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Mary Martin’s Return From Never-Never Land : Here is something worth crowing about-- Peter Pan is back!

“Do you believe? Oh please, please believe. If you believe, wherever you are, clap your hands and she’ll hear you. Clap! Don’t let Tink die. Clap! She’s getting better. Clap! Clap! She’s getting stronger. Oh, she’s all well now. Oh thank you, thank you, thank you . . . .

--From “Peter Pan”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 26, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 26, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Reader J.S. Boyd points that “Peter Pan” was broadcast in color in 1955 and 1956. Aleen MacMinn’s March 19 article had referred to the 1955 telecast as being black-and-white.

For the last two years, a New York advertising executive and two NBC vice presidents have been doing a lot of believing, and a lot of hopeful clapping.

What they wanted to bring back to life wasn’t just Tinker Bell, but the 1960 production of the musical “Peter Pan” starring Mary Martin which has not been televised for 16 years.

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Like most children’s stories, this one has a happy ending--"Peter Pan” will fly again Friday on NBC (8-10 p.m.). But making it happen was a long, involved undertaking.

When this production of “Peter Pan” first aired as a “spectacular,” as specials were called in those days, it seemed a natural to become a TV perennial, like “The Wizard of Oz” and the traditional holiday classics. But after three more airings (1963, 1966 and 1973), it vanished.

Over the years, the general public perception was that perhaps the tape had been erased, or that if a tape did exist, it probably had deteriorated and was no longer of broadcast quality. The real reason, it turns out, was that “Peter Pan” was encumbered by a very complex set of copyrights, contracts and options that kept it off the air.

Robert Riesenberg, president of Maltese Productions/Maltese Video in New York City, became the prime mover in getting “Peter Pan” back on NBC after he took his wife and 3-year-old son to a screening of the show at a Museum of Broadcasting TV festival in New York in 1987.

“The magic was still there,” he said the other day, fondly remembering the show from his boyhood. “There were a lot of kids in the audience and they loved it. They were laughing and yelling, and I came out exhilarated.”

The next day, Riesenberg, who at the time was senior vice president, program development for the advertising agency BBDO, got on the telephone. He called his client, Campbell Soup Co., and received an OK to go after the rights. He called London and found that for the first time in many years, the rights were available. (Sir James M. Barrie left “Peter Pan” to a children’s hospital so that profits from the story would benefit generations of children.)

And he called Susan Beckett, vice president, business affairs, NBC Productions, and found “she too felt passionate about getting ‘Peter Pan’ shown again.” Together, they started shepherding the complicated process of clearing up all the rights.

Along the way, NBC’s “Peter Pan” tapes were unearthed from the network’s storage vaults in the East and sent to NBC Burbank.

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“Our people here had to determine if the tapes were of broadcast quality,” said Carl Meyer, vice president, West Coast and special program sales for NBC-TV, who had become the third player with Riesenberg and Beckett in the plan to rescue “Peter Pan.”

“That was an important consideration before anybody started running down the track. We decided they were and that we could be very confident about putting the show on the air.”

Riesenberg, meanwhile, was in a legal morass because the rights and contracts seemed to be spread everywhere: composers, lyricists, director, talent, film studios, past advertisers, the children’s hospital.

“In some cases, it was as much a problem of sorting out who didn’t have the rights as who did,” Riesenberg said. “I soon saw that this was going to be a long and maybe expensive proposition, but Campbell said stick with it.” (Campbell Soup has a one-quarter sponsorship of the telecast, with the balance picked up by others companies.)

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Some rights-holders had died, which meant estates and heirs had to be tracked down, further slowing the process and getting even more lawyers involved. Generally, Riesenberg said, everyone was cooperative and wanted “Peter Pan” to be shown again . . . “as long as it was handled correctly. Everyone was very protective of the show because it was very special to them.”

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While the legal entanglements were being unraveled, Ed Ancona, then director of film and tape post production at NBC Burbank, was put to work on bringing the old tapes up to today’s broadcasting standards.

“I had two copies of the show which appeared to be dupes from the original master tape,” Ancona related. However, they were on 2-inch tape, the dimension for TV in that era (now it’s 1-inch and moving to 1/2-inch) and that posed another problem--NBC no longer has a machine to play 2-inch tape.

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So Ancona, who has since retired, looked around “for someone who knew how to tickle and tune and massage an old 2-inch tape machine to get the best out of the ‘Peter Pan’ tapes.”

