116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
You know you’re from Cedar Rapids if you know who Playtime Poppy is.
The beloved ear-of-corn mascot, who has her own song and a devoted following among the younger set, appears at every performance of the Playtime Poppy Children’s Theatre, productions held in Cedar Rapids high school auditoriums with student actors.
If you’ve never been to one of those shows, “Beauty and the Beast” is being staged in December at Kennedy High School.
Poppy made her first appearance in 1952, but her story begins with the founding of the Junior Service League in Cedar Rapids in 1929. The organization became affiliated with the Association of Junior Leagues of America in 1934.
Junior League members were interested in children’s theater and produced their first children’s play, “The Sleeping Beauty,” on April 13, 1937. The play had adult actors and was performed for junior high and grade school students at Roosevelt High School, followed by performances at Wilson, McKinley and Franklin schools and then at the Children’s Hospital in Iowa City.
Productions were suspended during World War II, resuming in March 1947, when “The Tinder Box” was performed three times on a Saturday morning at the Paramount Theatre for children in public and parochial schools.
In 1951, League member Marijane Morgan formally organized the Cedar Rapids Children’s Theatre Inc., with a 28-member board of Junior League and community members.
Morgan then dreamed up the Playtime Poppy character. The mascot was drawn by Margaret Van Dyke Collins, and her costume was sewn by Janet Wrap.
Posters showing a smiling ear of corn were handed out to school kids with the message, “Hi, Kids, I’m Playtime Poppy. You’ll be hearing from me soon.”
Playtime Poppy’s big reveal was set for Saturday, Oct. 11. But children somehow thought Poppy would be on the radio Friday, Oct. 10. There was no school that day, so kids and their parents gathered at KCRG Radio, at First Street and First Avenue SW, hoping to meet the mascot.
The lobby was jammed, the phones were ringing, “with youngsters asking a bewildered switchboard operator where Playtime Poppy was. She hadn’t heard of the mascot,” The Gazette reported in its “Around the Town” column.
The mix-up was straightened out, and the kids learned they’d have to wait till Saturday to meet Poppy. “The Children’s Theatre directors were gratified over the tremendous interest they had created in their new venture,” The Gazette reported.
Playtime Poppy’s first time on stage came Oct. 25, 1952, when the Edwin Strawbridge Ballet of New York presented Hans Christian Andersen’s “Prince Swineherd” at Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium.
“Lady Make-Believe” (Mrs. Fred Glanville) told the children’s Poppy’s back story: “Poppy was once a small ear of corn in a cornfield near Cedar Rapids and wanted to attend the theater. When the load of corn was shipped to Cedar Rapids, Playtime Poppy jumped out and found the way to the public library where Children’s Theatre headquarters are located. When asked to become the mascot, Playtime Poppy accepted.”
Poppy’s first year included appearances during each production’s intermission. The shows that first season were all at Coe, with “Pinocchio” in January 1953 and “Hansel and Gretel” in May. Local children made their first appearances in the “Hansel and Gretel” production, and Poppy danced with children from the children theater’s creative dramatics classes at intermission.
Poppy also rode in the city’s Christmas parade.
In August 1953, Playtime Poppy accompanied two Junior League members — Mrs. James Coquillette and Children’s Theater President Mrs. John Carey — to Garden City, N.Y., for a national children’s theater conference.
Over the next decade, Poppy’s duties evolved to include school visits promoting the children’s theater productions.
The “Playtime Poppy Song” about a “happy little ear of corn” was written in 1955 by Mrs. Jack Vorhies, a Junior League member.
New costume, song
Poppy got a new costume in 1972 as well as an updated Poppy song. That year the plays were presented by actors from Coe College’s drama department, Regis High School and Old Creamery Players of Garrison.
The following year, 1973, was the first time students from the three Cedar Rapids high schools presented the plays. Kennedy was first with “No Small Thing,” followed by “Androcles and the Lion” at Jefferson and “The Secret World of Og” at Washington.
By 1980, Poppy had the wide-eyed look and big puffy kernels that most Cedar Rapidians associate with the mascot.
When the Martin’s department store basement, full of the Children’s Theater costumes and props, was declared a fire hazard in 1991, the items were divided among the three high schools and Mount Mercy College. Leftovers were sent to Goodwill.
But Playtime Poppy, and her song, live on.