Transcript

252:

Poultry Slam 2003
Transcript

Originally aired 11.28.2003

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/252

Prologue.

Ira Glass

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

Danielle

Fish.

Ira Glass

Got that?

Danielle

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 a fourth of all the turkey consumed in this country every year. 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 this hour, Act One: Duki. The story of a typical American family and imaginary poultry. Act Two: what poultry-positive program would be complete without--

Chickenman Show Chorus Member

Chickenman!

Chickenman Show Chorus

He's everywhere, he's everywhere!

Ira Glass

Yes, indeed. In the late 1960s, the winged warrior struck terror in the hearts of evildoers on radios all across this great nation. Today, my friends, he flies again. Act Three: Chicken Diva. In that act, an opera about Chicken Little sung in Italian, and-- no kidding-- able to make a grown man cry. Act Four: Trying To Respect The Chicken. The story of one woman's quest to try to give chickens the honor and the dignity that they are rarely accorded, even though the chickens resist her efforts.

Stay with us.

Act One. Duki.

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

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

Well, he was a Christmas present when Ashley was about 8 and I was about 10. And when he first arrived, he was really fluffy. And he was this beautiful, fluffy, white duck. 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

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

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

Ashley is 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 has this total, like, 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

He's just this indomitable-- yeah-- indomitable spirit.

Ira Glass

All right. I've been at Daniels 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. These are adult-- Danielle is an editor at a big New York magazine.

Danielle

I adore Duki. I really love Duki. And sometimes I think 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. I feel like-- it sounds crazy. It really makes me sad to think about a world without Duki. And that it would be a big empty hole 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 lost at an airport or run over by a car, it would really be heartbreaking.

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 were to ask anybody in the family, "what's for dinner," they'll tell you--

Danielle

Fish.

Ira Glass

Right. And the rationale for that is what?

Danielle

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

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, and 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

Yona Lu, yeah.

Ira Glass

Yona Lu.

Danielle

I think that's-- she's acting as his agent.

Ira Glass

Yona Lu is?

Danielle

She's a hedgehog.

Ira Glass

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

Danielle

I mean, I don't know. She's a pretty-- 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

Yona Lu. [LAUGHING]

Yeah, you would need to do that.

Ira Glass

And that I needed to do that through you.

Mrs. Mattoon

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Who is Yona Lu.

Mrs. Mattoon

Yona Lu is-- she's a hedgehog. She's basically taken charge of Duki's financial affairs. And 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 gonna' 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. She says OK, it's OK.

Ira Glass

Would 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?

Mrs. Mattoon

Yeah.

Ira Glass

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?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Mrs. Mattoon

Not TV?

Ira Glass

It's just radio.

Mrs. Mattoon

And nobody is going to get to be on TV?

[IRA LAUGHING]

Ira Glass

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

Mrs. Mattoon

OK. Yona Lu doesn't care what happens then.

Ira Glass

What if it were TV?

Mrs. Mattoon

I think she'd want to be on, too. [IRA LAUGHING] Even though she doesn't-- I mean, radio doesn't do much for her because 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

Mm-hm. [AFFIRMATIVE] I mean, for a while there, we had two daughters that only communicated through a duck.

Ira Glass

Yeah. That period that you're describing, when do you mean?

Mrs. Mattoon

I would say they maybe were 10 and 12 or 9 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

And how long did this last?

Mrs. Mattoon

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

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 got in the habit of it.

Ira Glass

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

Danielle

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

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

Ira Glass

He just got back from a party?

Ashley

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 nights.

Ira Glass

All right. Well, could you get him?

Ashley

Uh, sure. He's upstairs-- just a sec.

Ira Glass

OK.

Ashley

Here he is.

Ira Glass

Hey, Duki?

Duki

Yeah? Hey, Ira, how ya' doin'?

Ira Glass

I'm just fine.

Duki

Long time no see.

Ira Glass

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

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.

Duki

[UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] like Tom Cruise?

Ira Glass

They're just like Tom Cruise.

Duki

OK.

Ira Glass

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.

Duki

Yeah. Because she has this kind of-- it's a prominent nose, you know what I mean? Kind of sticks out and you just want to squeak it. You know, like, over Thanksgiving we were watching The Muppet Show. And Miss Piggy was on, and she reminded me a lot of Niellie.

Ira Glass

Of Danielle?

