'5000 Fingers' Sings Again: A Seuss Rarity Revisited

Originally published on January 15, 2011 4:41 pm

Not many people know about Dr. Seuss' only film, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. The 1953 movie musical was a flop, but thanks to special screenings and cable-TV airings, it's earned a small but devoted following.

Among them: singer Michael Feinstein, who's such a fan of the movie that he spent the past 30 years gathering every scrap of music ever recorded for it -- enough material to fill three CDs. And now, 57 years after its premiere, the definitive soundtrack of this kooky cult classic has finally been released.

The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T is a Technicolor fantasy -- mostly the extended dream sequence of a boy who doesn't want to practice the piano. He imagines a cockeyed castle where his teacher, transformed into the evil Dr. Terwilliker, has hypnotized his mother and taken 500 boys prisoner so they can play music on his 5,000-key piano.

"It's something that people discover and either love it and have this thing for it, or they just don't get it," Feinstein says.

He says the producers of the film wanted to create a significant children's musical fantasy -- a '50s homage to The Wizard of Oz, perhaps -- but that was no easy goal to achieve. At previews, the filmmakers realized that their movie was too dark for young audiences.

"It scared the heck out of all the little kids!" says Feinstein.

And oh yes, it was ... ambitious: Seuss (who wrote the song lyrics) and composer Frederick Hollander had written 16 songs and two ballets for the show.

"They ended up cutting half the musical numbers," Feinstein says.

Mary Healy and Peter Lind Hayes, who were married in real life, starred as the hypnotized mother and the plumber who saves her. Actress Cathy Lind Hayes, their daughter, recalls her parents screening the film at home, and lamenting the excisions.

"They always said, 'Oh, we wish we could get a better version -- so much has been cut!' " she says.

Alan Lareau, who's writing a biography on Hollander, says the German composer -- best known for The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich -- is one of the most underappreciated Hollywood composers of the 1930s and 1940s. Out of the work that this prolific musician created for the film, Lareau says that the music for the film's "Shlim Shlam Ballet"  sequence really stands out.

"The great highlight of the score is the dungeon ballet, where musicians who do not play the piano have been consigned," he says. "They burst out of the background in [the] moldy green tatters of their orchestral tuxedos and play us a totally surrealist ballet that's a montage of different styles, playing delightful Seussian instruments."

It was in this ballet sequence that George Chakiris, who became famous as Bernardo in the film West Side Story, made his Hollywood debut. It was a lucky break: Chakiris says producers wanted so many male dancers -- 60 of them -- that auditions were opened to men who were not in the Screen Extras Guild.

"So I auditioned, and I got the job and I made enough money to actually join the Guild, as well. So, it was a good thing!" he says.

While the movie helped to launch Chakiris' film career, it was the first and last film project for Seuss. After it flopped -- Lareau says Seuss referred to it as "a debaculous fiasco" -- he never wrote for the movies again. Seuss didn't even mention the movie in his memoir.

It's far from forgotten, though. Cathy Lind Hayes attended a screening in Pasadena, Calif., a few years ago, only to discover that the film had a devoted cult following.

"I mean, it was like Rocky Horror Picture Show -- they knew all the lines," she says. "And they were much, much younger than me. I thought, 'Well isn't this interesting?' This tiny little cult."

Feinstein hopes the CD set, which offers a new and improved listening experience, will attract new fans.

"This is the first official release of the music, and even though some of it doesn't sound terrific, a lot of it does; it will sound better than it has ever sounded before," Feinstein says. "It's a wonderful feeling after nearly three decades to see this thing in existence."

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Our man Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN: As cult classics go, "The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T" is definitely one of the kookiest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO-MI-DO DUDS")

SIMON: (Singing) I want my undulating undies with the marabou frills; I want my beautiful bolero with the porcupine quills; I want my purple nylon girdle with the orange blossom buds; 'cause I'm going do-mi-do-ing in my do-mi-do duds.

LUNDEN: Singer Michael Feinstein is a fan.

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: This film definitely has a very large and devoted following. And it's something that people discover and either love it and have this thing for it, or they just don't get it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO-MI-DO DUDS")

SIMON: (Singing) I want my polka-dotted dickie with the crinoline fringe; for I'm going do-mi-do-ing on a do-mi-do binge.

LUNDEN: Feinstein gets it. He loves the movie, with music by Frederick Hollander and lyrics by Dr. Seuss, so much that he's spent the past 30 years gathering every scrap of music recorded for it. And he found so much material that it fills three CDs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEN LITTLE FINGERS")

SIMON: (Singing) Ten little dancing maidens dancing oh so fine. Ten happy little fingers and they're mine all mine. They're mine. They're mine.

LUNDEN: "The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T" is a Technicolor fantasy - mostly an extended dream sequence of a boy who doesn't want to practice the piano. He imagines a cock-eyed castle where his teacher, now the evil Dr. Terwilliker, has hypnotized his mother and taken 500 boys prisoner so they can play his music on 5,000 key piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

FEINSTEIN: This is a movie that was a 1950s sort of homage or sequel, perhaps, to "The Wizard of Oz," in that they wanted to create a very significant children's musical fantasy.

LUNDEN: Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Push door dungeon. (Unintelligible) simple torture.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELEVATOR SONG")

FEINSTEIN: The movie was previewed and there was one problem: it scared the heck out of all the little kids. And they ended up cutting half of the musical numbers.

LUNDEN: Mary Healy and Peter Lind Hayes, who were married in real life, starred as the hypnotized mother and the plumber who saves her. Actress Kathy Lind Hayes is their daughter.

KATHY LINDSEY HAYES: My dad had this film at home and he would pull down the projection screen and they always said, oh, we wish we could get a better version - so much has been cut.

LUNDEN: Cut songs, like this one, are featured in the CD set.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU OPEN MY EYES")

MARY HEALY: (Singing) I look to the skies thanking the stars that you're here.

PETER LINDSEY HAYES: (Singing) It seems that my 4th of July came in spring this year...

LUNDEN: The CDs really showcase the music of Frederick Hollander, a German composer probably best known for writing "The Blue Angel," starring Marlene Dietrich. Alan Lareau is writing his biography.

ALAN LAREAU: Frederick Hollander is one of the most unappreciated Hollywood composers of the '30s and '40s, even though he was also very prolific.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: While Lareau likes the songs Hollander wrote for the film, he thinks the composer's best work is in the film's ballet sequence.

LAREAU: The great highlight of the score is the dungeon ballet, where musicians who do not play the piano have been consigned and they burst out of the background in moldy green tatters of their orchestral tuxedos and play us a totally surrealist ballet that's a montage of different styles, playing delightful Seussian instruments.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GEORGE CHAKIRIS: I was a trombone.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUNDEN: George Chakiris, who became famous as Bernardo in the film of "West Side Story," made his Hollywood debut - at age 20 - in the dungeon ballet.

CHAKIRIS: For this particular sequence they needed, I believe, it was 60 - six-zero - male dancers. And at that time it was the Screen Extras Guild and there were not that many male dancers in the Guild, so guys who were not members of the Guild were allowed to audition. So, I auditioned and I got the job and I made enough money to actually join the Guild as well. So, it was a good thing.

LUNDEN: The film might've been a good thing for Chakiris, but not so for Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. It was a big flop. Alan Lareau says Seuss referred to it as...

LAREAU: The debaculous fiasco.

LUNDEN: But Kathy Lind Hayes found herself at a screening of "The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T" in Pasadena a few years ago.

LINDSEY HAYES: Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) (Unintelligible) this time we got together 'cause it's get together weather and in get together weather together is just what we've got to get.

(SOUNDBITE OF "GET TOGETHER WEATHER")

LUNDEN: And Michael Feinstein hopes the CD set will attract some new fans.

FEINSTEIN: This is the first official release of the music, and even though some of it doesn't sound terrific, a lot of it does. And it will sound better than it has ever sounded before. So it's a wonderful feeling after nearly three decades to see this thing in existence.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.