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''Peter Pan'' through the ages

”Peter Pan” through the ages — The Disney film of J.M. Barrie’s play is only the most popular incarnation of the boy who never grew up

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Jean Arthur, Maggie Smith, Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, and now Cathy Rigby are some of the sprites who have strapped on flying harnesses and soared in Peter Pan. Which one you prefer probably depends on your age, but none can match the durability of the animated star of Walt Disney’s classic film version, which was a smash as soon as it hit American theaters on Feb. 11, 1953.

”Out and out fun,” raved one critic at the time. That sentiment is still widely shared; the new Peter Pan video has sold 6.4 million copies at $24.99 since its release five months ago, making it the nation’s top selling tape during that time. The Disney version, in fact, has become the standard Peter Pan, though it embellishes the play about an ageless boy that Sir James M. Barrie wrote in 1904. In the Disney film, for instance, Sir James’ mischievous spot of light named Tinker Bell becomes a shapely, tiny tart. ”People always thought I based her on Marilyn Monroe,” says animator Marc Davis, ”but it was never a specific person.”

Barrie, who died in 1937, most likely would have been appalled at Tinker Bell’s skimpy costume. A true Victorian eccentric (he was thought to have been a lifelong virgin), Barrie willed his rights to the tale to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. After the copyright expired in the United Kingdom in 1987, Parliament passed a special law reinstating royalty rights to the hospital, which treats 9,000 inpatients and 70,000 outpatients a year. The copyright is good in the United States until 2003, according to John Quinton, director of fund-raising for Great Ormond Street, but the hospital has made no money from the enormously profitable Disney video. Because Disney copyrighted the animated characters, it keeps the royalties from the film and video. Nevertheless, ”I like the Disney version,” says Quinton. ”It helps introduce a new generation of viewers to the story,” thus insuring future income for the hospital.

Although Barrie’s will stipulates that the total amount of money generated by the copyright not be divulged, royalties from individual productions can be revealed. The currently touring Rigby play has put around $100,000 in the hospital’s coffers, according to Quinton. Columbia recently paid $500,000 for the rights to film Hook, a lavish update to be directed by Steven Spielberg and to star Robin Williams as Peter Pan. The hospital has a 3.75 percent cut of the movie’s net profits (if there are any), including merchandise.

As far as Quinton knows, the hospital has never refused anyone the right to perform Peter Pan. ”We wouldn’t say no as long as it’s the basic story,” he says. When told about a 1968 University of Wisconsin all-nude staging, he simply laughs. ”As long as it works and makes money for the hospital,” he says, ”how could we refuse?”


TIME CAPSULE Feb. 11, 1953
Joining Peter Pan at the box office is John Huston’s Moulin Rouge. I Love Lucy rules the TV screen. In fiction, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a best-seller, while Norman Vincent Peale shows readers The Power of Positive Thinking. Theresa Brewer tops the charts with ”Till I Waltz Again With You.”