Working with Image Transform and Compact Video, the 2-inch tapes were transferred to one-inch and the new copy was put through a highly sophisticated digital device to correct the color balance and reduce snowy-picture noise.

In viewing the old tapes, Ancona had noticed a dark bar on the left side of the picture caused by an old camera used for the telecast. “We were able to blow up the picture slightly to get rid of that. The old tapes also had a blue shadow, but we made it a much more neutral, shaper image. One way or another, it amounted to quite a housecleaning.”

As for Mary Martin, the original cockeyed optimist, she has always believed “Peter Pan” would come back. “I have wanted it, always,” she said recently at her home in Rancho Mirage. “I like to think the world still has a Neverland somewhere that makes people want to be loved and have joy.”

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Over the years of her career, Martin had often thought of playing “Peter Pan” but pretty much gave up on the idea after her friend, Jean Arthur, starred as “Peter” on Broadway in 1950. “I figured Jean’s done it, and that’s that,” said Martin, who was in “South Pacific” at the time.

But Edwin Lester, director of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, also had long dreamed of producing “Peter Pan"--with Martin--and in 1954 signed her to star in a new musical version that would be directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.

“I told her we’d play 10 weeks in California (split between Los Angeles and San Francisco) and then it would be her option to take it to New York afterward,” recalled Lester, who is now 94 and still maintains an office at the Music Center. (On his office wall is a painting of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion by Martin, rimmed with tiny figures of the roles she played for Lester over the years, including “Peter Pan,” “South Pacific” and “Annie Get Your Gun.”)

“Peter Pan” did go on to Broadway in October, 1954, after its run at the Philharmonic Auditorium here. Not long after its New York opening, Lester recalled, NBC contacted Martin’s husband, producer Richard Halliday, proposing that it be shown on television--the first time a stage hit was moved intact from Broadway to TV.

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A record-breaking 65 million viewers watched that live black-and-white telecast on March 7, 1955, and it was so acclaimed that Martin played Peter again for NBC the following January.

In 1960, while she was starring in “The Sound of Music” on Broadway, she was asked to perform “Peter Pan” on television for the third time. In an interview printed in The Times that year, she talked about the backbreaking schedule of doing those two shows simultaneously: “It’s hard work, but it is sheer joy. Since we last did ‘Peter Pan’ on television in 1956, the mail has never stopped coming in asking that we do it again. Now that it is being put on tape, it will be a permanent treasure and I hope it will be shown every year.”

Now, it is 1989, and 29 years have passed since she did the telecast that she hoped would be on each year. On a recent Saturday afternoon, dressed head to toe in “Peter Pan” green and sitting in the comfortable living room of her home, Martin, now 75 and looking every bit as youthful as “Peter Pan,” said the mail is still coming in after all these years. People she meets everywhere still remember how she taught them to crow and made them want to fly.

“Everyone who ever read the Barrie play is a fan,” she said. “Barrie had this dream of perpetual childhood. He didn’t want anyone to grow up, and that intrigues certain kinds of people . . . I happen to be one of them. I’m still not real grown up,” she said with a bit of a Texas drawl and smiling brightly.

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So now that Riesenberg (himself once one of the Lost Boys in a junior high school production of “Peter Pan"--"Wendy was my first date”) along with Beckett and Meyer have rescued “Peter Pan,” will it become a perennial? What kind of rating must it attract for NBC to order more airings?

“We haven’t put a projected rating on this,” Meyer said. “We have to wait and see the overall reaction . . . from the public, from the television press. We’re all so prejudiced about the production. . . . The mechanics are in place for subsequent airings. We would just follow through if reaction warrants it.”

Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment, echoed that answer: “It’s not a pure numbers thing. We want to get a sense of how appreciated it is by the audience from people who write and call.”

Tartikoff added some thoughts on why no one tried to get “Peter Pan” back on the air before this. “A 1970s version with Mia Farrow did not perform very well and there was no impetus to show ‘Peter Pan’ again at that time,” he said. “But now we’re at the end of the ‘80s and we realize what a nugget we have” in the Mary Martin production.

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“I remember the show as a child. And for me, it’s a real joy to use this job to bring back to TV what I remember as a magical experience.”

In Meyer’s view, the long months involved in getting the show on the air represent “a labor of love for all of us.”

Added Riesenberg: “This has been an obsession. It’s the parents--all of us that remember it--who want our kids to see it so badly.”

Said Beckett: “For years, my kids thought all I did at NBC was work on ‘Peter Pan.’ I’m finally vindicated.”

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