“LITTLE PICTURE PLAYHOUSE” (WRITERS: EDGAR LESLIE–JOE BURKE)
ARTIST: THE STILLROVEN
RELEASED 1968 ON 7” 45
Today’s feature is, among other things, a shout-out and thank-you to Clark Besch, who I’ve been proud to known for more than three decades. He has introduced me to countless records—of which this is one—and remains a generous friend to so many people who love music from the 1960s.
Edgar Leslie and Joe Burke wrote “There’s a Little Picture Playhouse in My Heart” in 1935. It attracted several recordings, probably the most popular being by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. Several other orchestras, including those led by Freddy Martin, Jack Shilkret, and Russ Morgan, also cut it, and there was at least one hillbilly recording.
It’s a sweet little song in which the narrator imagines a theater constantly playing the love story of him and his beloved. “There are moments where I lose you, but in the last act, you’re mine.” He also envisions a newspaper working round-the-clock to follow their affair, as if the two lovebirds were celebrities. It’s an oddly modernist lyric.
Fast forward to another world. In June 1967, the British R&B/showband Simon Dupree & the Big Sound released an album containing a version of the by-now moldy oldie. The band’s keyboardist, Eric Hine, wrote a new tune for the original lyrics then audaciously assumed the writing credit, perhaps thinking that nobody would notice!
As befits much of their output, the Simon Dupree recording is mannered, stiff, and even out of tune at places. It’s a total drag, and how (or why) the Minnesota garage band The Stillroven found this recording—which was never released in the U.S—and chose to cut it is a mystery.
Perhaps they heard it from their manager, a Peter May, who in the mid-1960s was a disc jockey in Minnesota. As a radio professional, he might well have been receiving various albums full of “the new sounds from England.”
By the summer of 1967, the Stillroven had issued two singles, the newest, a cover of “Hey Joe,” becoming a monster hit in their home state as well as in some other Midwest outposts. “Hey Joe” was even big enough that New York label Roulette picked it up for national distribution.
But no national offer was forthcoming for a third single. So late that year, a new Stillroven 45, “Little Picture Playhouse,” was released on the local August label. The small imprint’s first record was a 1967 album of unsigned Twin Cities bands called Money Music. The other releases on August were Stillroven 45s.
While it also bore the incorrect (“Hine”) writing credit, the Stillroven’s stab at “Little Picture Playhouse” rocked harder and more convincingly than the Dupree version, mixing barrelhouse piano, R&B rhythms, an aggressive tambourine, some plangent vocal harmony, and judicious use of electric guitar with a delay effect.
Despite the enthusiastic performance, it remains a bizarre record, even for the time period, and it says something for the zeitgeist of the time that as the year turned to 1968, “Little Picture Playhouse” became a top ten smash in Lincoln, Nebraska and also did major business in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
And that would’ve been it, except that sometime after the record’s release, May took a job in Tucson. Several months after the record’s initial flurry of Midwest popularity, he was able to wedge it into the KIKX playlist, where it was something of a hit.
Now somewhat revitalized, the group seemed to have a bright future, and despite some personnel changes were justthatclose to having an album released on A&M.
Unfortunately the label chose not to put out the record. It didn’t come out until 2005, when vintage music specialist Sundazed finally brought it to light. Of course, it was all a bit too late to help the band, which closed up shop in 1969.