Transcript

145:

Poultry Slam 1999
Transcript

Originally aired 11.26.1999

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/145

Act One. Duki.

Ira Glass

In Danielle's house, ever since she was a girl, when holiday dinners come, they serve this meal that might look familiar to you. The main course on a big platter, drumsticks, white breast meat, stuffing and gravy, cranberry relish on the side. And in Danielle's family, they have a name for this meal that she told me on the phone. The name for this meal is--

Danielle Mattoon

Fish.

Ira Glass

Got that?

Danielle Mattoon

Fish.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. A special program today on the wonders of fish. Actually, we can say the word here. And the word is poultry. And as you know, each week on our program we choose some theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to tackle that theme. And this week, as we stand now, in that magical five weeks of the year, that magical five weeks between the turkey served at Thanksgiving and the turkey served at Christmas, a period when Americans consume nearly 1/4 of all the turkey consumed in this country every year. 67 million turkeys are eaten during this period. And every year during this important time, This American Life brings you yet another program about poultry. That's right, stories about turkeys, chickens, ducks, fowl of all kind, and their mysterious hold over us.

I'm Ira Glass. Coming up in this hour, Act One, Duki. The story of a typical American family, imaginary poultry, and a hand puppet. Act Two, Still Life with Chicken, what happens when a chicken crosses that thin, yellow line that divides the animals that we eat, on the one hand, and the animals that we keep as pets on the other. Act Three, How to do the Funky Chicken, the true story of a multinational chicken company powerful enough to turn a white man into a black man, and the man they chose to do this to, well, an old-time Kentucky colonel who happened to be their own spokesman. Act Four, Chicken Diva, yet another testimony to the power that chickens have over our hearts and minds, my friend, an opera about Chicken Little, done with dressed-up Styrofoam balls, sung in Italian, and-- no kidding-- able to make grown men cry. Stick around and hear it for yourself.

Act Two. Still Life With Chicken.

Ira Glass

Act One, Duki. So in Danielle's family, the power of poultry is so great in their lives that when they serve chicken or turkey, they call it--

Danielle Mattoon

Fish.

Ira Glass

That's right. And they call it this for a reason. And the reason has to do with a stuffed hand puppet called Duki. Now, Danielle is a woman over 30 years old. Her sister Ashley is two years younger. Duki has been in the family since they were children.

Danielle Mattoon

Well, he was a Christmas present when Ashley was about eight and I was about 10. And when he first arrived, he was really fluffy. And he was this beautiful, fluffy, white duck. And he had a cape on and black, kind of, villain slash hero goggles. He lost the outfit pretty quickly and he went naked. And then he became Ashley's vehicle for torturing me.

Ira Glass

Now, it's not unusual for older siblings to dominate younger ones. And as children, Danielle dominated Ashley. Ashley looked up to Danielle, fought to get her attention and her approval, and Danielle always, always got her way, except when Duki was around. Basically, Ashley would channel-- I mean, the word's kind of an anachronism in this context-- but she would channel Duki. She would become Duki's voice. She would speak as Duki. And Duki was sarcastic. Duki was selfish and bossy. Duki would insult Danielle. Duki would tease Danielle. Duki would give her painful nose squeaks.

Danielle Mattoon

Whenever Ashley brought Duki into the equation, he was completely the dominant force. I was just putty in Duki's hands.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you to compare his personality with Ashley's personality.

Danielle Mattoon

Ashley's very kind of considerate and-- she's very considerate and kind and thoughtful, and very, very sensitive to other people, very, very concerned about if other people are happy, and if someone or someone else doesn't feel good. And Duki just has this total, you know, what's-for-lunch attitude. Like, what's in it for me? In your face, totally out for himself, simultaneously a braggart and a total wimp.

Ira Glass

He's boastful and vain.

Danielle Mattoon

He's just this indomitable spirit.

Ira Glass

All right, I've been at Danielle's apartment sometimes, and I've witnessed the following scene. Picture please. Danielle has not spoken with her sister in weeks. She picks up the phone, calls Ashley in Michigan. Ashley answers. Danielle asks immediately, can you put Duki on? And then Ashley essentially becomes Duki, puts Duki on the phone. Danielle talks to Duki for 15, 20 minutes, and then they both hang up. That's the whole conversation. And they both feel satisfied. Danielle is an editor at a big New York magazine.

Danielle Mattoon

I adore Duki. I really love Duki. And sometimes I think, like, if he disappeared it would really feel like someone died. I mean, I look at him and he looks really kind of old and ratty. And it really makes me sad. It kind of really-- I feel like-- I mean, it sounds crazy. I mean, it really makes me sad to think about a world without Duki, and it would be a big, empty hole in the world. He kind of takes up as much room in my heart as a lot of people, individually. And if something happened to him, you know, if he were like lost in an airport, or kind of run over by a car, I would be-- I mean, it would really be heart-breaking.

Ira Glass

So I hope it's becoming clear why, if you eat dinner in the home of Danielle's family, if they're serving some kind of poultry-- you know, chicken or turkey-- if you ask anybody in the family what's for dinner, they'll tell you--

Danielle Mattoon

Fish.

Ira Glass

Right. And the rationale for that is what?

Danielle Mattoon

It freaks Duki out.

Ira Glass

It freaks him out, though-- you don't like him to know that perhaps some birds are, in fact, eaten?

