I FIRST READ The Odd Potato on air for a local Kansas City television show. Everyone got a kick out of the title. As I left the set, someone yelled out, “You should get that published!”
I took the advice to heart. I remembered a student magazine from my Hebrew school days called The World Over and mailed my manuscript (if you can call three-and-a-half pages a manuscript) to the New York office. Several weeks later, my three-and-a half pages came back with a polite form letter.
“Thank you for your submission, but after 44 years, The World Over is going out of print.”
“I only had 44 years,” I thought, “and missed the deadline!” Frustrated, I figured, “That’s that!” What happened next is one of those unexplainable moments in life.
I stood in my kitchen with the empty manila envelope in hand, ready to throw it into the trash bin. Suddenly, I stopped. To this day, I don’t know why I decided to stick my hand inside the envelope, again…as if I missed something. But, I did—and found a tiny sheet of paper stuck to the bottom. On it was a short note from one of the editors. “I’m sorry I can’t help you, but I think your story has promise.” Below, she listed eight book publishers. Did I understand correctly? This editor was suggesting my short story had the potential to become a picture book?
Unlike today, a writer then could only submit her work to one publisher at a time. For the next 10 months, my three-and-a-half pages (via snail mail) “made the rounds.” Seven rejections later, only one name remained on the list. I did not hear anything for a couple of months. Then, one balmy September afternoon, I saw a manila envelope sticking out of my mailbox. My heart sank. I automatically assumed inside were my returned three-and-a-half pages, accompanied by the eighth and final rejection. I stood there in shock as I read the acceptance letter. The publishers of the Maryland- based Kar-Ben Copies hoped I would “allow them” to publish a picture book of my heart-warming story.
Cut to the chase. In 1984 (36 years ago), The Odd Potato entered the world of Hanukkah picture books. For the next several years, I would be sought out for book signings and lectures in cities around the country. Canadian Public Broadcasting asked to read The Odd Potato on-air as part of its “favorite holiday stories series,” and friends reported “book sightings” of The Odd Potato on three different continents. The little story that no one wanted, found a place in libraries, schools, book fairs, and homes around the globe.
1984 marked another significant event in my writing career. That’s when my sister, Gail, and I discovered that we had a knack for writing songs together. Gail wrote the music; I wrote the book and lyrics. Voila! The Bluestone Sisters became a musical theater team!
When I received my first copy of the picture book and saw the masterful illustrations by artist Katherine Kahn, I had an epiphany. The Odd Potato had the makings of a holiday musical. Of course, I would need to expand the plot. The characters, Rachel, Sammy, and their dad, each needed a separate storyline. I called Gail; she loved the idea. After all, the original short story was inspired by our dad’s own childhood experience during the Great Depression. To us, The Odd Potato will always be more than a story; it’s our family’s history. The Bluestone Sisters went to work.
In 1986, the first three musical productions of The Odd Potato appeared on Jewish Community Center stages in Seattle, Hartford, and St. Paul. In the years to come, I would write multiple adaptations for community, regional, and museum theaters. A Chicago television special earned an Emmy® Award for “Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming.” Hallmark issued a greeting card for Hanukkah (inspired by The Odd Potato), and the musical debuted in New York City at the Merkin Concert Hall, starring a young girl named Jamie Lynn Sigler, who just a few years later would reach fame as Meadow on the hit television series The Sopranos. Eventually, I would reinvent the show, and rename it Broadway Sings the Odd Potato, starring television favorites, Frank Gorshin and Charlotte Rae, plus Grammy® Award winner B.J. Crosby, directed by four-time Tony® Award nominee Randy Skinner. Major media covered that holiday event at Symphony Space in New York, including The New York Times— twice. Even Voice of America crafted a special piece with all the stars that aired on stations throughout Europe.
The subsequent audio recording, The Odd Potato: The Broadway Album, boasted 20 Tony® Award winners. Show biz legends Elaine Stritch, Sutton Foster, Hal Prince, Judd Hirsch, John Mahoney, and Donna McKechnie were just some of the luminaries who signed on to the project.
The album is, indeed, a little gem of a musical with sound effects, story narration, dialogue, song, and even some world-class tap dancing.
Even now, so many years later, when the original picture book is out of print, the story and music prevail. In the last several years, what a heady experience to hear select songs from the score performed on the concert stages of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Of course, it’s always a kick to hear one of the tunes on the airwaves. But it doesn’t end there. In 2020, The Odd Potato makes its “picture book” debut on YouTube for a whole new digital generation!
I guess that’s the long and short of the last 36 years. Not too shabby for a three-and-a-half-page story. Still, I hope at the 50-year mark, I can report even more exciting news. For now, I simply thank my lucky stars that I rechecked that manila envelope!