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Culture & Artsby Elizabeth Suman6:50 amSep 7, 20100

Yow! Zippy the Pinhead returns to Baltimore . . . as a musical.

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog– the procedure kills both.” – Mark Twain, from www.zippythepinhead.com.

Zippy fans have been awaiting the return of the good-natured, nonsensical-yet-wise pinhead to Baltimore ever since the Baltimore Sun dropped Bill Griffith’s internationally-syndicated comic strip from the paper in 2008.

This prompted then-Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber to post “Bring Zippy back into the Sun,” on the venue’s marquee — a scene Griffith later depicted in the comic itself.

"Solar Energy" (Bill Griffith)

Now, two years later, Kiefaber’s plea will finally be answered, when Zippy returns to Charm City in the form of a musical theater production imagined by composer and Artistic Director Lorraine Whittlesey, a former member of the Howdy Doody peanut gallery who had a lifetime fascination with  pop culture.

“I had always been aware of Zippy and enjoyed Zippy…I always appreciated the character,” said Whittlesey, who decided to move forward with “a musical treatment” of the strip around four years ago after a series of conversations with creator Bill Griffith.

(Griffith is  involved “as a sideline critic and helper,” he said, in a conversation this week.)

"Strange Brew" (Bill Griffith)

Zippy, who is always depicted with intricate artistic detail, is a strange and lovable pinhead almost always dressed in a yellow clown suit speckled with red polka dots.  Zippy’s speech is often riddled with non-sequiturs and Griffith’s story lines are rarely straightforward.  In “Strange Brew,” Zippy has a conversation with the Natty Boh guy in Baltimore about what it must have been like to live in the 1930’s “when everyone was bug-eyed and mustachioed and beer drinking.”  So what is “the point” of Zippy?  The only answer is probably that there isn’t one.

The key to a theatrical adaptation was “to find some reason for Zippy to be here in Baltimore,” explained Whittlesey.  They found the raison de road-trip in  Dingburg, the pinhead-inhabited city, “seventeen miles west of Baltimore” where Zippy went to high school.

Dingburg (Illustration courtesy of Bill Griffith; www.zippythepinhead.com)

Dingburg (Illustration courtesy of Bill Griffith; www.zippythepinhead.com)

Whittlesey “always thought Zippy had a Baltimore connection and she was right,” said Griffith.

Dingburg, which Griffith began incorporating into the strip around three years ago, is “the main Baltimore angle of the play,” he explained, adding that people have always been disappointed that “Dingburg, Maryland” doesn’t come up on Google Maps.

In the production, which will run November 12th-21st at the Baltimore Theatre Project, Zippy returns to Dingburg for his class reunion.

The principal characters are: Zippy’s wife Zerbina (to whom he sometimes forgets he’s married); close friend Griffy (who represents Bill Griffith); Mr. Toad, who Whittlesey describes as the “rather menacing-looking” antagonist who “represents evil” (Griffith’s very first character); and the “Mayor” of Dingburg.

Zippy and Griffy arrive in Baltimore via time travel through worm holes.  Once they arrive in Baltimore, Zippy and Griffy get around in a 1958 Nash.

“We’re going to have a vintage car onstage that they travel around in,” Whittlesey explained.  “On the stage there will be a screen that flashes images of Baltimore things,” which will include Polock Johnny’s, Johns Hopkins, the man/woman statue outside of Penn Station, the Senator Theater, and the Edgar Allan Poe statue. Whittlesey said they’ll also use images resembling local diners, like the Sip ‘n Bite and Bel-Loc, to reflect the exorbitant amount of time that Zippy and Griffy spend in old-fashioned diners.

This will be the fourth and most polished theatrical version of Zippy so far (Griffith said that one grad student created a “modern atonal” version in which “all of the dialogue was sung.”)

Griffith  had, “nothing to do with the original concept or the general script or songs,” but has periodically consulted on written materials and CD’s, he said.

“The only thing I really wanted to do was to occasionally make the voices of the two main characters—Zippy and Griffy.” He also threw in extra gags “to make some things funnier.”

Though Griffith doesn’t care to get very involved in nontraditional Zippy projects, he has liked and appreciated past Zippy adaptations.  “I’m just happy people are doing it and enjoying it themselves.”

In the strip itself, Zippy and the other characters are no strangers to the Baltimore area. Over the years, Griffy has given a lecture on string theory at Hopkins and Zippy leaves Dingburg for “the big city” to get more “Styrofoam padding for his size 14 shoes.”

In “Poe Boy,” Zippy goes so far as to romanticize Formstone.  “Once upon some Formstone bleary, while I wandered sleek and beery….”  And that’s only the tip of the iceberg — a search for “Baltimore” on Griffith’s website produces dozens of archived strips.

"Poe Boy" (Bill Griffith)

The cast of twelve, which includes backgrounds ranging from opera singers to a Tisch grad student, is “a marvelous assortment of talent,” said Whittlesey.

Zippy is being played by Ryan Patrick Brown and D.S. Bakker will play Griffy.

Though the five principals are already in place, auditions for additional members of the chorus will take place on September 11th.

Griffith, who still writes the Zippy strip seven days a week, plans to travel to Baltimore to see the show.

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