Created by Frederick Heide and Gerald Pelrine
The Civil War shenanigans of George W. Peck
Door County Advocate
CHAN HARRIS - July 1990
Big audiences finding ‘Mule for Breakfast’ easy to digest
“Mule for Breakfast Again” is a departure for the Heritage Ensemble but the Peninsula Park amphitheater audience is eating it up.
The new show, based on Civil War memoirs of humorist (“Peck’s Bad Boy” ) and former Wisconsin Governor George W. Peck, has been packing them in to the Nicolet Bay theater under the stars. Tuesday night the cast of five earned three curtain calls.
Until recent years Heritage, actually now the American Folklore Theater, gave folk song revues on themes like logging, Great Lakes sailing, Woody Guthrie, Carl Sandburg and railroading. But two seasons ago with the Guthrie show, despite its natural tie to song, the scripts began to carry more meat, historical narration, social commentary. It was like the evolution of the American musical, when “Oklahoma!” became the first in which songs flowed from the drama.
The change advanced further last season with “The Mountains Call My Name” about conservationist John Muir.
“Mule for Breakfast Again” is a dramatic presentation with music. Naturally there’s “Tenting Tonight”, “Dixie” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom” but you go away from the theater thinking of the narrative. It’s mostly funny—Peck has a Mark Twain sense of humor—but also brings out the human tragedy of Americans fighting each other.
The self-deprecating Peck, who was a newspaperman in Fort Atkinson, allows how he did his part with patriotic editorials but when he got his personal invitation from President Lincoln that was something else. His initiation into the Union army and subsequent loss of naivete are hilarious and actor Jeff Janus as Peck does some takes worthy of Jack Benny.
Fred Heide, who created the show along with Gerald Pelrine, plays the horse doctor. If Bill Mauldin had been in an earlier war this wry vet would have been a regular subject. He’s the kind that makes armies go: has a top sergeant’s wisdom. Heide also plays the sly chaplain who’s out for No. 1, in his case not God.
Pelrine plays the colonel, all bluster on the surface but wise underneath.
Alice Peacock and Georgia Middleman play soldiers and Confederate women.
The name of the show is never stated but there is this tough meat for chow, and two mules are missing, and…
Horses and mules figure heavily in the plot. The chaplain trades his mule for Peck’s horse but in the end justice is done.
There are some great phrases, like “If you’d been on the hurricane deck of a kicking mule…” and in reference to Peck’s coming in from a mission, “Kill the fatted prodigal; the calf has returned.”
The war is a lark to Peck until he is confronted with the body of a Rebel who had taken his pipe. Handed the pipe by another Union soldier Peck says somberly, “I just quit smoking.” Neither is he thrilled about taking food from southern homes where the women and children are hungry.
As part of one assignment Peck apprehends a woman who has been smuggling quinine from northern forces to the Confederates. “I have to search you from Genesis to Revelation,” he proclaims. His subsequent kindness to her is returned later, driving home the point that all involved are brothers in humanity.
Heritage/AFT is in its 20th year and reaching out. We suspect the next 20 years will bring continued expansion and national exposure. The format is a natural, the writers and performers comfortable in their roles. Heide and Pelrine have a feel for their subjects. Others looking only for “a hit” might hoke it up.
Green Bay Press-Gazette
Heritage Ensemble creates bushel of entertainment from Peck’s life
WARREN GERDS - July, 1990
The Heritage Ensemble has done it again.
It has found an intriguing personality from Wisconsin’s past and shaped a nice little story with music around him.
Last year, the “star” was John Muir, the famed naturalist. This year, it’s George W. Peck, a humorist in the mold of Mark Twain who went on to become governor.
The Peck show creates a sense of discovery—a “Gee, I didn’t know that” aura—that is a Heritage Ensemble trademark.
It also may send you, as it did me, off to the library to find out more about the amazing Peck.
For the uninitiated, the ensemble performs six nights a week throughout the summer at Peninsula State Park near Fish Creek.
