Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of “Polly”

December 10, 2012  |  
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Set in 1950’s segregated Alabama, Polly was the all black remake of the original Pollyanna. With the Cosby connection and Debbie Allen directing, people were anxious to see it. You know the story, you’ve watched the VHS over and over again but we bet you don’t know these behind the scenes secrets.


Who wrote the script?

William Blinn, a screenwriter and executive producer, who worked with Debbie Allen on Fame is the man who was commissioned to write the adaptation for The World of Disney’s “Polly.” Blinn, who had produced Purple Rain, and would eventually have a hand in the series “Half and Half” told People  why he and others decided to write this television movie for an all black cast. “If you are going to remake a picture and just do what they did before, I see no reason to remake it. We decided to make it at a time when black confidence started to come into greater visibility.”



How did Debbie Allen Get the job?

Blinn knew Debbie Allen from Fame and apparently, she left quite the impression on him. When he was asked who should direct and choreograph the movie, Blinn said Allen was the “the first and only candidate” suitable for the project. Naturally, his assessment was absolutely correct.


Why they decided kept it in the ‘50’s

Though the movie was released in 1989, and Allen originally thought to make it more modern, with modern dances, etc. The team eventually decided setting it in the ‘50’s would lend more to the feel-good message the film was trying to promote. Here’s what Debbie Allen had to say about it:

“But I think placing it in the 1950s allows it to keep a certain charm in terms of the wholesomeness of the piece. If you did it today, you would have to get into a lot more serious issues, like drugs.”

Yeah drugs in Polly or Pollyanna would have been a bit too much.


Debbie Can Relate

Just because they didn’t want to go as hardcore with the drug use, didn’t mean that they wanted to skip out on all types of controversy. In fact, Debbie Allen said the original was a bit too soft. Though Blinn and Allen had to fight Disney sometimes about the material they decided to include, they didn’t want to shy away from the cultural and racial climate at the time. Allen told The Chicago Tribune, it was a time period she knew very well.

“I grew up with water fountains at Woolworth`s that said `black` and `white.’ I grew up not being able to go to the movie theater downtown; I grew up not being able to go to the amusement park, except one day a year; I grew up in a school system that was totally segregated; I grew up not being able to go to ballet class because the most professional school in town did not allow black students, until a Russian woman teacher saw me and said, `Put her in!'”

Keshia as Polly

Though Keshia Knight Pulliam will always be known for her role as Rudy Huxtable, she was able to relate to her character Polly, more. In that same People article, Keshia explained why:

“Rudy is devious. Polly is always glad. Rudy does little things I would never do. If I did, I wouldn’t have my head right now,” she says, glancing sweetly at her father, James, who is her manager and an associate producer of the film.

Stand Up

If you ask me, the best scene in the movie comes in church when everybody catches the spirit, busts loose and starts dancing. Not only did Debbie Allen choreograph the dance, she and her husband, former NBA player, Norman Nixon, wrote the song. If you’re struggling to remember just how awesome this scene was, with the twirling dresses, shiny dress shoes and flailing church fans, then you need to check out the video below and refresh your memory.



Help From the Hubby

While Debbie Allen was directing the film, she was also raising two young children. Her son Norman Nixon Jr., whom she often carried around on her back, was just two at the time. Naturally, Allen needed help with her young son and daughter Vivian. That’s where her husband, Norman Nixon Sr. stepped. He watched the kids at home during filming and occasionally brought them to the set to see their mother in action. Talk about teamwork. And these two are still together. Beautiful!



Last performance of Butterfly McQueen

You may remember Butterfly McQueen as the maid, “Prissy” with the high pitched voice in Gone With The Wind, who made sure everyone knew that she didn’t know anything “‘bout birthin’ babies.” She signed on to be a part of Polly as the piano player in church, “Miss Priss.” This is kind of interesting, considering the 78 year old actress had always identified as an atheist. Described as “quirky,” Debbie Allen told People how she had to work with Ms. McQueen: “Dealing with Butterfly is like handling a very delicate piece of china. You have to be very careful.”


Can’t Touch Her Skin

Quirky might have been an understatement when it came to describing Ms. McQueen. In one scene in the movie, she was supposed to touch Keshia’s cheek with her hand. But she told Debbie Allen, she couldn’t do it because she had an aversion to physical contact. Allen told People the story and how she compromised with McQueen: “For one emotional scene, Allen wants McQueen, as the church pianist Miss Priss, to cup Keshia’s face in her hands ‘I can’t touch her skin,’ the actress nervously protests. Sympathetic but determined, Allen offers her a pair of white cotton gloves. McQueen accepts, and with her covered hands trembling, she manages the caress. Grateful for the compromise, she tells Allen, “Bless your heart. That’s the way I wanted to play it all along.”


Sister Sister

While Allen had to make some adjustments to work with other some of the actors, she told People directing her sister was no big deal. “Directing my sister is easy. She tells me I bossed her all her life, so this is nothing new.”
And this is what Phylicia Rashad had to say about taking direction from her sister: “It doesn’t bother me that she’s my little sister, telling me what to do. I’ve worked with the best directors in the business, and she is right with them.”


Some were mad it didn’t stay close to the original

A couple of critics felt that the remake strayed too far from the novel. You know how it is, people aren’t very receptive to the changing of what they consider classics. But one New York Times writer disagreed: “There were those in 1989 who bellyached that Disney Television’s Polly was a far from faithful adaptation of Eleanor Porter’s classic novel {Pollyanna}. What they meant was that Polly did not resemble the 1960 Hayley Mills movie version of Pollyanna, which itself played fast and loose with the source material.”


Whatever happened to Jimmy Bean?

Remember how adorable Polly and Jimmy Bean were together? So cute! Well, we know what Keshia’s been up to since Polly but you might have lost track of Brandon Quintin Adams, the child actor who had a very lucrative career in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. (He was in Mighty Ducks, Sandlot and before then played a young Michael Jackson in Moonwalker.) After Polly he was working pretty steadily in the numerous black sitcoms that were popular back then. Now, Brandon is also a rapper who goes by the moniker B. Lee. I know some of you scoffed at that rapper part but if you remember how Brandon could sing, dance and act as a kid, it’s actually not that much of a stretch.



Though some had criticisms of the movie because it wasn’t much like the original, critics and audiences enjoyed the film. It was one of the highest rated Disney TV movies at the time and was eventually nominated for an Emmy for choreography. Brandon Quintin Adams was nominated for the Young Artist award.


The Sequel

The movie was so successful, Disney decided to make a sequel Polly: Comin’ Home just a year later. Keeping many of the same people from the first movie, both in front of and behind the camera, the movie centered around Polly trying to save her Aunt Polly’s romance with Dr. Shannon and saving the local orphanage.

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