The story of the 1940 one-act comedy Child Wonder may be succinctly summarized: how the unspankable got spanked.
(Bruce Symmonds spanks Dorothy Jackson at Exeter High School, California, on November 14, 1945)
The middle of the last century was full of stories about teenage girls who run wild, to their fathers’ despair, confident in the belief that there can be no danger of the ultimate sanction. We shall meet more of them later in this series. But Child Wonder comes with a twist…
(The miniskirted Maureen Rooney gets a spanking from Jerry Huculak at Humboldt Collegiate Institute, Saskatchewan, in the school year 1967-68)
The play is credited to Pete Williams, but you’ll hunt high and low before you find any other examples of his work, because he was a pseudonym. His true identity was James Reach, a dramatist who was active for thirty years, from the mid-1930s until the mid-1960s. Hunting high and low through his other plays shows that he was another of those writers who was not entirely uninterested in spanking.
(Noni Carroll, wearing knee-length bloomers under her skirt, bends over to receive retribution from Mike Borho at Milwaukie High School, Oregon, in the school year 1967-68)
He was also not entirely uninterested in the 1930s phenomenon of the Hollywood child star, as exemplified by Shirley Temple, nor entirely convinced by the studio hype to the effect that these kids were little angels. One of his previous plays, Meet the Duchess, also features a child star among its characters, and emphasizes how different she is in real life from the cute perfection of her onscreen persona. The title character of Child Wonder embodies the same critique: Eloise Harvey, publicized by the studio as ‘The World’s Little Bit of Gladness’, is in reality a horrific brat who is conceitedly certain of her own genius, resentful of the duties imposed by her stardom and prone to bouts of pretended terminal illness whenever she is asked to do something she doesn’t want to – though it seems the prospect of a dose of medicinal castor oil can work a wondrous revival. In fact, she deserves…
(Robert Hoover spanks Patricia Russell at Big Spring High School, Newville, Pennsylvania, on November 17, 1961)
But there’s another layer to this. Young Shirley Temple was the subject of a bizarre newspaper rumor that she was not a child at all but a midget in her 30s. That’s not quite the case with Eloise, but her mother does point out that she is ‘pretty old – for a child star’. The studio believes that she is under ten years of age, whereas in truth she is significantly older. And that is the key to her downfall…
(John Beswetherick spanks Dixie Mizer at Orrville High School, Ohio, in November 1953)
The play sets out its stall early in an argument between the parents, Walter and Frances. As the family breadwinner, Eloise rules the roost in the Harvey household, depriving Walter of his authority as a father and his dignity as a man: we later see her cavilling at the $50 he spent on a coat, pointing out that it was actually her money. Walter resents being made to feel like a parasite on his own child, resents Eloise’s appalling behavior, resents his own inability to deal with it in the time-honored fashion:
WALTER: You’re not the mother of a little girl, Frances – not any more. You’re the mother of a celluloid image – a spoiled, obnoxious little prodigy! Do you know what she really needs – (Waits for an answer; not getting one, he goes on anyway.) She needs a spanking. A real, old-fashioned, honest-to-Godfrey spanking –!
FRANCES (horrified): A spanking – Eloise?
WALTER: Eloise! It’s the only thing that might possibly save her. Possibly, I said – because it’s probably too late even for that to do any good –
FRANCES: Spank Eloise – ‘The World’s Little Bit of Gladness’ – ?
WALTER: World’s little bit of boloney!
And that can only mean Eloise really is headed for…
(Carolyn Bradshaw across Billy Lakin’s knee at Warrensburg Lathan High School, Illinois, on April 4, 1941)
This being a one-act play, the plot works itself out with swift economy. Eloise is due to give an interview to a journalist, Laverna Carr, but she is being her usual fractious self: she doesn’t want to come out and do her duty. This leaves Laverna alone with Walter, and she takes the opportunity to discuss the unsavory rumors she has heard about the World’s Little Bit of Gladness:
LAVERNA: They say she’s been so spoiled, she reeks.
WALTER: You’re telling me!
LAVERNA: Somebody ought to do something about it.
WALTER: Somebody certainly should.
LAVERNA: I wish I were her father – just for five minutes. I’d give her a whaling she’d never forget.
WALTER: My sentiments exactly. That’s just what I was telling my wife a little while ago.
Laverna worms it out of Walter that Eloise isn’t actually as young as she seems – and he even shows her a birth certificate to prove it. But he is adamant that this mustn’t get out: if the studio discovers she’s older, it will be the end of her career… By the time Eloise is ready to come and give her interview, Laverna has bustled off with a scandal to write up. Walter sends back word that Eloise will not be interviewed after all today because Laverna has left: ‘she had to go and see a man about a spanking’. Could that be a Freudian slip? Because, you know, it really sounds as if he gave Laverna the story on purpose…
Everything pans out as expected: Laverna outs Eloise, the studio boss telephones with the news that he’s canceling her contract and Eloise becomes an instant has-been – the child star who isn’t really a little girl. Walter plans to get his old job back, and declares that he is now restored to his former status as head of the house. But first there is Eloise to deal with:
WALTER: I shouldn’t do it, but I’m going to give you one more chance to show me there’s a little bit of human being in you. Will you apologise for all the things you said to me today and all the other days?
ELOISE: No! No, I won’t!
WALTER: Good! I was hoping you’d say that –
(‘Walter Harvey gets ready to give Eloise a spanking she deserves’ in the 1972-73 production at Milwaukie High School, Oregon; Jim Harder plays Walter and Cathy Moffitt won the school’s best actress award for her performance as the spanked Eloise)
Still holding her with one hand, he slips out of his coat, drags her, screaming, to the divan.
ELOISE: Don’t! Don’t! Let me alone!
He sits on the divan, takes her across his knee, rolls up his sleeve.
(Melvin Waski spanks Mary Pangrazzi at Mount Carmel High School, Pennsylvania, in the school year 1941-42)
FRANCES: Walter! What are you going to do?
WALTER: Remember what I said to you about the dawn of a new era? This is it!
ELOISE: You can’t! You can’t spank me! I’m a genius!
WALTER: Even geniuses have their vulnerable spots. (Raises his arm.) And now, my little bit of gladness – this is going to hurt you more than it’s going to hurt me!
(Sandy Stewart is spanked by Charles Semple at Downey High School, California, in the school year 1980-81)
He brings his hand down with a resounding whack, Eloise screams and
THE CURTAIN FALLS
The play was frequently produced in North American high schools, where there is a steady regular demand for one-act scripts for competitions. Sometimes (as you may have noticed) it was produced multiple times by the same high school by different generations of students. It often gained plaudits. For example, it won first prize in the 1948-49 school drama contest at Edmore High School, North Dakota:
High school production meant that the play’s characters, belonging to two generations, were generally all played by actors of more or less the same age. The suspension of disbelief this can require may be illustrated in this picture of the spanking scene from What Cheer High School, Iowa, in 1955:
Mickey McKay is spanking Carolyn Coghlan, but if you didn’t know the play you’d never guess that they are supposed to be father and daughter, still less that Carolyn is playing a naughty girl who could pass for a child star!
The earliest recorded production was in the fall of 1940 at Ripon High School, Wisconsin:
And Eloise Harvey’s ‘vulnerable spot’ remained at risk seven decades after the play was originally written. The latest production I’ve been able to find was at De Soto High School, Missouri, as recently as the school year 2007-8. Darrick Pratt was Walter, while his daughter was played by Becky Brown, who later made an ironic choice of career when she left school: she became… a tanning consultant! Sadly I can’t show you a picture of her getting tanned by Darrick, but at least we know it happened: across America, Child Wonder lives on!