Its stage is set in a woodsy amphitheater in the middle of the park. If the weather is right, the atmosphere is invigorating.
Most in the company perform for a living. Then there’s Frederick Heide, who teaches psychology in Berkeley, Calif., when he’s not keeping the ensemble’s pulse going as performer, writer and managing director.
Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays at 8 p.m. (admission is $4), the ensemble stages Song of the Inland Seas, made up of lively tunes and tales of Great Lakes sailors. This show is the first the ensemble presented 20 summers ago. So this is a happy anniversary summer.
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the ensemble mounts the Peck show, Mule for Breakfast Again.
That’s what I’d call a stone title.
It just lies there and leaves you wondering what it might be hiding.
Kick it over, and you find fascinating tidbits.
Mule for Breakfast Again carries us back to the Civil War. We relive it through a state soldier’s eyes. Peck wrote and lectured about his days in the 4th Wisconsin Volunteer Cavalry, which fought in Mississippi.
Comedy is the core of Mule for Breakfast Again, though it’s an ironic style seldom found anymore. There also are dead-serious moments because, after all, war is the backdrop.
The show has a running joke. A soldier asks what he’s eating. The response is, “Don’t ask fool questions.” It’s a tip off to the title.
The five-person ensemble laces the play with such songs of the era as When Johnny Comes Marching Home and Dixie.
Jeffrey Stuart Janus zestily plays the clever-tongued Peck. Others in the cast portray a range of characters such as a shifty chaplain, a wily horse doctor and a kind Southern woman.
The show won’t make it to Broadway, but it is perfect for the ensemble’s purposes—remembering a neglected Wisconsinite in an entertaining way.
The excuse for Mule for Breakfast Again being staged now is this is the 150th anniversary year of Peck’s birth.
His name is unlikely to ring a bell. Maybe “Peck’s bad boy” will.
The phrase was part of the language late last century and well into this one.
It comes from a serial Peck wrote for his newspapers in La Crosse and Milwaukee. The central character was Hennery, a kid who forever gave his parents grief.
Hennery’s pranks included dousing his father’s handkerchief with whiskey before church, putting cod liver oil in the pancake syrup and mixing rubber hose with macaroni.
Today, Hennery would be considered a juvenile delinquent. In the 1870s, he was considered a hoot.
People also though [sic] it was funny when his father would discuss his pranks behind the woodshed with a bed slat.
Times have changed, and Peck’s Bad Boy probably wouldn’t wash today. But it was a hit back then. Peck’s Milwaukee Sun newspaper sold nationally because of his serial, and his book Peck’s Bad Boy was a best-seller.
Hennery’s misadventures carried into this century, thanks to three Hollywood movies.
Peck’s Bad Boy was first a silent movie with Jackie Coogan. That 1921 version is “still fresh and enjoyable,” according to critic Leonard Maltin.
A sound version followed in 1934 with Jackie Cooper, and then there was Peck’s Bad Boy with the Circus in 1938 with Tommy Kelly.
Peck himself was quite the dandy. He wore a tidy goatee, a pince-nez, a red carnation and a skull cap (to hide his bald pate).
Like Twain, he hit the lecture circuit. One of his talks was “How Private George W. Peck Put Down the Rebellion, or the Funny Experiences of a Raw Recruit.” Another was “How Peck and Another Mule Crushed the Rebellion.” See where Mule for Breakfast Again comes from?
Peck was a winner all around.
During the war, he rose from private to second lieutenant.
Then came Peck’s Bad Boy.
He ran for mayor of Milwaukeee and won in a landslide. Shortly after that, he was elected Wisconsin governor and then re-elected.
Later, he lectured again, though he took an offbeat tack. One of his topics was the need to make cheese the national emblem—an early version of the “Eat Cheese or Die” slogan that was suggested for Wisconsin’s license plates a few years ago.
Peck’s thinking: “What has the eagle ever done for America?”
The beauty of Mule for Breakfast Again is it brings the colorful Peck to the fore again. The show is a delight for people who like their curiosity piqued.