Danielle Mattoon

I think he knows. I think he's in denial about it. He's in denial about most things. He's in denial about the fact that he's totally weak, and tiny, and dirty. He thinks he's really good-looking and strong and that he's really smart and has a lot of friends. He's in denial about the fact that he's actually stuffed, which he is. Sometimes I tell him that. I say, Duki, give me a break. You're just stuffed. And he's like, no way.

Ira Glass

Now, I thought I would try to book Duki to come on the radio for this program. So I contacted Danielle's sister Ashley and asked her, you know, could Duki come on the air. I received an answer back, not by phone but by electronic mail, that for Duki to appear I'd have to first go through someone named Yona Lu, who I could reach through Danielle and Ashley's mother. And when I talked to Danielle, I asked her about this.

Ira Glass

I've been informed that the only way that I can reach him is by calling your mom and speaking to Yona Lu. Do I have that name right?

Danielle Mattoon

Yona Lu, yeah. I think that she's acting as his agent.

Ira Glass

Yona Lu is?

Danielle Mattoon

She's a hedgehog.

Ira Glass

Anything special that I should say to Yona Lu to make this happen?

Danielle Mattoon

I mean, I don't know. She drives a pretty hard bargain.

[PHONE RINGING]

Mrs. Mattoon

Hello?

Ira Glass

Hey, Mrs. Mattoon?

Mrs. Mattoon

Yes?

Ira Glass

It's Ira Glass.

Mrs. Mattoon

Hi, Ira Glass.

Ira Glass

Mrs. Mattoon, here's why I called you. I want to do a little story on the radio about Duki.

Mrs. Mattoon

Duki?

Ira Glass

Duki. And I contacted your daughter Ashley, and she said that for me to book Duki onto my radio show, I was going to first need to contact Yona Lu.

Mrs. Mattoon

[LAUGHS] Yeah, you would need to do that.

Ira Glass

And that I needed to do that through you. Who is Yona Lu?

Mrs. Mattoon

Yona Lu is-- she's kind of a-- she's a hedgehog. She's basically taken charge of Duki's financial affairs. I presume this is something to do with money?

Ira Glass

Well, I don't know, actually. I mean, we--

Mrs. Mattoon

That's probably why she said to contact Yona Lu.

Ira Glass

Well, so what do I do now? I'm calling. I was told to contact you if I wanted to get in touch with Yona Lu in order to book Duki. What do I do next?

Mrs. Mattoon

Book Duki, OK. You're going to book Duki?

Ira Glass

That's the whole idea. I want to book Duki for the show, for an interview.

Mrs. Mattoon

Well, I'll just talk to Yona Lu about it. If she says OK, it's OK.

Ira Glass

I mean, will Yona Lu want to discuss terms or something?

Mrs. Mattoon

She doesn't talk.

Ira Glass

So what's going to happen? All right. Should I call you back?

Mrs. Mattoon

You could call me back, or I'll just go in and check.

Ira Glass

You'll just go in and check? Should I wait?

Mrs. Mattoon

Yeah.

Ira Glass

All right, I'll wait.

Mrs. Mattoon

Ira?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Mrs. Mattoon

This is just radio? Not TV?

Ira Glass

It's just radio.

Mrs. Mattoon

And nobody's going to get to be on TV?

Ira Glass

No. No one's going to be on TV. No, it's strictly radio.

Mrs. Mattoon

OK. Yona doesn't care what happens then.

Ira Glass

What if it were TV?

Mrs. Mattoon

I think she'd want to be on, too. I mean, radio doesn't do much for her, she doesn't talk.

Ira Glass

All right. As you might imagine, not everybody in the family takes all this so lightly. Danielle's father was never too keen on this.

Mrs. Mattoon

He was quite actually bothered by the whole-- he thought we maybe had a problem in the family.

Ira Glass

Really?

Mrs. Mattoon

I mean, for a while there, we had two daughters that only communicated through a duck.

Ira Glass

You know, that period that you're describing, when do you mean?

Mrs. Mattoon

I would say they maybe were 10 and 12, or nine and 11.

Ira Glass

And they would only communicate through the duck?

Mrs. Mattoon

Well, Danielle didn't pay a whole lot of attention to Ashley but she paid quite a lot of attention to the duck. So if Ashley wanted to get Danielle's attention, all she had to do was rev up the duck.

Ira Glass

How long did this last?

Mrs. Mattoon

Um, I can't remember. She'd also make Danielle laugh that way. Danielle thought Duki was very funny, but I can't remember her thinking Ashley was funny.

Danielle Mattoon

In terms of the relationship between my sister and me-- I don't know why. I mean, this is probably completely really sick-- but I have so much genuine affection and love for Duki that it's very easy, and it's very easy to demonstrate those feelings, in a way that it's not as easy to kind of demonstrate those feelings toward my sister, just because we never kind of got in the habit of it.

Ira Glass

What percentage of your relationship with your sister is based on your relationship with Duki?

Danielle Mattoon

Well, the really fun part of it is based on my relationship with Duki. But I think as we've gotten older and older, we've gotten more and more self-conscious about the Duki factor in our relationship. But I think kind of a big chunk. I mean, it definitely kind of gives me this vision into her brain that I wouldn't have otherwise.

Ira Glass

Well, I did finally snag an interview with Duki by calling Ashley.

Ira Glass

Is Duki still up for this?

