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Portsmouth is Bad Boy Book Birthplace



Tom Bailey was a well known hell-raiser and American literary hero even before Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Yet "The Story of a Bad Boy" has never been dramatized – until now. Learn why the "bad boy" genre was born in post Civil War Portsmouth, NH





SEE ALSO: Blood on the Snow in Portsmouth



"Story of a Bad Boy" on Stage

Bart Simpson and Dennis the Menace owe their lives to Portsmouth, NH. Like so many other fictional bad boys -- from Huck Finn to Penrod to Spanky and Our Gang – they are descended from Tom Bailey, hero of the autobiographical novel "The Story of a Bad Boy" by Thomas Bailey Aldrich. Tom’s dangerous pranks and misadventures in Portsmouth launched a brand new literary genre in 1869.

hmbb01.jpg"This is the story of a bad boy" Aldrich began his groundbreaking novel. "Well, not such a very bad, but a pretty bad boy: and I ought to know, for I am, or rather I was, that boy myself."

Tom was perpetually raising hell while living with his grandfather in a house that still stands on Court Street. He and his gang of "miscreants" got into fights, burgled, told lies, set things on fire, played with explosives and ran away from home. One of his best friends, Binny Wallace, was washed out to sea during a camping trip on the Piscataqua River. For the first time, an American author assembled the unvarnished tales of his misspent youth into a best-selling novel.

"Mr. Aldrich has done a new thing in American Literature," William Dean Howells wrote in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly literary review in 1870.

Instead of telling boys how to behave properly, as most children’s books of the era did, Aldrich wrote – in his own voice -- about how real boys really behave. And he did so with style, humor, and emotion while painting a colorful picture of life in a 19th century New Hampshire seaport.

The novel was so popular that in 1908, the year after Aldrich’s death, his boyhood home was preserved as a museum. Each room in the house was restored precisely as it appears in the "bad boy" novel. Aldrich’s friend Mark Twain attended the ceremony and today, The Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial, is the longest-running museum in Portsmouth.

Bad Boys Onstage


Tom Bailey’s lively story still fascinates 21st century kids and adults. The illustrated novel has been published continuously in dozens of editions since 1869. Tom’s bloody snowball battle, quirky Grampa Nutter, comic puppy love, delinquent school chums and the tragic death of his father make "The Story of a Bad Boy" ideal for television or film. But while the boy books of Mark Twain have frequently been adapted by Hollywood and Broadway, Aldrich’s breakthrough novel has been largely ignored by dramatists – until now.

hmbb02.jpgThis week two local performers, Greg Gathers and M. Marguerite Mathews, bring this classic Portsmouth story to the stage for what may be the first time in 140 years. "The Story of a Bad Boy", as adapted by Pontine Theatre, employs puppets, live actors, masks, colorful props, recorded music and digitally projected images. This spirited and poignant show proves, without question, that Portsmouth’s Tom Bailey is alive and well.

An earlier production, however, fell flat on its face. While researching their new performance, Mathews and Gathers discovered an attempt to adapt Aldrich’s novel to the silver screen during the heyday of the silent film. Through the spring and summer of 1915, New York entrepreneur Gustave Frohman negotiated for the rights to adapt "The Story of a Bad Boy" into a "photoplay" with 40 children appearing in 342 scenes. The author’s own grandson, eight-year old Bailey Aldrich was chosen to play the leading role. Aldrich’s widow Lilian approved the script or "scenario" that included scenes at the Aldrich Memorial and all around the city. The 10-reel film, Frohman promised, would "put Portsmouth on the movie map" and draw great crowds of tourists.

The problem was money. A smooth-talking salesman, Frohman’s New York company did not put up the cash, but attempted to assemble investors for a New Hampshire-based theatrical production company. A thin man with a pointed beard, Frohman reportedly rode a bicycle to New York and back to Portsmouth while promoting the film. The Frohman Brothers were best known for the original staging of Uncle Tom’s Cabin using African American actors in 1878, and for racially exploitive minstrel shows popular in the late 19th century.

Gustave Frohman, the company’s advance man, cheerfully reported to the local newspaper in the fall of 1915 that "Interest in the coming production is daily increasing and local people are beginning to realize that it means a big advertisement for this city where all the scenes are laid." Apparently unable to find financial backing, Frohman quickly abandoned Portsmouth and Tom Bailey.

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