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A Century Later, 'Peter Pan' Still Soars On Kids' Faith In Goodness

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Playhouse on the Square in Memphis has made "Peter Pan" a holiday tradition for decades. It's the same "Peter Pan" we've probably seen, the one with an actor who flies by way of a harness and wires - a mundane assignment for reporter Christopher Blank of member station WKNO until he decided to watch the audience, not the stage.

CHRISTOPHER BLANK, BYLINE: The yellow school buses drive up from all over south Memphis. For a lot of these little kids, this'll be their first time inside a real theater.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Follow me. And let's watch our steps, guys.

BLANK: They're really quiet, quieter than I remember being back in elementary school.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All the way, all the way.

BLANK: They file into this huge space with a deep-blue, velvet curtain. And behind that curtain is the mystery. Now they're getting excited. They can hardly hold still. So as a former theater critic, I've seen this show so many times. You know, it's for kids. Why would an adult even care about this thing, right?

(APPLAUSE)

BLANK: But then it starts. The room goes dark. A dot of light appears on the wall. It's just a spotlight moving around.

(SOUNDBITE OF TINKLING)

BLANK: But the kids are, like, leaning forward in their seats, enthralled.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Is that a ghost?

BLANK: Now in just a second, the windows are going to open by themselves. And, to my eyes, an actress is going to enter, dangling in a harness. But that is not at all what 300 children see.

(SCREAMING)

BLANK: (Laughter) I mean, listen to that.

(SCREAMING)

BLANK: Isn't that how we're supposed to react when we meet Peter Pan for the first time? Remember when you used to dream that you could fly? And remember when, as a kid, all you had was love and faith and a belief in goodness?

You know, back in 1904, when Peter Pan was first staged in England, they were worried. You get to a part in the show where the kids have to clap, or Tinker Bell will die. What happens if kids don't believe in fairies? What happens if children are afraid to speak out, have no faith?

We don't know. There's no script for that and never will be. Because in that moment, these kids, just like generations of us before them, always come through.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Well, do you believe? Do you believe?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: If you believe, clap your hands as loud as you can.

(CLAPPING)

BLANK: They come through. They believe for Tinker Bell, for the play and, today, for me. For NPR News in Neverland - Memphis - I'm Christopher Blank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.