Ashley Mattoon

Yeah, he just got back from a party, though.

Ira Glass

He just got back from a party?

Ashley Mattoon

Yeah. He was at a happy hour thing with a lot of college students. He's not in college, but he's in a band. So a lot of his friends go to this happy hour on Friday night.

Ira Glass

All right. Well, could you get him?

Ashley Mattoon

Uh, sure. He's upstairs. Just a sec. Here he is.

Ira Glass

Hey, Duki?

Ashley Mattoon As Duki

Yeah? Hey Ira, how you doing?

Ira Glass

I'm just fine.

Ashley Mattoon As Duki

Long time no see.

Ira Glass

Long time no see back at you. And welcome to our little radio program.

Ashley Mattoon As Duki

So what's going on here? You've got a whole bunch of celebrities on tonight?

Ira Glass

Well, we actually have a number of different people--

Ashley Mattoon As Duki

What abouts, like, Tom Cruise?

Ira Glass

They're just like Tom Cruise. Now Duki, I was talking to Danielle for our radio program and had her come on and talk about you a little bit. And one of the things that she said was that when she was younger, in order to discipline her if she was doing something that you didn't like, you could pretty much control her with something called nose squeaks.

Ashley Mattoon As Duki

Yeah, because she has this kind of-- it's a prominent nose. You know what I mean? It kind of sticks out and you just want to squeak it. You know, over Thanksgiving, we're watching the Muppet Show, and Miss Piggy was on, and she reminded me a lot of Neelie.

Ira Glass

Of Danielle?

Ashley Mattoon As Duki

Mm-hmm. And Kermit told Miss Piggy to move the pork. And so I was telling Neelie to move the pork all week.

Ira Glass

And would she move?

Ashley Mattoon As Duki

Yes, she would. She would.

Ira Glass

Now, if Ashley would tell her-- if Ashley would sit down on the couch and say to Danielle, move the pork, what would the effect of that be?

Ashley Mattoon As Duki

Kind of-- you know Neelie. You know how she looks at you when she doesn't approve of something you say or do? She gets this kind of ice cold stare and she gives you this sidelong glance that makes you feel like you're about the size of a pea? That's what she does.

Ira Glass

Is there anything about the life of a duck that perhaps you could tell our radio audience that we might not know? You know, I'm sure that you know much more about it than we do.

Ashley Mattoon As Duki

No, not really. I'm kind of an unusual duck. I'm not really in touch with the whole duck scene.

Ira Glass

You're not in touch with the whole scene.

Ashley Mattoon As Duki

When I had time, I used to migrate once in a while, because I had some friends who are ducks. And I try to keep in touch with them. But lately I've just started spending more time with people and doing my own thing. And I just don't have time to do those kinds of duck things anymore. I just wanted more out of my life than that.

Ira Glass

Duki, a stuffed hand puppet, now lives in New York City.

[MUSIC -- "SATURDAY NIGHT FISH FRY" BY LOUIS JORDAN]

Act Three. How To Do The Funky Chicken.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Still Life with Chicken. It was an accident that Jonathan ended up living with a chicken. He was not living the kind of lifestyle that one usually associates with chicken.

Jonathan Gold

This was during the period when I considered myself to be a performance artist of sorts. A naked performance artist, to be specific.

Ira Glass

These days, Jonathan Gold is a food writer. This all happened 15 years ago in southern California. He was putting together a performance. He had a PA system, which could put out the requisite amount of annoying feedback sound at high decibels. He had the two full bottles of Glade American Beauty air freshener, which he would spray in their entirety in the performance space. And he had a live chicken which he bought the day before the performance from one of those Chinese poultry markets in Los Angeles. And it comes the day of the show. An audience gathers in a darkened warehouse in West LA.

Jonathan Gold

I don't know if you've been to a lot of performance art, but this was sort of really typical of the stuff that was going on in the period. And I showed up and I was naked and I was carrying a machete and I was blindfolded. And I stood in the middle of this pile of supermarket chickens. You know, the broilers that you buy. And the chicken that I had bought was tethered to a three-foot rope around me. And I hacked up and down blindly with the machete.

Ira Glass

Toward the chicken or just in general?

Jonathan Gold

Well, I was blindfolded, so I didn't know if it was towards the chicken or not. And I had fully intended that, in fact, I would kill the chicken in the midst of this performance. But chickens aren't that stupid. And this chicken wanted no part of the machete. It stayed at the end of its rope the entire time apparently. And after 10 minutes, when I was completely exhausted, I fell to a heap. And everybody left and the performance was over.

I don't know if you've stuck around after an art performance, but the few minutes after an art performance are some of the most depressing in the world.

Ira Glass

How so?

Jonathan Gold

You've done your wad. You've done your sort of bit for art, which has either worked or it hasn't. But you're sitting there, you're covered with chicken effluvium, in my case. It stinks to high hell. Everybody's gone and you've got to clean up. And you're naked. It's really not a pretty picture.

Ira Glass

So Jonathan cleaned up, and when he was done he had a chicken. And he didn't feel like he could kill the chicken. Destiny had brought them together. He felt like he could not turn his back. He says it was the same as if a kitten shows up on your back door, scratching and lonely and needy. So he took the chicken home. And in doing that, he stumbled across that thin, thin line that separates food items on the one hand from pets on the other, that divides the animals we eat from the animals we love.