Duki

Mm-hm. [AFFIRMATIVE] Yeah. And Kermit told Miss Piggy, "move the pork." And so I was telling Niellie to move the pork all week.

Ira Glass

And would she move?

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?

Duki

Kind of-- you know Niellie. 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 kind of feel like you're about the size of a pea.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Duki

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? I'm sure that you know much more about it than we do.

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, yeah.

Duki

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

Ira Glass

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

Act Two. Winged Warrior.

Ira Glass

Well, the story of a 27 year old graduate student who talks like a duck naturally brings us to the story of Chickenman.

Chickenman first soared the radio airwaves from 1966 to 1969. Nearly every day there would be a new episode. These were these short little things, each one two minutes long or so. Starting on WCFL here in Chicago, but spreading to over 1,500 radio stations. Three times, by the way, that's three times the number in the public radio network. According to the people who syndicate Chickenman, it has been translated into German, into Dutch, into Swedish. It is still on the air, they say, in several dozen markets.

Chickenman. Chickenman existed years before National Public Radio existed as a national network. Chickenman will continue probably years after we're all gone. Like the mighty cockroach. Like-- I don't know. Like the bagel. Like [? Haleva. ?] Chickenman endures, will endure.

Well, let's hear what all the fuss was about.

Chickenman Show Announcer

Now another exciting episode in the life of the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known.

Chickenman Show Chorus Member

Bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk!

Chickenman Show Chorus Member

Chickenman!

Chickenman Show Chorus

He's everywhere, he's everywhere!

Chickenman Show Announcer

Benton Harper, employed as a shoe salesman for a large downtown department store, spends his weekends, his only two days off, striking terror into the hearts of criminals everywhere as the white winged warrior called Chickenman. How did it come about that Benton Harper, weekend winged warrior, selected the visage of the chicken in his crusade against the forces of evil? Now it can be told.

[DOOR OPENING]

Costume Shop Saleswoman

Yes, may I help you?

Benton Harper

How do you do? I'm looking for a costume.

Costume Shop Saleswoman

What did you have in mind?

Benton Harper

Something that will strike terror into the hearts of criminals everywhere.

Costume Shop Saleswoman

I see. Well, how about this?

Benton Harper

Hmm. No, I don't think so.

Costume Shop Saleswoman

Why not try it on?

Benton Harper

Very well.

Costume Shop Saleswoman

Here, I'll help you.

Benton Harper

Thank you.

[GRUNTING, PUTTING ON CLOTHING]

Costume Shop Saleswoman

There you are. Now take a look in the mirror.

Benton Harper

Mm. Not bad. I wonder if you would permit me to conduct a quick experiment outside this store.

Costume Shop Saleswoman

Certainly.

[FOOTSTEPS]

[DOOR OPENING]

Benton Harper

Pardon me, sir.

Vicious Criminal

Yeah?

Benton Harper

Are you by chance a vicious criminal?

Vicious Criminal

Uh-huh. [AFFIRMATIVE]

Benton Harper

Fine. Would you take a look at this costume I'm wearing?

Vicious Criminal

Yeah.

Benton Harper

Do you feel anything strange? Anything at all?

Vicious Criminal

Uh, yeah.

Benton Harper

And what is that?

Vicious Criminal

I'd like to kiss ya'.

Benton Harper

Kiss me?

Vicious Criminal

Yeah.

Benton Harper

How do you account for that?

Vicious Criminal

Because you look like an adorable bunny rabbit.

[KISSING SOUND]

[QUICK FOOTSTEPS]

[DOOR OPENING]

Costume Shop Saleswoman

Well, how did it go?

Benton Harper

What else do you have?

Costume Shop Saleswoman

A teddy bear and a chicken.

Benton Harper

A teddy bear?

Vicious Criminal

Wouldn't it be cute?

Benton Harper

Wrap up the chicken, please.

Chickenman Show Announcer

Be listening tomorrow for another exciting episode in the life of the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known.

Chickenman Show Chorus Member

Bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk!

Chickenman Show Chorus Member

Chickenman!

Chickenman Show Chorus

He's everywhere, he's everywhere!

Ira Glass

I love these. You want to hear another? We have time for another. You want to hear another?

The thing I love is how completely low key the performances are. It's like they're not even trying. It's a complete aesthetic. All right. Let's hear one more before we continue with the next act.

Chickenman Show Announcer

Now another exciting episode in the life of the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known.

Chickenman Show Chorus Member

Bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk!

