Potempa: Fifty years old and ‘Corduroy’ bear still enchants every age

Chicago Tribune Opinions 6 days ago

In November, I wrote about the storybook “Mary Poppins,” and my amazement that so many young people didn’t realize the Disney movie and stage story were born from the classic 1934 book written by P.L. Travers. And now, in December, I’m the one having my first introduction to a beloved storybook that has been around for more than half a century.

“Corduroy,” a short story about a stuffed toy bear missing a button on his corduroy overalls, was written by author Don Freeman and first published by Viking Press in 1968. Last year, “Corduroy” celebrated a 50th birthday and even though I was born in 1970, I wasn’t familiar with this clever and charming tale of a bear and his simple wardrobe malfunction.

“I believe Corduroy's now classic storybook character status has more to do with the parents who read it as a child, rather than the kids of today,” said reader Brittany Bosma, who is assistant librarian and responsible for youth services for the Munster branch for the Lake County Library.

“Parents are the gateway to what their children are exposed to and will share their enthusiasm for the stories they loved as a child. With that in mind, ‘Corduroy’ is still loved for the same reason today as back when it was first written. What child hasn't imagined being locked in a department store overnight and trying out all the stuff within? What child hasn't played with their toys as if they were alive, asking questions and giving answers? The simple curiosity Corduroy the bear has will resonate with most of the kids who are exposed to the story, but it's the adults that are responsible for Corduroy being marked as a classic.”

Bosma, 38, who emailed me with her storybook insight, also helped explain why “Corduroy” the storybook is so beautifully transformed as a stage work with the same name and plot.

Broadway In Chicago and Emerald City Theatre are presenting a holiday stage run of “Corduroy” now through Jan. 5 at Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St. in Chicago.

Adapted for the stage by Barry Kornhauser and a given a fun holiday spin for this run, the one-hour, non-musical story is very closely based on the “Corduroy” and the sequel “A Pocket for Corduroy” books by Freeman. Jamal Howard, the artistic associate at Emerald City Theatre, does an imaginative interpretation with the cast of just six with his direction of the production.

While the small bear’s quest for his missing button and his hope and desire for friendship remain the theme focus, Howard and the team at Emerald City Theatre add even more levels of important messages to the plot. Audience come face-to-face with acceptance, responsibility, second chances and an added emphasis that there are far longer lifespans for objects (and people) possible in today’s fast-paced world, where anything which isn’t new, faces the danger of disposal.

Acrobatic and talented Jean Claudio dons ears and a furry suit for the title role, opposite Tia Pinson as likeable little Lisa, who is eager to whisk the bear away from its department store shelf to a new home. Matt Miles as the store night watchman is a master of physical comedy as are Kelsey Shipley and Kirk Osgood as two funny sprites who pull impish pranks at the store after hours. Michelle Renee Thompson uses her every facial expression available, as Lisa’s skeptical but caring mother.

An added bonus of this clever show is the stage story introduces audiences of all ages to some basic words and symbols for sign language, such as the terms “button,” “friend” and “gift.” Tickets are $17.50-$25 at www.broadwayinchicago.com or www.emeraldcitytheatre.com or (800) 775-2000.

Emerald City Theatre (ECT) is Chicago’s largest theater for young audiences, reaching through its three pillars of work: artistic, education, and outreach. Serving an average of more than 60,000 children and their grown-ups annually, the company has created over 100 productions and also builds skills in children through its yearly camps, classes, and residencies. It ranks as the largest theater arts education program in Northwest Indiana and Chicagoland, serving more than 64,000 students to date and an average of 200 schools annually.

Philip Potempa is a journalist, published author and the director of marketing at Theatre at the Center. He can be reached at pmpotempa@comhs.org.

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