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Childhood Chants About Underpants

April 30, 1986|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

Recently, I took some delight in the survival of a childhood chant that is generations old and still crops up in the mouths of babes.

The babe I refer to here is Talia Balsam, an actress of considerable charm, beauty and talent (not surprisingly, as her genetic structure is a blend of actor Martin Balsam and actress Joyce Van Patten--as sure-fire a shot of talent as one could wish for). Talia chanted her number in the dressing room of the Santa Monica Playhouse, where she and I were appearing in a play called "And a Nightingale Sang." I'm still in it, but she isn't. It's an Equity-Waiver production, which means that the actors, who may or may not be union members, are acting for no money. Talia succumbed to the lure of pelf and left the play to appear in a movie.

Actors and actresses don't, as a rule, see quite so much of one another's epidermis as, say, athletes, who share locker rooms and shower facilities, but they do view one another in what, in more strait-laced company, would be deemed startling stages of undress. It is a rare actor or actress--especially nowadays--who hasn't at one time or another shared a smallish dressing room with several members of both sexes.

Almost all theaters used to have several dressing rooms, or at the very least one for men and one for women. Today, with the burgeoning of small Equity-waiver theaters, in many dressing rooms bras and panties are cheek to cheek, so to speak, with Jockey shorts. The Santa Monica Playhouse is to my mind the most charming of all the waiver theaters on the local scene, but it, too, has a unisex dressing room. It's a large room, but the scene is not conducive to modesty.

A couple of weeks ago, Talia took me back about 50 years. Kyle Secor, who plays a tall, handsome young British soldier, was standing in his briefs and not much else. Talia, looking at him, sang, "I see London, I see France, I see someone's underpants," which was pretty funny, because just about all you could see anywhere was skin and underpants. And bras and slips, of course.

When I was a kid, we sang, "I see England , I see France . . . ." We had more respect for parallelism in my day, I suppose. In order to maintain parallelism with "I see London," you'd have to follow with "I see Paris." Paris doesn't rhyme with many words. Certainly not "underpants." If you like parallelism, "I see England, I see France" is preferable.

I assume we all know the tune to the chant. It's similar to the tune to "Nyahnyah, Nyahnyah, Nyah, Nyah," but more complex. In any case, the basic theme and the tune are ones that had been buried in my brain for more than 50 years--at least since my family lived in Jackson Heights, N.Y.; and we moved away from there in 1934.

The "Nyahnyah, Nyahnyah, Nyah, Nyah" tune and variations on it seem to be basic to childhood chants. If you're old enough, you might remember a World War II song called "Johnny Zero." The Zero was a Japanese fighter plane; Johnny was a young Yank. According to the song, Johnny hadn't been any great shakes in school, and the kids had teased him, chanting, "Johnny got a zero! Johnny got a zero!" referring to his test scores. Somehow, this nincompoop became an ace fighter pilot in the AAF, and his fellow pilots all sang, to the "Nyahnyah" tune, "Johnny got a Zero! Johnny got a Zero! Johnny got a Zero today!"


Goes to show that even the so-called "Good War" didn't necessarily bring out the best in us.

Talia is in her mid-20s, so she probably learned the underpants song about 20 years ago. Children must still be learning it from their friends. There's something marvelous about that sort of continuity. Millions of children--I'd guess mostly between the ages of 6 and 10--evidently pass this chant to one another as the decades pass by. It isn't learned at Mommy's knee, like a nursery rhyme. I'll bet there are no children's books, no kindergarten teachers, no camp counselors, no one at all but small children to pass this musical gibe about underpants on to other small children through the ages.

I think I hear a cherubic chorus of naughty little giggles.

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