Chickenman Show Chorus Member

Chickenman!

Chickenman Show Chorus

He's everywhere, he's everywhere!

Chickenman Show Announcer

The office of the police commissioner of Midland City.

[PHONE RINGING]

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

Hello, this is the commissioner--

Chickenman

Ms. Helfinger, this is the Winged Warrior.

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

Yes, what is it?

Chickenman

Please inform the commissioner that I'm now all set for test sequence number one.

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

What?

Chickenman

It's all primed and ready to go.

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

What are you talking about?

Chickenman

The Chicken Missile, Ms. Helfinger.

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

The Chicken Missile?

Chickenman

Yes. So tell the commissioner I'm ready for test sequence number one.

[INTERCOM BUZZING]

Police Commisioner

Yes, Ms. Helfinger?

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

Commissioner, the Chicken Missile is ready to go.

Police Commisioner

Huh?

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

The Chicken Missile.

Police Commisioner

Oh, yes, of course, the--

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

And it's ready for test sequence number one.

Police Commisioner

Test sequence number one.

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

Number one.

Police Commisioner

Well, that's very nice. Very nice, yes.

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

Hello, Winger Warrior?

Chickenman

Right right, Ms. Helfinger.

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

The commissioner said that's very nice.

Chickenman

Oh, fine. In that case, Ms. Helfinger, have the commissioner standby with the Chicken Missile receiver.

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

What?

Chickenman

I'm going to countdown--

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

Listen--

Chickenman

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]. We'll see you at 1400 hours.

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

Hello? Wait--

[PHONE HANGING UP]

[INTERCOM BUZZING]

Police Commisioner

Yes, Ms. Helfinger?

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

Commissioner?

Police Commisioner

Yes.

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

If I would say to you, "prepare the Chicken Missile receiver," would you know--

Police Commisioner

No, I wouldn't.

[WHISTLING SOUND OF MISSILE FLYING THROUGH THE AIR]

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

I didn't think you would. Commissioner?

Police Commisioner

Yes?

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

I would suggest that you crouch under your desk.

Police Commisioner

Crouch under my desk?

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

Yes, it should provide some protection.

Police Commisioner

From--

{WHISTLING COMES TO AN END]

[EXPLOSION]

[GLASS BREAKING AND RUBBLE FALLING]

[COUGHING]

Police Commisioner

What?

Receptionist Ms. Helfinger

Chicken Missile.

Police Commisioner

Oh.

[SIRENS]

Chickenman Show Announcer

Well, say, that Chicken Missile really works nifty. Will the Midland City Fire Department recommend that a Chicken Missile receiver be installed in what's left of Midland City Hall?

Be listening tomorrow for another exciting episode in the life of the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known.

Chickenman Show Chorus Member

Bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk!

Chickenman Show Chorus Member

Chickenman!

Chickenman Show Chorus

He's everywhere, he's everywhere!

Ira Glass

Well, thank you very much to the creator and voice of Chickenman, Mr. Dick Orkin. Always very strange to talk to him on the phone to get permission to put these things on the radio because he sounds just like Chickenman.

A collection of all the Chickenman episodes is for sale at radio-ranch.com, that's radio hyphen ranch dot com.

Coming up, it ain't over till the fat chicken sings. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, during this period of greatest poultry consumption in our nation-- the two weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas-- we bring you stories of chickens, turkeys, ducks, fowl of all kind real and imagined.

We've done this poultry show so many times year after year in November that today's show is basically a greatest hits of chicken stories from many, many years past.

Act Three. Chicken Diva.

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, Siamo del Teatro Repertorio delle Mollette. 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 to--

Jack Hitt

Yeah, would she sit on your lap for this?

Henry Krieger

Yeah, no, yeah. Let's see what we can do.

Jack Hitt

OK.

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

[MUSIC - HENRY KRIEGER AND SUSAN VITUCCI SINGING IN ITALIAN]

[DOG WHINING AND HOWLING TO MUSIC]

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. It's like, yeah, yeah, yeah. As soon as it's in Italian, it gives us enough distance that we can come in. You know, it makes us-- 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.

[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 tracks 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.

[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, daring-do. Like Venus, she arrives from some other world, transported on a scallop shell.

But the triumphs of her life began 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 of 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 ship wrecked, 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've 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 forties 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 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 Clothes Lines, the official fan club newsletter of the opera.