Jonathan Gold

So I get home and I have this chicken, and I don't know what to do with it. So I spread out some newspaper on the top of my refrigerator and I put the chicken up there. I get a can of Green Giant brand niblets from under the counter. And I open it and I put it in a little bowl for the chicken. And I give the chicken a little water. And the chicken's on top of my refrigerator.

Ira Glass

Because you think chickens eat corn. You'd read that or something. And that was the available corn.

Jonathan Gold

That was the available corn. I wish I had thought better of the niblets idea.

Ira Glass

Why?

Jonathan Gold

Because, in fact, if you're buying three or four cans of niblets a day-- which is what the chicken ate-- and you're existing on almost nothing-- which I was-- then your niblet bill turns out to be like some two-figure percentage of your total income each week. I mean, if you can imagine living on $50 a week, but $10 of it goes for niblets, it's just hard to justify an expense like that.

And the chicken stayed there on top of my refrigerator for a long time, months. Six months, I think.

Ira Glass

Is this like a one-room apartment?

Jonathan Gold

A two-room apartment. I had a kitchen and a bedroom. So I didn't have to look at the chicken when I was sleeping. Though I did have to look at it when I was cooking.

Ira Glass

Did you ever cook chicken?

Jonathan Gold

Of course I cooked chicken.

Ira Glass

Didn't you feel intensely disloyal?

Jonathan Gold

No, I felt no particular loyalty to this chicken. I don't know if you've ever had chickens, but it's not like-- I mean, you don't pet chickens. Chickens don't really like you to pet them. And you don't hold them. There's really no love that you feel for a chicken in your life, I don't think.

Ira Glass

But yet you kept the chicken?

Jonathan Gold

I kept the chicken because I couldn't bear to do anything else. And it's not like I could have carried out onto Pico Boulevard and said, be free, little chicken. Be free.

Ira Glass

Did you give the chicken a name?

Jonathan Gold

I never named the chicken. When I referred to the chicken in public, I always called it the hen.

Ira Glass

How did you not name it? It was a creature in your house.

Jonathan Gold

The chicken always seemed temporary. It never occurred to me that I might have the chicken as long as six months. The chicken always seemed like something that I would have for just a couple days.

Ira Glass

And then what did you think was going to happen?

Jonathan Gold

I guess I thought-- A, I thought about the chicken expiring. B, I have to admit that there was a possibility that someday I would actually cook the chicken. I went through a lot of chicken recipes, hundreds and hundreds of chicken recipes.

Ira Glass

Thinking maybe this'll be the recipe for my niblet-fed chicken?

Jonathan Gold

I'm not sure that a recipe existed that would've lived up to the fact of the chicken, this animal who you have come to know on fairly intimate terms, and who you've raised, and you've put a certain amount of emotion into.

Ira Glass

A chicken, if I might say, who has seen you naked.

Jonathan Gold

The chicken did see me naked, damn it.

Ira Glass

The fact is, we need food to be just food. And as soon as it becomes a living thing, especially if we're city people, you know, we're not used to the conversion of living things into our food, it's hard to handle without thinking it has to be bigger than food, you know, without wanting to make it ritualized or something bigger than food.

Jonathan Gold

Exactly. Can I tell you a small story?

Ira Glass

Yeah, of course.

Jonathan Gold

A few weeks ago, I was in this Korean restaurant in Koreatown in Los Angeles. It was this place called The Living Fish Center that I'd always wanted to go because the name of it was so splendid. You know, Living Fish Center. I imagined some sort of vast vivarium where Flipper was jumping through hoops and stuff. And I go in there, and of course it's just like a crummy Korean restaurant. I mean, it's not that clean. And I don't know, there are tanks and stuff, but I didn't know what to order. So I order a fish soup, because it looks like they have a small fish soup specialty on the menu. And it comes and it's just really strong-smelling and not that great.

And I try squid fried with bean sauce and onions, which wasn't that happening. And I'm about to give up and pay the check and go home with a vast table filled with uneaten stuff. And it suddenly occurs to me what the specialty of the restaurant is. And I wave the waitress over and I tell her that I'd like a prawn. And she is puzzled. She didn't expect me to ask for a prawn. But I repeat my question, and she shrugs and goes and tells the sushi chef.

And he goes to one side of the restaurant and he climbs on this chair, this ordinary folding chair, and he reaches into this long tank that's running just below the ceiling. And he wiggles his fingers in the water. When he wiggles the fingers, the prawns just become enraged. And they start nipping at his fingers and they start attacking him. And he picks out a couple of the liveliest ones and brings them back to his counter and-- without washing his hands, mind you-- makes a few motions over it. And a couple seconds later, the waitress comes over with the prawns on this huge mound of ice. And what he'd done is he'd taken off the exoskeleton. The head was intact, and that little part of the tail that is always on prawns was still there. But the middle part is naked, like a grub.

And I picked up the prawn with my chopsticks, and it was not dead, this prawn. It was extremely alive. And it was wiggling its legs, and it was wiggling its antennas, and its eyes were swiveling madly on its eye stalks. And it was looking back at me, seeing me as actually the predator, the creature that was going to eat it. And that was a really freakish moment, because as much stuff as I eat, and as low as I eat on the food chain, and as many prawns as I have dispatched in my life, I have never before killed a living being with my teeth. And the prawn knew what I was going to do and he did not like it.

