When the granddaughters came for the weekend, they paused on the way to catch ''Annie'' at the summer playhouse, and arrived full of song. Grumpa at once put the kibosh on their enthusiasms by asking what they knew about Annie. As I expected, I got the stuff about a blank-eyed kid in a newspaper prolongation, a dog named Sandy, and Daddy Warbucks.
Why does a doddering old granddad have to call attention to the precious lifeblood of the masters when these three yunkers are pulling down good grades in an excellent school system supported willingly by taxpayers who presume things go well? James Whitcomb Riley? So I spoke thus:
An' all us other childern, when the supper-things isst'nin' to the witch-tales 'at Annie tells about,
An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you
I then suggested to said young ladies that they might apply to the liberry and get acquainted with the real Annie, and that at the same time they might consult ''Bill'' Nye. I thought the tenuous connection between Maine and Nye might give their pursuit some local interest, since Nye was born in the town of Shirley, Maine, in 1850. True, he moved to Wisconsin as an infant and later to Wyoming, but his Maine parents brought him up in the wholesome traditions of Down East, which influenced his attitudes.
Bill Nye and James Whitcomb Riley (Indiana, 1849) teamed up for the lecture circuit after both were famous personalities and made a lucrative success. Riley would recite some of his sentimental verses in Hoosier dialect, and Nye would follow with things like the boy who stuck his finger in the molasses syruptitiously, or how he spoke to a felloe (sic) in The Hub. ''Little Orphant Annie'' and ''The Raggedy Man'' were Riley's high spots, while Nye liked to do his piece on how Maine farm boys bug potatoes all day and then take their girls for sleigh rides at night.
One critic marveled that Nye could come to the lectern, appear to see in a dim light, and then remove his spectacles to wipe them tediously before saying a word. This threw his audiences in hysterics, so he would have to wait to start his own lecture. The microphone had not been invented.
Riley became known nationally for his contributions to The Indianapolis Journal; Nye for the pieces in his own Laramie Boomerang. Nye's given names were Edgar Wilson, but he became ''Bill'' because of Bret Harte. In Plain Language From Truthful James there appears the line, ''. . . as I frequently remarked to Bill Nye,'' and Edgar Wilson was Bill from then on.
His letter of acceptance to the postmaster general on his appointment to the Laramie City postmastership appeared in the Boomerang and was widely copied, to make Nye's humor popular. This was followed by the publication of his first book and a letter to Queen Victoria in which he discussed royalties. Soon he moved to the New York World and later went on tour with Riley. Each of his many books was bound in a different color - red, green, blue, and so on - so readers could tell one from another.
Nye's History of the United States reveals much history otherwise unknown, such as Gen. Anthony Wayne's wig, that every wealthy man in America was once a poor boy except Amelia Jenks Bloomer, and that Benjamin Franklin chewed spruce gum. During the Riley-Nye lectures there was always an intermission, but to save time Mr. Nye would continue to speak.
There is a story that after Nye became famous, a selectman of the town of Shirley visited him in New York and said a sign had been placed on the Nye birthplace. Greatly pleased, Nye asked what the sign said, and the selectman said, ''It says 'Greenville, Six Miles.' '' Folks in Shirley thought that compensated for bugging potatoes.
Good things to know. And I hear that Little Orphant Annie has come to stay, at last, at the granddaughters' house.