Love's Fowl has a strange effect on people. I didn't understand until Susan loaned me a videotape of one performance. To be honest, I thought I would be annoyed at the intentional irony and hokiness 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 as 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, has 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-- 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 costs 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 is a writer who lives in New Haven.

[MUSIC - "FINGER LICKIN' GOOD" BY THE BEASTIE BOYS]

Act Four. Trying To Respect The Chicken.

Ira Glass

Act Four-- Trying To Respect The Chicken.

Sure, it's one thing to take a fictional character like Chicken Little and make her into a star. Try doing that with a real chicken. Just try.

Tamara Staples

Well, these are photographs of chickens. The first one here is a Silver Laced Wyandotte. It's a black and white bird, essentially, but the tail feathers have a lot of iridescent green coloring.

Ira Glass

In a world where chickens get no respect, Tamara Staples treats them the way the humans treat those we revere most. She takes their portraits lovingly. Her shots are like fashion photographs, beautifully-lit, color backdrops. They're beautiful.

Ira Glass

The first one looked regal, but now you've just turned to one where it almost looks like-- it's like a clown. it looks comic.

Tamara Staples

Mm-hm. [AFFIRMATIVE] It's a modeled Houdan, which I always sort of call the Phyllis Diller chicken, which is--

Ira Glass

Oh, my God. That chicken does look like Phyllis Diller.

Tamara Staples

It does. It's the hat. It looks like it's got this huge feathered hat sort of thing, and a strange body shape.

Ira Glass

In a way, it's like Tamara Staples is running an odd little cross-species science experiment, one that asks this question: what happens when you try to treat a chicken the way we treat humans? Even if it's just for the length of a photo shoot.

What happens, it turns out, is that you learn just where the thin line is that divides human beings from birds. All right. Maybe it's not such a thin line, but it's definitely a line, and, like most city people, I had never thought about it. About where it lays, about what it might be, what it might consist of, until Tamara and I headed out to a farm.

[ROOSTER CROWING]

[CHICKENS CLUCKING]

Paul Davidson

I think that is the best one.

Tamara Staples

Yeah, we've got to get him. We don't want him to get dirty or anything, do we? Or does it matter?

Paul Davidson

She runs loose every day.

Tamara Staples

Can you find her?

Paul Davidson

Yeah, we can take her out.

Tamara Staples

We're going to get him to-- we're going to have to wrangle them, you know.

Ira Glass

We're at the Davidson's Dairy Farm, about an hour and a half northwest of Chicago. Family members present-- Paul, who's helping Tamara choose a bird to photograph, his sister Laura, who's studying photography at a nearby university, the grandfather, George Cairns, a veteran breeder, their father, Dick, who seems the most skeptical of this whole project, but who patiently shows Tamara and her assistant, Dennis, the milking barn as a possible place to set up and shoot.

Dick Davidson

What kind of an area are you looking for?

Tamara Staples

Well, maybe-- it could be a little wider, don't you think? And if it could be from here to there, and know that pole to that pole.

Dick Davidson

For what?

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Tamara Staples

Well, we are set-- maybe this is a good time to pull out the portfolio.

Assistant Dennis

OK.

Tamara Staples

You want to grab it?

I'm actually-- it's a study of the birds. But it's an isolated study, so it doesn't-- people aren't necessarily associating it with the farm and something to eat.

Ira Glass

Tamara takes us all outside the barn-- so dust won't get on her photos-- and shows them her shots, name dropping the names of some big chicken people, people whose birds she's photographed. Including Bob Wulff, editor of The Poultry Press. Dick notices that a bird in one photo has crooked toes.

Dick Davidson

Probably on a hard surface you turn--

Ira Glass

What do you guys think of the pictures?

Dick Davidson

Well, the pictures are nice and sharp. I mean, there's nothing wrong with the pictures. If there's anything to find fault with, it's the birds. You know, they aren't posing the way they should, some of them.

Ira Glass

Fact is, while city people usually go nuts when they see Tamara's pictures, a lot of chicken breeders don't like them. And to understand why, to fully comprehend this little culture clash here in America, we have to leave the barnyard for a minute and flash back to something that happened back at Tamara's apartment in the city.

Tamara showed me this old red book from the turn of the century. This is a book the seal of the American Poultry Association in gold on the front. And then, right there in gold letters--

Tamara Staples

Standard of Perfection. The Standard of Perfection is really the bible of poultry standards. You know, what birds are--

Ira Glass

Tamara flipped past the engravings and illustrations of chickens of all types and breeds. These were show chickens, standing the way that chickens stand in competitions. Then Tamara pulled out one of her own photos to compare, to show me how her poses do not meet the standard in the book.