And I wasn't quite sure what to do. But if I put it down, the prawn would have died anyway. I mean, it's not going to live without its shell. Somebody else would have eaten it, blah blah blah. So I bit into it. I bit its body off with my teeth. And the prawn just relaxed in this way that was really eerie. And the taste of the prawn, the taste of the meat of it, was extraordinary. It was sweet. It was like there was life coursing through it. It was the most alive thing I've ever eaten, obviously literally.

But again, it was freaky. It was getting too close to the actual nature of consumption, which is killing a living creature with your teeth. And I thought that I'd killed it. But in fact, when I put it down, it still had so much life in it that it grabbed a piece of salmon sashimi and wouldn't let go of it. And I don't think I ever want to do that again.

Ira Glass

Do you think, in some way, that it's more acceptable to eat an animal if you are more awake to the fact that it is an animal, and what's happened to it? Or do you think it really doesn't matter?

Jonathan Gold

I think it matters a great deal. I mean, one of the greatest metaphors in Western civilization is that of, you know, Christ, who gave his life so that others might live. And I don't want to be sacrilegious, and I don't want to belittle that myth in any way, but a pig is giving its life so that we might eat. A chicken is giving its life so that we might eat. And I think the least that we can do is to think about that chicken, to think about that calf that we're eating, not necessarily to be sad for it, but to celebrate it, to be aware of the being that it was, that it wasn't just this bit of bioengineered protein that somehow managed to find its way onto our plates.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Gold, food writer for Gourmet magazine. Coming up, a chicken diva just a few inches tall, and how a chicken company changed a white man into a black man. That's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Four. Chicken Diva.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, during this period of greatest poultry consumption in our nation, as we do every year at this time on This American Life, we bring you stories of chickens, turkeys, ducks, fowl of all kind, real and imagined. Today we bring you new stories and some favorite from poultry shows past. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, How to do the Funky Chicken.

Well, thus far on our show, we've heard about imaginary poultry in the life of one family. We've heard about poultry as pet and poultry as food. In this act, we examine poultry as a business. It is such a powerful business, says reporter Mark Schone, that it is able to recast human identities. Sometimes.

Mark Schone

Anyone older than 30 remembers Colonel Harland Sanders. He was that plantation Santa in the white suit and string tie, the ancient Southern chicken hawker on the TV ads and the talk shows. He'd flash a crinkly country smile at Mike Douglas and act all down home, sharing a few cracker barrel truths about staying happy in old age. Colonel Sanders insisted that fried chicken didn't harden your arteries, and he lived to be 90 years old to prove it. Here's the man himself in a promo film from the '60s.

Colonel Sanders

So I set my yeast, made the sponge, and made the light bread and baked it all, and it was the prettiest loaf of bread that I believe that I most ever seen. So we take my sister and a loaf of bread, and walked this three miles over to [? Andrewville, ?] across the fields and around the highways, carrying this little sister of mine. And we're taking this loaf of bread in to show mom what we had done, don't you see.

Mark Schone

Now, two decades after he lay in state at the Kentucky capitol building, the Colonel has come back from the dead. He's returned to deliver a message from the other side, but it's hardly the homespun folk wisdom you'd expect.

Cartoon Colonel Sanders

Hey there! This is your Colonel talking. Now, I've got something here that is downright fun. It's more fun than watchin' me, unless of course Colonel get funky. Go Colonel, go Colonel.

Mark Schone

Reanimated as a cartoon, the Colonel still has a pink face and white suit, but these days the erstwhile Southern gentleman twirls his cane like Huggy Bear and pimp limps to the greasy beat of old-school '70s funk. When he chants, Go Colonel, he's doing the Cabbage Patch, that annoying end zone celebration of a dance, where the arms stick straight out while the shoulders rotate.

Since September 9, 1998, in an ad campaign that began on his 108th birthday, the Colonel has Cabbage Patched, tap danced, rapped, and played basketball. He is not merely risen from the grave, he's risen above the rim, where he catches an alley-oop pass and jams the rock in the hole. The Colonel is now a black man.

What's it mean when a redneck who dressed like a slave owner comes back from the dead and gets funky? For people who actually knew the Colonel, like biographer John Ed Pearce, his racial makeover can be a little jarring.

John Ed Pearce

I resent it. It depicts the Colonel as a clown, as a song and dance guy. He was a redneck showman and he believed very deeply and thoroughly in publicity. But he was not a clown. He had a certain innate dignity to him.

Cartoon Colonel Sanders

A little chicken music please. [SINGING] The thigh bone's connected to the wing bone. The wing bone's connected to the--

Mark Schone

He was a showman, though. Are you saying he would never sing "Dem Bones?"

John Ed Pearce

No.

Mark Schone

Wouldn't do a Cabbage Patch dance?

John Ed Pearce

No. That's what I'm trying to say. He was not a clown. Dancing around, twirling his cane, and the Southern accent, which he did not have.

Mark Schone

The real Harland Sanders was an Indiana hick who left home young and had dozens of different careers. At one point, he dressed up as the Michelin man and worked the county fairs. Finally, he settled in southeastern Kentucky and opened a gas station slash motel slash cafe, which became the lab where he perfected his pressure-cooked fried chicken and secret original recipe. For 30 years, he ran the Sanders cafe in Corbin, Kentucky, and earned a rep as a hardass, redneck, potty mouth who really liked the ladies.

