Peggy is given a role in his first play to show in England. As happened in New York and Hollywood, an apartment has been arranged for her, this time with a young British woman who aspires to be an actress but is held back by the family's ancient curse against having any association with theaters. I have to admit, the plot in this book is almost Scooby-Doo like in its silliness, with someone taking advantage of the family curse and belief in ghosts to hunt for a lost treasure. In fact, very little of this book is actually concerned with acting.

Next, Peggy travels across the Channel in Peggy Plays Paris, as one of Randy's plays has been invited to represent the United States in an international theater festival. Due to a miscommunication, Peggy arrives ten days before the rest of the American cast, and has a little time to explore Paris, in the company of a highly clichéd arrogant Frenchman. Once the other actors arrive, Peggy struggles because she has only two days to rehearse a role she hasn't yet played, although she's familiar with the production. Her personal crisis comes when the director finally asks her to just imitate the prior actor's interpretation of the role rather than floundering to make it her own in too little time. Peggy is aghast, but quickly decides to put the company's interests ahead of her own. Fortunately (how many times have I used that word in this blog post?!), the company is invited to extend their stay, filling in for a company that had to cancel, and Peggy can then use the extra time to make the role her own in the end, and knock them all dead.

Finally, we have Peggy's Roman Holiday. At the end of Peggy Plays Paris, she was about to go off for a month's holiday to a private residence in Nice, France, where she would sit by and occasionally read lines for Randy while he worked on his next masterpiece. At the beginning of this book, we learn that a famous Italian director was also at the house, and has hired Peggy to play an important role in his work in progress, after getting her to promise to learn or memorize Italian well enough to speak the lines. So off she goes to Cinecittà, the Italian equivalent of Hollywood.

This was probably my least favorite of the series. Just as the French were portrayed as arrogant snobs, here the Italians are depicted as hot-headed chauvinists and manipulative, iron-willed, matchmaking dowagers. To be fair, the book does spend a lot of time dealing with Peggy's difficulties trying to act in this environment when she doesn't know the language. But I was very much turned off by the book's central plot, which was that the female star of the film was being physically threatened by her ex-fiancé. Peggy is horrified that everyone seems to be looking the other way, but the Italians keep saying that the man has his pride, and since the woman made him look foolish to his friends by jilting him, his behavior is to be expected (including showing up on the movie set with a gun). I was also put off by the emphasis that Peggy's hostess kept placing on how Peggy was obliged to treat men -- you can't possibly hurt their feelings by rebuffing them because they are so sensitive and passionate, yet if you refuse to marry them, you are at fault because you've been leading them on! There is a very much a vibe here of "it's all the woman's fault, for being so tempting to men."

Fortunately (!), Peggy eventually comes up with a way for the star's ex-fiancé to save face without anyone getting hurt. So that situation is resolved, but Peggy is miserable because the director keeps showing his displeasure with her and implying that he's going to replace her with another actress. But three weeks after filming ends, when Peggy goes back to work on the English language track -- surprise! We learn that the director was manipulating Peggy to make her feel miserable and depressed as needed, in order to get the performance he wanted out of her. And she forgives him, because "every time a New York television producer or a Hollywood casting director needed an ingénue, the first name he'd think of would be Peggy Lane."

Overall, I feel as though I haven't been, and am perhaps incapable of being, fair to this series. After all, when I read Nancy Drew as a kid, I wasn't concerned with all the convenient developments, or how easy it was for Nancy to quickly master any task to which she put her mind. So I have to remember that these books, which were published from 1962 to 1965, were meant for kids, and they're weren't intended to provide a particularly realistic portrayal of the acting profession. I also have to remember that this publisher's series were primarily mysteries, and so of course they felt compelled to inject some little mystery or problem into each book that wasn't necessarily centered on Peggy herself. I think I might have been able to remember all that, were it not for the fact that I've read so many career romance books from the same time period that I felt to be at least a little more realistic.

But there were things to like in this series. Peggy was reminded, and reminded herself, on more than one occasion that in many cases, actors don't get parts simply because they don't have the precise look that the director has in mind. I'm glad that the series covered both stage and screen acting. I liked that Peggy was encouraged to travel and gain broader experience. And I absolutely loved the interior illustrations by Sergio Leone -- they are the same type of black and white line illustrations that we see in the pictorial cover editions of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but a bit more sharp, in my opinion. Peggy is recognizably Peggy in every single illustration in all eight books, and the pictures directly represent specific scenes. I just love the time and care that went into these drawings, and I wish we had more illustration in books being published today.

It would have been nice if the series had had a definite end. Randy is essentially Ned Nickerson from Nancy Drew, although a little bit more useful. He mainly served to provide jobs for Peggy, and to give her a sort-of boyfriend even though she says in book six or seven that they're both so young and want to meet other people. Oh, and occasionally there were jealous misunderstandings, when one of them (usually Randy, of course) thought the other was too interested in one of those new people they were supposed to be meeting. The expected resolution, of course, would be an engagement by the end of the series, but the way the last book ends leads me to believe that someone hoped there would still be a few more to come out.

In the end, I'm glad I read these. I'm somewhat unlikely to read them again, yet I can't quite part with my set at this point -- in large part because of the illustrations, I think.


Unknown said...

Hi Amy, love these books so far, and your reviews! I only have the First 2 - finds the theatre (which is a hilarious title) - and plays off-b'way.
Straw hat looks easy to find, but where o where did you get the others. I see there are a couple of expensive Roman holidays out there but still nothing on the other titles. Let me know pls. Thx!

Amy Sisson said...

Hi Kerry! I'm afraid I got them so long ago that I don't remember exactly where I got them or how much I paid, but I suspect I got most of them on ebay before too many people were looking for them as actively. It's definitely worth checking Abebooks, or even bookfinder (this used to be, and may still be, a blanket search that encompassed Abebooks and lots of other online venues).

I would also set up e-mail alerts for yourself on ebay and Abebooks for the other titles so you get a ping when one shows up. It means some false hits in your e-mail, but I've found a lot of books that way. It's surprising but sometimes even highly sought after books show up cheaply now and again.

Good luck!