Tamara Staples

The tail needs to be higher. Her feet are not erect, standing. Chest isn't out. Head, it needs to be up more. And it shows-- I mean, you can see the shape of the chicken much better in the Standard of Perfection pose.

Ira Glass

See, to me, what's so interesting, though, is that the Standard of Perfection doesn't include a personality.

Tamara Staples

Right. Because it's not about personality. It's about breeding.

Ira Glass

And so is that a pose that the owners would want to own a photo of?

Tamara Staples

They are very particular about this-- they want to see their bird in the Standard of Perfection pose. Definitely. Because that's what they've been taught from 4-H, when they were kids, to do.

Ira Glass

That's for them. For herself, for her city customers, she uses the others. OK, back to the barnyard.

[CHICKEN SQUAKING]

Tamara and the Davidsons decide to set up the photo session in a room that's usually used to store feed for the cows. It takes about 45 minutes to set this up. That 45 minutes includes dismantling and moving a wall of hay that is probably 10 feet high and 15 feet long. This takes five people.

Then in comes the power and the fancy lights and the cloth backdrop that gets hung from the steel pole. The backdrop is ironed first with an iron and ironing board brought from the city just for that purpose.

Tamara Staples

11 and 1/2, 11, and an 8 and 1/2?

Assistant Dennis

Yeah. 11 and 1/2-- your test is going to be at 11 and 1/2, 11, and 8 and 1/2. We're going to shoot your film at 11.

Ira Glass

It was cold. Well below freezing. So cold that the Polaroid film that Tamara uses for lighting tests would not fully develop.

Paul Davidson

You ready for the bird?

Tamara Staples

We're close. Just want to commune with the bird.

We just want to make you pretty. Look how sweet, aren't you? You know what, I'm going to photograph you. My name is Tamara, I'll be your photographer for today.

Ira Glass

Our first bird is a white Cornish, a show bird who belongs to George. His show bird is used to being picked up and handled. Part of preparing chickens for shows involves handling them a lot so they'll be calm with the judges.

Tamara Staples

If you could just nudge his head up a little bit, he's perfect. He's got his chest out. Now he's got his face in-- OK. Yeah, you know what we want. Yeah, you're-- great, George. He's got a feather on his back here.

Ira Glass

Tamara has the Cornish stand up on a stack of little red antique books-- kind of unsteady.

Things go well for a while. She gets a half dozen good shots of the bird. Expressive shots. More personality than Standard of Perfection, George tells me. The bird's chest isn't high enough, it's body is not turned correctly to the camera. And then the bird stops cooperating. He gets tired. Paul has a suggestion.

Paul Davidson

Bring in a pull-it.

Tamara Staples

You know what? You know that works.

Ira Glass

Maybe we should explain what that is. What does that mean to bring a pull-it?

George Cairns

Thinks maybe a female will perk him up.

Ira Glass

Laura grabs a hen and waves it at the flaccid cock. The cock does not rise. I can say that on the radio, right?

Paul Davidson

Well, it probably would have been better to get the one from the other pen that he's not used to.

Tamara Staples

Fresh blood. Bring him around a little bit so his back--

Ira Glass

For real? The chicken-- the rooster will show off more for a hen that it doesn't know?

Paul Davidson

Yes. If you put a new hen in with him, or him in with a group a new hens, he will really show off.

Ira Glass

They try this and that, nothing with much success. Finally, with one shot left, Paul suggests putting a hen into the picture with the rooster.

Tamara Staples

Get the girl to-- she looks like her feet are so far apart, she's really struggling to stand.

Paul Davidson

That's the way they stand, though.

Dick Davidson

[INAUDIBLE PHRASE].

Tamara Staples

That's all right, that's all right. Ah-- [CAMERA CLICKS] Oh, did you see that?

Laura Davidson

Yeah.

Tamara Staples

All right, we got it.

Ira Glass

Why? What did she just do? Describe--

Tamara Staples

She looked up at him very sweetly. Like that. With her head cocked. The male bird was posing, and she was posing also, but had a personality of just being like the sweet, doting mother, you now?

Ira Glass

But not Standard of Perfection.

Tamara Staples

But not Standard of Perfection.