John Ed Pearce

A woman at the Chamber of Commerce told me that every time Harland came in, why, she had to beat his hands off of her. And she told him, Harland, get your hands off me. I got all I need at home.

Mark Schone

When he wasn't cussing and adulterin', he was not loving his neighbor as himself. The Colonel welcomed a fight and fought to win by any means necessary. There are countless tales of him throwing knives, plates, and chunks of concrete, and lashing out with canes and chairs up past the age of 70. This supposed Southern gentleman guarded his turf like a South Central Crip.

In 1931, he and his homies confronted a rival who was painting over his billboards. The punk was tagging the Colonel's signs. Sanders let the bullets rip. The original recipe gangsta drilled his foe in the breast and thigh.

Cartoon Colonel Sanders

At KFC, we do chicken right! And not just in a bucket neither. The Colonel? He the man.

Mark Schone

The most delicious thought about the commercials that turned Colonel Sanders into a black man is the oh-wouldn't-it-be-so-ironic possibility that this elderly Southerner was a racist. He did once ride in a parade with segregationist hero George Wallace. His adopted hometown of Corbin was a don't-let-the-sun-set-on-you kind of place, known and feared among Kentucky blacks, particularly after an episode of ethnic cleansing in 1919, when a posse of whites lynched a few local blacks, burned others, and put the survivors on a train out of town.

And it probably didn't help that halfway through the century, at age 60, Harland Sanders decided to become Colonel Sanders. Mimicking a Southern planter, he began sporting a white suit, string tie, and walking stick. A hairdresser died his goatee white to match his hair. In 1974, the freaky blacksploitation flick, Darktown Strutters, channeled the worst suspicions of blacks and liberals. The villain of the film is a Colonel Sanders clone whose fast food empire hides an underground Ku Klux Klavern full of racist bikers.

Ray Callender

There wasn't a racist bone in his body. For that fact, he bent over backwards to make a change. If the perception of him being a racist was real, he wanted to overcome that.

Mark Schone

As head of public relations for Kentucky Fried Chicken in the late '70s, Ray Callender traveled the country with the Colonel for several years. He had to kick his boss under the table sometimes to stop him griping to the press about the declining quality of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and he heard a lot of salty language in the back of the Colonel's white Caddy. But as a black man riding shotgun for the very emblem of white southernness, Callender never once caught Sanders saying the n-word.

Ray Callender

And the only close incident that came like that was when he was writing his own little speech in preparation for whatever was going on, and he turned to me and said, he wanted to know what us nice folks were calling ourselves these days. And I looked up and I said, well, what do you mean? And he said, well, is-- his term was-- he didn't say nigger. It was Negra. And I said, oh, this is where it comes to a stop. Nowadays we call ourselves black. And then he would say, Well, I wouldn't call you nice folks black. To the Colonel, black was a derogatory term to him. And you can imagine coming through that time, that's-- he was raised in that environment.

Of course, when we travelled out, we'd rent limousines. And in the case with me traveling with the Colonel, I always sat in the back, believe it or not, and he sat up front with the driver. And what he would do, when we got to the motel where we stayed, he jumped out of the car and ran to the back to open the door for me, and run ahead to the hotel and guide me through the door, and he would carry the bags. And we had, at that point, back in 1976, the doorman came to me, scratching his head, and said, you know, I know that man is Colonel Sanders, that Kentucky Fried Chicken guy, millionaire. And I said, yeah. And he said, well, who the hell are you? And the Colonel said, that's my son, but we don't talk about that.

Mark Schone

After the Colonel died, his empire got in a mess of trouble, running around like a chicken chain with its head cut off. There was the unhealthy vibe of that bad word, fried, easily fixed by changing the name to KFC. But more importantly, there was the morphing of fast food from carry-out to eat-in. Buckets of chicken were old-timey, like families eating dinner together at home. KFC needed new products, like sandwiches, that people could eat in the store for lunch. And there was the matter of the dead company spokesman. Last year, after many false starts, KFC solved the product and pitching problems in one fell swoop. It debuted a line of sandwiches and other boneless items, and it brought the Colonel back as a cartoon to sell them. The impact, says Peter Folds, KFC's chief image and ad director, was immediate.

Peter Folds

And that's when we knew we had a hit on our hands, because literally outside of the office you'd have people doing that Cabbage Patch dance and going, go Colonel, go Colonel. So we knew we had something good on our hands then. Out in the street. I mean, people in a store. You'd go in a grocery store, and I'd be in an aisle, and I'd see a little kid doing that, showing her mother that she could do that. So just very spontaneous.

Cartoon Colonel Sanders

I am getting a tan.

Mark Schone

Folds denies the new animated Colonel is in any way urban, to use ad-speak for black. He confirms, however, that the KFC brand name is more popular among blacks than whites, and he claims the Cabbage Patch Colonel has been embraced by black consumers. According to Folds, the campaign has clicked so well with everybody in America that sales have risen 6% and KFC's once sleepy lunch hour is jumping. Again, Ray Callender.

Ray Callender

I think the ad campaign is great in more ways than one, because since I did travel with the Colonel, it kind of reminded me of him, kind of nostalgic kind of trip.

Mark Schone

And you think he would be OK with what they've done with his image?

