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Porter and parables

SONGS AND STORIES: Phin Gornto sings “Girls” to Angel Williams and Ellie Higgins in a modernizedproduction of “There Was a Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” at the Peru Church of the Brethren on Friday.

BY CAROLINE EGGERS - ceggers@perutribune.com

Cole Porter is remembered for his glitz, wit and Broadway hits.

But the Peru native was also a talented storyteller, according to Chicago-based theater historian Charles Troy, who shared five of Porter’s best narrative songs during a presentation at the Miami County Museum annex on Friday.

With each song, Porter enjoyed pushing the envelope.

When Porter learned about the Bible’s tale of King Solomon, who had 700 wives and 300 concubines, “his wicked imagination took off from there,” Troy said.

So Porter wrote “Song of Solomon,” with lyrics such as “Solomon had a thousand wives … a gold lined kimono and a diamond studded Hispano.”

In the song, Solomon loses his wives and tracks them down. He pulls out 1,000 knives, and “slashed their gizzards and gashed their nuzzles till all that was left of them was a lot of jigsaw puzzles.”

“A lesson from the Bible for all of us,” Troy said.

Porter’s comic storytelling talent Porter became especially evident in “The Tale of the Oyster.”

“Down by the sea lived a lonesome oyster, every day getting sadder and moister … see him in his silver platter watching the queen of fashion chatter,” Porter wrote.

The song was initially considered uncouth since the story ends with the oyster gaily gliding down the middle of a woman’s “gilded insides” – along with some alcohol – and being regurgitated back up on a ship.

One of his narratives, “Two Little Babes in the Woods,” may have been a reflection of Porter’s own path far away from home, with “too many cars, too many clothes, too many parties, too many beaux,” and his discovery that the “fountain of youth is a mixture of gin and vermouth.”

Another narrative was about a simple occurrence from his own day-to-day life.

Porter turned one rejection, “Miss Otis regrets she is unable to lunch,” and turned it into a song.

The fifth song, “I wrote a play,” provided insight into Porter’s uneasy, later years of finding work, according to Troy.

The song sifts through the experience of producers wanting to rewrite his play, “Boy Loves girl,” and recreating it in their own fashion.

One producer thought it was “hardly European enough,” and retitled it “Hungarian Princess Loves British Earl.”

Another producer at the theater guild thought it was “not long enough,” and retitled it “Alfred Loves Lyn.”

A third producer thought it “ain’t dirty enough… it’s being rewritten by Gypsy Rose, I’m hiring a nudist to do the clothes. The cast will consist of ‘mer mountain dee’, and a boatload of babes from the Argentine. And I’ve change the titled so help me god, to ‘The Love Life of Michael Todd.”

The fourth and final producer hated the play, but wanted the title: “So I sold him the title that day, and that’s what became of my play.”

During the presentation, Troy also shared a few stories about Porter.

On one occasion, a Broadway producer happened to meet Porter in Europe and got a taste of his “unbelievably luxurious” life in the 1920s.  

Porter sent for his guest with a private gondola, which deposited him at Porter’s rental: a “three story palace,” Troy said.

The guest realized that Porter was more than a social butterfly while listening him play on the piano. Though not a talented pianist, he was an incredible lyricist.

Porter told his guest that he preferred living in Europe and performing for friends. He also told his guest that he had discovered the formula for writing hits: Jewish tunes in minor-key melodies.

Because of course the “Episcopalian millionaire born in Peru, Indiana” wrote more Jewish melodies than actual Jewish composers, Troy said.

In his later years, Porter made a comeback with a musical reimagining of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” which is a show that no one wanted to write, as “producers were idiots,” Troy said.

Shakespeare was hardly Porter’s style, and he didn’t like being criticized for being highbrow. But the producer then told him the story source was Orthodox Jewish.

“It’s a Jewish thing, that’s Broadway gold,” Troy said Porter would have said.

After the successful opening night of the play, eventually named “Kiss Me Kate,” Porter climbed a grand staircase.

Before he reached the top, he threw his canes to the side and finished the stairs unaided – and triumphantly.