Tamara Staples

So we're done with this background, and--

Ira Glass

Not Standard of Perfection. Even these perfectly bred Cornishes could not achieve the Standard of Perfection today. And even in this goofy, un-bird-like situation, an hour of watching them makes clear just how hard it is to ever get birds to hit the standard. Which is to say not only do we completely dominate every aspect of the lives of chickens-- their births, their feed, their eggs, their slaughter-- not only have we bred them to human specifications to meet human needs, but we have created a standard for what it means to be a chicken that most chickens can never meet. That's what the standard means. We judge them as chickens, and we find them lacking. If they had brains to understand this, they would be right to feel indignant.

But of course, this is a city person's perspective, and that means it is completely wrong-headed from the point of view of anybody who actually raises birds. Standing in the cold feed room, I had a long, long talk with George about this. George is 80 years old. He's been raising birds since the-- I guess the Calvin Coolidge administration. And he says the whole fun of raising birds is raising them to the standard.

George Cairns

Well, like, for instance, if your birds lack bone, OK, you go out and buy a bird as near to like them as you can with better bone. But when you mate them together, you might get long-legged birds, or too short. I mean, you don't get what you want just by mating. It takes four or five years to gradually get it out, and by that time, they're inbred and you need new ones.

Ira Glass

George tells me that when he's breeding a new batch of birds, he'll hatch 65 of them, and only one or two will be anywhere near the Standard of Perfection. That's how hard it is.

Ira Glass

Do you get frustrated with the Standard Of Protection sometimes?

George Cairns

No, we get frustrated with the judges. Because every judge has his own idea of what the standard should be.

Ira Glass

I thought that's the whole point of a standard, is that--

George Cairns

That is. But one judge will want it this way, and another another. Today, if you bred your birds to the standard of perfection-- weight and everything-- and took them to the show, you probably wouldn't get anywhere. You've got to breed to the fads.

Ira Glass

That's right. The fads. Like Cornishes these days are supposed to have shorter legs than the real Standard of Perfection. Vertical tail feathers are out in all sorts of breeds that really should have them. In the country, among the chicken breeders, they think about a lot of things you never get to in the city.

Ira Glass

And when you're raising these birds, with any of these birds, do you have a close relationship with a bird the way some do [UNINTELLIGIBLE] with a pet?

George Cairns

I don't have time. Yeah, I got too many things to do. See, a few years ago, I almost died of cancer, and the Good Lord told me how to cure myself. And so I've been working with that a lot the last three years. I've been helping people, and put in papers. Now it's getting all over the United States.

Ira Glass

What did you do? What do you do?

George Cairns

It's you use the root of a dandelion. Simple as can be. But there's something in that that builds up your blood and your immune system.

Ira Glass

Wait a second. You're saying that you were diagnosed with cancer, and this is the only treatment you've had, and it cured you?

George Cairns

Yeah. And I've given it to other people when the medical world has told them that there's nothing more they can do, and they've gotten well, too. But not all of them. If they're too far gone, it won't help them.

Ira Glass

And you make it into tea or something like that?

George Cairns

We just put it in a little water, a little milk, Kool-Aide. You can put it on a sandwich. Anything that isn't hot.

Ira Glass

George gives me a pamphlet that he's written up. No doctor has actually checked him out to prove the cancer is gone from his body. He's actually got no hard scientific proof that this really works, but he says God told him that this is the way he should be spending his time. And it has cut into his bird breeding a bit.

George leaves, off on other business. Tamara is finished hanging and lighting the next backdrop. And the rest of us begin with the second bird, a bird called a Brahma, with elaborately patterned brown and white feathers.

[BIRD CLUCKING]

Paul Davidson

Got her.

Ira Glass

She is big. This is a chicken like the size of a dog.

Paul Davidson

Not that big.

Ira Glass

A small dog.

[LAUGHING]

Our second bird demonstrates the great distance between bird, instinct, and intelligence. And the demands of modern fashion photography, which is to say, of civilization. Called upon to do human tasks, even rather passive ones, a bird remains a bird.

Paul carries the huge hen onto the fragile little set Tamara has built.

Tamara Staples

He's a beauty. What ya eating there, buddy?

[BIRD SQUAKING]

Tamara Staples

Whew, it slapped me.

Ira Glass

"I'm scared of this one," she says, quietly, as she adjusts her camera. The chicken is so big-- nine pounds, the size of a small consumer turkey-- that she has to pull the camera back. the Davidsons are looking at her skeptically. Paul asked pointedly if she's ever shot a bird this big.