Ray Callender

I know that, because I know what he was trying to accomplish when he was alive. I mean, at that time, I was travelling with him, he wanted to be more involved in the minority community. In light of, I think at that time, sales-- more than 40% of our sales-- were from the minority community. And he actually wanted to go learn Spanish and do commercials in Spanish, and visit with the minority community in New York City, in Harlem in particular.

Mark Schone

So it sounds like he was, you know, if it would sell some chicken, he would do it.

Ray Callender

If it sold chicken, he would do it.

[SOUND OF PHONE RINGING]

Woman 1

Hello?

Woman 2

Keisha, are you ready for this? We can get two pieces of chicken, leg or thigh, a side and a biscuit for just $1.99!

Woman 1

Where?

Woman 2

At KFC, girl! [CALL WAITING BEEP] One second, Keisha. Hello?

Cartoon Colonel Sanders

Hey, it's the Colonel.

Woman 2

The Colonel?

Cartoon Colonel Sanders

I just want to tell you my original recipe chicken is finger-licking kicking! And my square meal deal is for real!

Mark Schone

The Colonel is free at last. Thank God Almighty, he's free at last. And the black man set him free. An urbanized tune has taken the last lingering stink of the old South off him. Once upon a time, in true American style, he invented himself. And now we are reinventing him. I confess I have a crush on the new, improved, funky Colonel. His patchwork soul is exactly what makes me get all maudlin about America. I'm proud to live in a country where any little white boy, from any small redneck town, through hard work and perseverance, can someday, if he's lucky, grow up to be a black man.

Ira Glass

Mark Schone is a writer living in Brooklyn.

[MUSIC -- FROM AN OLD DOCUMENTARY ABOUT COLONEL SANDERS]

Act 4.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Chicken Diva. In the end it seems, when humans are concerned, chickens are what we make of them. For further evidence, we have this story from Jack Hitt.

Jack Hitt

Oddly enough, it wasn't Susan who was obsessed with chickens. It was Kenny, a pal who worked backstage at the 92nd Street Y in New York. His house was filled with chicken cups, chicken masks. He got the whole staff onto chickens, including Susan. For a time there in the '80s, poultry-related jokes and references became the fast way to get a laugh at the Y.

I guess most of us are condemned to see nothing more than the easy comedy of chickens. But Susan Vitucci saw something else, their potential greatness, their hidden beauty, their grandeur. One day she glued together some finger puppets for a 10-minute rendition of the Chicken Little story for her nephew. That was 14 years ago. Today it is a full-length opera, enjoyed by a cult following whenever it goes up in a workshop or cafe or small theater. It's still performed with finger puppets, but now it has a complete score written by a noted composer, Henry Krieger, who did Dreamgirls. The Chicken Little opera he wrote with Susan Vitucci is called Love's Fowl. Needless to say, that's F-O-W-L.

Henry Krieger

Well, we were going to start with the opening, the opening [SPEAKING ITALIAN]. We are the Clothespin Repertory Theater. And we have a special singing guest for you, which, I don't know--

Jack Hitt

Susan and I are sitting at Henry's baby grand piano. Henry's guest is his Maltese terrier named Toby.

Henry Krieger

Perhaps Toby would be kind enough--

Jack Hitt

Yeah, would she sit on your lap for this?

Henry Krieger

Yeah, let's see what we can do. OK

Jack Hitt

OK, listen carefully, because once Toby gets going, he actually harmonizes with Henry and Susan.

[HENRY KRIEGER AND SUSAN VITUCCI SINGING IN ITALIAN WITH DOG]

You may have noticed that this libretto is in Italian, just like a real opera.

Susan Vitucci

Before, it was just a bunch of puppets in a box, you know, with a good idea. And then, suddenly, as soon as it went into Italian, it became something bigger than what it had been. And it's because, when it's in English, we all kind of know it and it's really not that interesting. And it's like, yeah, yeah, yeah. As soon as it's in Italian, it gives us enough distance that we can come in. It's like the lover who doesn't want you. You don't want anybody more than you want the one who doesn't want you. Right? And so it's sort of the same thing.

[SUSAN VITUCCI SINGING IN ITALIAN]

Jack Hitt

You may recall that when you last heard of Little, back in kindergarten, she was just an average barn door fowl, who had an acorn drop on her head, which she mistakenly understood to be the sky falling. Her alarms excited her friends, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, and Ducky Lucky, and they join her for a journey to the king to tell him the important news. On the way, they meet up with Sly Fox. Little's pals eagerly accept his invitation for dinner, literally, as it turns out. Fortunately for Little, hunger is not enough to distract her from her mission, and she treks on. When she meets the king, he tells her that the sky's not falling, it's just an acorn. So the enlightened Chicken Little returns to her coop, and that's where the story ends.

What are we to take away from Little's experience? I like to think it's that Little is rewarded with life, precisely because she went off on this quixotic mission, totally in the grip of a wrong idea.

[SUSAN VITUCCI SINGING IN ITALIAN]

The children's fable barely figures into the story. It's just one small episode in the life of Chicken Little, now known as La Pulcina Piccola. After the acorn incident, she goes on to become an internationally renowned figure in almost every field imaginable, a diva of politics, academe, theater, art, derring-do. Like Venus, she arrives from some other world, transported on a scallop shell, but the triumphs of her life begin after a youthful love affair with a fighting cock ends bitterly, and she consoles herself-- as we all do at some point in our lives-- by plunging into Shakespeare. She becomes an overnight sensation as an actress, celebrated all over the world for one role. Juliet? Cleopatra? Ophelia?

