I was reminded at work this week when a colleague was assigned to file a story about Austin Mahone’s recent appearance in front of throngs of screaming preteen girls at the Mall of America that sometimes children’s conception of superstardom is markedly different from the parameters defined by adults. Austin who? But I was a kid once too, and I still remember at one time reckoning that there were few names bigger in show business than Punky Brewster’s Soleil Moon Frye or Tiffany Brissette, the girl who played the girl robot in the retroactively creepy syndicated schlockfest Small Wonder.
Another performer who, at least in the skewed eyes of one particular nine-year-old, was clearly leaving the likes of Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, and Bill Cosby in the dust was Tami Erin, who earned the plum title role in The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, an only implicitly Americanized rehash of the kids’ books by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. Having grown up in the heart of the States’ Scandinavian settlements, I was already familiar with the books, so I presumed that the casting call that eventually landed Erin the part was surely of such magnificent scope that David O. Selznick’s search for Scarlett O’Hara was dwarfed in comparison.
And yet, I didn’t see it in theaters. Almost no one did. (It earned about $3.5 million back on its $5 million budget.) I instead caught it a year or so later on video, maybe subconsciously cognizant of the fact that I hadn’t seen or heard from Miss Erin since the movie’s promotional push. But that didn’t change my attitude toward her obvious cachet. That’s in part because the movie builds it in for her. The turgid-pigtailed ginger Pippi Longstocking (like Punky Brewster, like Christine from the first few seasons of You Can’t Do That on Television) is nothing if not an avatar of celebrity for the training wheels set, merely by virtue of the fact that she’s the central character and her adventures all revolve around her. To siblings and audience surrogates Tommy and Annika Settegren, Pippi is living the dream next door. She’s got her own house (Villa Villekulla), no parents to tell her what to do, and seems to always think up some diverting way to pass the afternoon away. Why, even cleaning the house is a game in Pippi’s world…provided you have a few extra pairs of roller-brushes and a catchy tune from Debbie Gibson’s reject pile.
It also doesn’t hurt, of course, that she seems to have a dash of Sabrina the Teenage Witch about her. Described in the books as possessing astonishing strength, Erin’s Pippi is also an accomplished acrobat, a washing machine on spin cycle, and, in one orphanage-rescue sequence straight outta the old two-reelers, a modest-scaled superhero. Everything she does pulls her two friends closer, like moths to an open fire, eager to solve the riddle of how anyone can possibly be that cool. When she’s not mugging her intentions for the benefit of younger audience members, Pippi has the mystique of a sixth grader when you’re still in third. Watching the film then, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if she decided, in solidarity with her estranged pops, to pierce her own ear with a safety pin, just as I had seen one of my own real-life Pippis do at the back of the school bus one awe-inspiring afternoon. (Pippi’s estranged father is a salty old sea captain, so it could’ve worked as a show of solidarity.)
Maybe some of the way I remember processing The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking when I was a child had something to do with my being an oldest child, and these spotlight displays of heightened peers addressed an unfulfilled void. I’ll have to ask my youngest sister why, then, she weeped like a flesh wound as the final credits rolled, right after Pippi reversed her decision to join her father on the high seas in order to stay behind with her new friends Tommy and Annika. She must have known we were going to tease her mercilessly, and that her own “superstars” were nowhere near as magnanimous as the girl whose movie was just about to waltz right out of her life.
Eric Henderson had the theme song “Pippi Longstocking Is Coming into Your Town!” stuck in his head for years when he was a boy. As a man, he thinks Pee-Pee Long’s Tucking would make a great drag name.