Tamara Staples

We've got to figure out where the--

[BIRD SQUACKING]

Dick Davidson

Whoa.

[BIRD CLUCKING]

Tamara Staples

Hello, bird. Are you going to slap me in the face again? I hope not.

Paul Davidson

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] jump right in your face.

Tamara Staples

You know why you're here? Let's talk. We need you to be beautiful. Here's your moment. OK? There are more where you came from, buddy. You better act up here.

Ira Glass

This combination of coddling and threats might motivate an aspiring supermodel, or an eager puppy. But this, after all, is a chicken. Laura tries to lure it up with a handful of corn.

Laura Davidson

She standing--

Paul Davidson

She can get corn, or she's trying to get it, but she has to stand up high for it.

Laura Davidson

Is that where you want her to stand?

Ira Glass

Someone during this ordeal, a funny thing happens. All the Davidsons, who all started off skeptical, they are completely engaged. Dick suggests a pose that is pure art concept, a pose that could not be further from Standard of Perfection. Laura lures the bird with corn, Paul smooths feathers, and when the bird quivers or moves a wing, three people jump in to fix it back up.

Tamara Staples

There's some feathers on the breast a little bit. A little bit fluffy. You know, it's like she's not real cleaned on there-- OK. She's a little farther. You guys are a great team. I'm going to hire you to come with me.

Oops, I got a hand in there.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

[LAUGHING]

Move the hand, move the hand. Move the hand. OK, great.

Ira Glass

It wasn't until this point that I realized that I came into this sort of expecting the bird to be more, well, more human. Partly, I think, because I had never really thought about this one way or the other. But partly because Tamara's photos make chicken seem so thoughtful.

Laura Davidson

[UNINTELLIGIBLE].

[PEOPLE CLICKING TO GET BIRD'S ATTENTION]

Paul Davidson

Over here. Look at the camera, look at the camera. Right there.

Tamara Staples

No, she's completely out of frame.

Ira Glass

Those photos are a lie.

[PEOPLE CLICKING TO GET BIRD'S ATTENTION]

Tamara Staples

Hello?

Paul Davidson

I think you're going to have a one shot opportunity here. It's going to be when I let go.

[CHICKEN CLUCKING]

[WINGS FLUTTERING]

Paul Davidson

Whoa. Geez, I didn't even let go. I just started to let up and he yanked it right out of my hand.

Ira Glass

Fact is, you can try to give chickens respect. You can try to treat them dignity, and photograph them the way you'd photograph anything or anyone that's serious, but the chickens will not care. You can make them look dignified, but it is a brainless, bird-like dignity, and it is ephemeral.

Ira Glass

Do you feel like your relationship with chicken has changed because of this?

Tamara Staples

No. Not at all.

Ira Glass

How could that not be so?

Tamara Staples

Um, I order the chicken when I'm at the show. I eat it right in front of the chickens.

Ira Glass

You eat chicken while you're standing there with a chicken?

Tamara Staples

Yes. [LAUGHING] Is it wrong? I don't know. I'm hungry.

Ira Glass

Well, no wonder they won't sit still.

Tamara Staples

Yeah.

[CHICKING CALLING]

Ira Glass

We pack up our gear and move the massive wall of hay back into place. As we do this, chickens hop by. Brahmas, Americanas, mixed breeds. They seem utterly uninterested in us. They cluck at each other, there's feed to eat, hay to nestle in-- they have better things to do with their time. And you know, there's nothing that makes you realize just how inhuman chickens are than spending a day trying to make them seem human.

[CHICKEN AND COW SOUNDS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, the stories in today's program were produced by Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton, Blue Chevigny, Julie Snyder, Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Musical help from Mr. John Connors. Thanks also to Larry Josephson and Jay Hedblade. Elizabeth Meister runs our web site.

Tamara Staples' photographs of chickens are now in a book called Fairest Fowl: Portraits of Championship Chickens. Susan Vitucci's opera about Chicken Little is available on CD at www.pulcina.org. That is Pulcina spelled, of course, P-U-L-C-I-N-A.

Our website: www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our programs for free-- the ones with chickens or the ones without. Or now you can buy CDs, yes, CDs of any of our programs. Get those Christmas orders in now. Or you know, you can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife, where they have public radio programs, best-selling books, even the New York Times, all at audible.com.

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.