Susan Vitucci

The company then performs an excerpt, a recreation of her signature role, which is Richard III. Well, you know, I mean, Sarah Bernhardt did Hamlet--

Jack Hitt

Well, there's a great tradition of women playing the men's roles in Shakespeare, but I think Richard III is one of the more rare roles to be played by a woman.

Susan Vitucci

Well, that's how adventuresome an actress this chicken was.

Jack Hitt

I can assure you, there's nothing like watching a four-inch tall finger puppet crying out, a horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse! in Italian. Not to mention that that puppet is a chicken, surrounded by a whole supporting cast of poultry, and other avian supernumeraries. Susan says that, artistically, there's something special about chickens.

Susan Vitucci

They're a clean slate. You can put anything on them. You can project anything onto them, because it's not like they have, to me at least, a very strong personality.

Jack Hitt

Except for La Pulcina. In the opera, she moves into the field of archaeology, masters it, needless to say, and makes a great discovery, the last tomb of Gallapatra, but not before she sails the Seven Seas, is shipwrecked, gets rescued, but it's by pirates, and then she meets the pirate king.

Susan Vitucci

As soon as he meets her, he falls in love with her, because of her sweet spirit. Because she comes in and she says, here you see a little chicken, who, although I'm dripping wet, I'm proud and yellow.

Jack Hitt

Let me repeat that lyric for you, in a purer translation. Although I stand before you, a chicken, who is dripping wet, I am proud and I am yellow. OK, back to Susan.

Susan Vitucci

And although I have loved and I have lost, I have learned to follow the call of adventure. So let's sail on.

[SINGING IN ITALIAN]

Jack Hitt

Keep in mind that all of the action, like everything that occurs in every Susan Vitucci production, ever since the first one for her nephew, and continuing to this day, occurs among characters created by sticking a small painted Styrofoam ball onto a larger painted Styrofoam ball, poking in two map tacks for eyes, gluing on a tiny felt beak, and then impaling the whole thing on top of one of those really old-fashioned clothes pins that a '40s cartoon figure would clamp to his nose around a chunk of Limburger cheese.

[SINGING IN ITALIAN]

And I could go on. Susan has written, or as she puts it, translated La Pulcina Piccola's diaries, which detail the other adventures that happened in between those in the opera. There are 60 pages so far, excerpts of which have appeared in Clotheslines, the official fan club newsletter of the opera. Love's Fowl has a strange effect on people. I didn't understand it until Susan loaned me a videotape of one performance. To be honest, I thought I would be annoyed at the intentional irony and hokeyness of the puppets. But there I was, with my three-year-old daughter, who loved the show, watching a plastic bird pantomime one of the simplest human moments, but also one of the most profound, the confession of a great love. In this case, with a cock robin.

Susan Vitucci

The song that she sings as she enters goes, I am a chicken and ready for love. My heart is as fragile as the egg from which I was born. Treat me gently and so will I treat you. Together from earthly love we will reach for the divine. And then she sings, I am a chicken and I can't fly without love. My heart it is strong as the egg from which I was born. And so forth. And so, it is only with cock robin that she flies.

[SINGING IN ITALIAN]

Jack Hitt

And after they've agreed to fly together, and they're soaring in the air, cock robin is shot and killed, murdered by a jealous sparrow. I couldn't believe it, but I was getting choked up, especially when cock robin appeared on the stage, his Styrofoam body spray painted black for the lament, his little magic marker eyes drawn as X's. I gathered my daughter in my arms and held on tight as I was helplessly drawn into an expression of the grief and suffering of this little sad bird. In this era of slick special effects, there was something unexpectedly liberating in the marriage of this crude medium, painted Styrofoam balls bobbing up and down behind a cardboard box, and the high melodramatic art of Italian opera. Picture it.

[SINGING IN ITALIAN]

I want a subscription to that newsletter.

Jack Hitt

Are you going to do this? I mean, are you going to be working with Pulcina Piccola you think for the rest of your life?

Susan Vitucci

It's possible. And I like working with her because I get to go into a world that's inhabited by a very sweet spirit and play with the mechanics of the world. And because it's very small-- like, I could never have afforded to produce this show with people. But I could afford to do it with clothespins. So I can do as big a production as I want with clothespins. I can have stuff fly in and out and come in from traps, and I can have all kinds of fancy, flashy stuff that costs millions of dollars to do on Broadway. And it cost me $200 because I had to buy lots and lots of Styrofoam and clothespins and stuff, and all this, and a new table maybe, and I get to do whatever I want.

[SINGING IN ITALIAN]

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt's a writer who lives in New Haven.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself, with Susan Burton, Blue Chevigny, Alix Spiegel, Julie Snyder, and Nancy Updike. Musical help from John Connors. Thanks also to Larry Josephson and Jay Hedblade. Elizabeth Meister runs our website.

Susan Vitucci's opera about Chicken Little is available on CD at www.pulcina.org. That's pulcina spelled, of course, P-U-L-C-I-N-A.org. To buy a cassette of this or any of our non-poultry oriented shows, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Or visit our website, where you can also listen to our programs for free, www.thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who decided he did not want to come onto our program after he asked just one question.

Mrs. Mattoon

This is just radio? Not TV?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.