HAPPY Birthday, Pinocchio. How many has it been? 25! Hey, your nose is getting longer.
50? Don't look at me when you answer.
100! Pinocchio, you little devil.
Geppetto's little bundle of wood, with his nose for trouble, turned the centennial corner recently (puppets, like wine, are dated by the year), which is an excuse for the Smithsonian's Discovery Theatre to bring back the Allan Stevens Puppets' production unveiled there in 1974. The Stevens version, scripted by Vera Hughes, is closely based on the original Carlo Lorenzini stories that first appeared in an Italian children's magazine in 1880 and as a book in 1883 (a confusion of dates which led to an official two-year-long centennial celebration in Italy).
Lorenzini wrote under the name Collodi, the name of the small town where his mother had been born. He was a penniless journalist who also had worked as a political satirist and magazine publisher. His first efforts in the field of children's literature were translations into Italian of the French fairy tales of Charles Perrault, best known for his versions of "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Bluebeard." The first installment in "The Adventures of Pinocchio" appeared in late 1880.
The now classic tale of the puppet who wanted to become "a real live boy" originally ran in 36 installments, which were structured as morality tales. Some of the character-building lessons were gentle and obvious (don't lie or you'll get into trouble; share your money with those less fortunate; don't waste food, because someday you may get hungry and wish you hadn't). Others were rooted in anxiety: You'd better be an obedient child or your mother will die (the original mother-figure, the Blue Fairy, dies three different times because Pinocchio disappoints her).
Collodi's stories were collected into book form in 1883 . Over the years, the scarier encounters and the stern moral implications have been replaced by the more accessible elements of adventure and straightforward "do-right"-ness. "Pinocchio" is currently available in close to 90 languages with 111 editions in English, alone; more than 400 television programs have utilized the little fellow. A half-dozen films have been made, including Walt Disney's famous 1940 version.
Disney's version was inspired by Yasha Frank's 1937 stage version of "Pinocchio," first presented by the 125-member children's unit of the Federal Theatre Project at the Beaux Arts Theatre in Los Angeles. Frank's production, which attracted as many adults as children, ran for more than two years, ending its run in New York when Congress killed the Federal Theatre Project in June 1939. At the final performance, Pinocchio was placed inside a coffin while the audience mourned en masse. While children waved placards inscribed "Who killed Pinocchio?" stage hands demolished the set in full view of the spectators.
Having survived federal budget cuts (and more recently, an X-rated adaptation), Pinocchio continues to be one of the most enduring and endearing child folk figures, easily in a league with Hansel and Gretel, Peter Pan and Aladdin. Collodi, the Italian town that gained fame as an adopted name, is now a shrine to Pinocchiana, including a permanent garden celebrating the puppet's adventures.
One of the more heartwarming stories to emerge from the Pinocchio boom concerned the late pope John Paul I, the gentle pope who ruled for only a month before his death in 1978. John Paul I used to recall the letters he sent to Pinocchio in the days he was a bishop. "I was exactly like you when I was a boy," he wrote. John Paul I also predicted that eventually, Pinocchio would have gotten married. "I don't think you would have had the vocation to become a monk."