Teddy Bears’ Picnic Day

On Facebook today, Anneli Meyer Korn posted this Bizarro cartoon from 11/17/14:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

I was moved to declare November 17th Teddy Bear Picnic Day, in honor of Anneli and her husband Peter, but it turns out that (by whatever obscure mechanism these things happen) July 10th is already taken for this occasion, according to the Days of the Year site.

Well, of course, if you don’t know the song, you won’t find the cartoon particularly funny. (Suppose that the teddy bear’s message were “I’m sorry, the teddy bears are conferencing at Davos today”. That would be absurd, and so to some degree humorous, but nowhere near as funny as “I’m sorry, today is the day the teddy bears have their picnic”.)

But wait! My go-to person on British royalty (Chris Ambidge), reminds me that Elizabeth acceded to the English throne on November 17th, 1558, so that today is unquestionably Elizabeth I Accession Day. From a Princeton Triangle Club show from a great many decades ago, the anthem for today:

I’m Elizabeth the First / Say it if you durst / I’m a hell of a queen!

(from memory, so maybe not entirely accurate). Two modern portrayals:

(#2) Cate Blanchett in the 1998 biographical drama film Elizabeth

(#3) Lily Cole in the 2017 tv miniseries Elizabeth I

But back to the teddy bears. From my 7/25/10 posting “Bear music”:

On my iTunes, there’s “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” (I have three versions on my iTunes), which is older than you might think, with a melody from 1907 and words [by Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy] from 1932.

The song is framed as something for grownups to sing to children. It tells of a secret world, hidden from the world of everyday life, where all the bears can frolic together as they will.

The lyrics:

If you go down in the woods today
You’re sure of a big surprise
If you go down in the woods today
You’d better go in disguise!

For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain
Because today’s the day the
Teddy Bears have their picnic

Picnic time for Teddy Bears
The little Teddy Bears are having
A lovely time today
Watch them, catch them unawares
And see them picnic on their holiday

See them gaily gad about
They love to play and shout
They never have any cares
At six o’clock their Mommies and Daddies
Will take them home to bed
Because they’re tired little Teddy Bears

Every Teddy Bear who’s been good
Is sure of a treat today
There’s lots of marvelous things to eat
And wonderful games to play

Beneath the trees where nobody sees
They’ll hide and seek as long as they please
‘Cause that’s the way the
Teddy Bears have their picnic

Songs that grownups sing to kids are almost always as much for the grownups as for the kids. In this case, the idea of a secret world is naturally attractive to children, and figures in children’s literature of all sorts. But it’s also attractive to adults, especially those with tainted identities (for whom the secret world might provide an escape from the burden of their identities).

In the real world, actual picnics (or their equivalents) have provided such worlds outside of the world, places for private carnival. San Francisco’s Bohemian Grove and similar playgrounds for the elite, for instance. Meanwhile, for some years the Columbus OH gay bar Kismet (for a long time in the shadows, like all gay bars, and now gone) had a summer picnic (closed to outsiders) in a park west of Columbus. No doubt there were similar events in other cities back in the day. And eventually there were large regional and national private gay carnival events, the circuit parties; see my 6/22/10 posting “Rivers of Babylon”, with a section on circuit parties. Our picnics beneath the trees where nobody sees.

In any case, even straightforforward performances of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” tend to come with a double vision of the event. Two such performances:

(#4) Henry Hall & His Orchestra in an early (1932) recording

(#5) Bing Crosby in a very popular 1950 recording

Thanks to the bear as a gay male “type” — a recurrent topic on this blog — the song is a favorite of gay men’s choirs, usually performed with heavy dollops of visual humor. I haven’t found a good video, but here’s an excellent audio:

(#6) London Gay Men’s Chorus (2006)

The song has been used as a theme for other gay-tinged performances. I offer the “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” (adult comedy) performance piece at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. From the Theatre Reviews site by Richard Lambert on 8/18/17:

(#7) At the Natural Food Kafe, 55 Clerk St., Edinburgh (venue 415 Edinburgh Festival Fringe) — yes, a natural foods restaurant pressed into service as a mini-theatre; the Fringe Festival takes every damn space it can find

It’s tea time at the Natural Food Kafe and in front of you is literally picnic hampers, a car chequer blanket, and teddy bears. Although this is about an all-together different type of bear! The gay male bear!

Eden [Ballantyne]’s storytelling flows light and easy on a sunny afternoon in a balmy cafe basement. His biography is hilariously enacted as a puppet show using teddy bears to portray the many character bears we encounter. As he explains, one day he stopped waxing, watched his tummy protrude over his waist belt, and realised he’d become a bear.

Throughout his life, bears have come and bears have gone, all leaving their paw prints on his heart and emotions. A little nostalgia, a lot of laughs, and a few absurd situations.

As far as I can tell, all the human characters were naked guys, bearish in one way or another. Naked men, explicit sexual themes, not recommended for under-18s. But obviously sweet, as it should be, if it’s going to riff on this song.

(My mother sang it to me when I was a little kid. She thought it was really cute; she liked a lot of cute stuff, which eventually got to be kind of annoying, and her singing was truly appalling, but then she was my mother, so what the hell. More important, I adored the song as a kid, for its secretly transgressive theme. And then it just got better.)

One Response to “Teddy Bears’ Picnic Day”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    I got this record around 1950, when I was around 11, and loved it, though I found it perhaps a little cloying – I can still sing it through, though.

    I got a 28 inch tall teddy bear, possibly Gund, for Christmas when I was 2 1/2 in 1941. White Puss was my alter ego through my childhood, and he sits on my night table in my 80th year.

    I’m awfully straight, and I confess the gay connection eludes me, but it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I yam who I yam.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: