Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Birthday House

Every once in a while, a memory will creep up on me like a kitten waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting mouse. Once it hits me, I am startled by what it evokes; actual thoughts and visions clear as day and feelings as powerful as if I only experienced them an hour ago.

Such a memory occurred to me last week for reasons unknown. Bits and pieces scattered throughout my mind of events that took place forty—yes, forty—years ago. I am talking of the time I appeared on Paul Tripp’s Birthday House.

Paul Tripp’s Birthday House was a live television show taped here in New York City. The first episode aired on Monday, April 1, 1963 and starred Mr. Tripp, who was “kid-TV’s” first educator. Several lucky kids in the metro area would come down to the “Birthday House” to celebrate their special day with such characters as “Mr. Knock Knock,” the birthday gift-giving closet and “Mrs. Oven” who would bake and present the kids’ birthday cake to them at the end of the show. As one of the show’s biggest fans, I was enamored with the different puppets, the pretty ladies who dressed and spoke so eloquently, the fun games the kids would play, and of course, the dapper Mr. Tripp himself.

You can imagine my surprise when one day in 1967, out of what seemed to be the clear, blue sky, a postcard handwritten by Paul Tripp arrived at my house and announced that I had been chosen to celebrate my birthday at “The Birthday House.” I knew every quirky character on that show. I had every song memorized by heart. I had every puppet in stuffed-animal form sitting on my bed. One would think that this would be the absolute highlight of my whole four years of life on this earth. Why, then, did I sit on the top of the steps and cry my eyes out? I can still see my mom sitting next to me, trying to convince me that I would have a wonderful experience, and saying over and over again, “…But isn’t this what you always wanted??” Well, yes, I thought it was. Until it became a reality.

The train ride into NYC was most likely my first, and so enjoyable that I can remember it with perfect clarity to this day. One of my parents asked me, “What does the conductor say before the train starts moving?”…and it was all over with. After my first “ALL ABOARD!” and the subsequent laughter and applause from every other passenger in our car, I was hooked on the attention. I must’ve said “All aboard” four hundred and fifty-seven times, much to the enjoyment of my parents and eventually to the chagrin of the passengers who sat there dreaming of ways to invent the impossible mechanism that could play all of their favorite music while they wore earphones so as not to have to listen to the annoying child one minute longer.

I only remember bits and pieces of being in the studio. At one point in the show, Mr. Tripp sat all the kids down on a small set of wooden steps. As I positioned myself up high in the back, I recall him asking us questions I can’t remember, but that I answered in unison with the other kids.

That, and the huge, prominent mole above his left eye.

I can honestly say that I could not remember that mole ever making an appearance on his show for even one brief second. But that day, there it was in all of its mole-ly glory, riding up and down on his eyebrow every time he excitedly told us a story or sung us a song. For reasons that are only valid to a four year old, the advent of that growth put me in a state of petrified fear and prevented me from participating in the rest of the show. Although I was present, I couldn’t take my focus off of it and constantly had to be redirected by one of the pretty, eloquent women, who seemed to be losing their graciousness and poise as each minute progressed. Before I knew it, Mr. Tripp was also turning into a regular human, and started to become curt with me as well. Where were all the perpetually, impossibly nice people that I saw every day on my television? Who were these people telling me where to stand, telling me how to act, and being…well…not nice to me??

I couldn’t take it anymore and did what any self-respecting four year old would do: I started to cry. And cry. And cry some more. So much so that my dad had to come and take me off the stage.

And there it was. My fifteen minutes of fame, over in five.

I don’t remember much after that. But I do remember watching the episode in my living room with my mom, who apparently forgot what events took place that day until she was reminded by viewing the footage. “Lisa!! Look at you!! You’re just standing there!! I can’t believe it—you nagged me and nagged me to be on that show, and you just stood there and did nothing!!” Believe it or not, I do remember feeling regret…probably for the very first time in my life. Why didn’t I move? Why didn’t I participate and sing along with the characters? Why was I afraid of the puppets that I adored when they were inside my TV set? Why can’t I just have another chance? Hey, now there’s an idea!! I’ll just go back on the show when I’m five. I’ll bet there’s not a mole around that can scare me when I’m five!

Well, of course, my mom didn’t think that was such a great idea. And ultimately, the show went off the air six months after my birthday anyway, so it wasn’t an option.

Most people I talk to do not remember "Birthday House." The internet doesn't supply much information, although the pictures I found almost brought me to tears from the memories (good tears and good memories). Hopefully, the next time I'm asked to be on a television show I'll be able to behave myself in a more mature manner. I think forty years can make a difference...

(Paul Tripp: 1911-2002. Rest in peace...thanks for the memories!)