There are two kinds of people in the world: those who discovered “Corduroy” as a child, and those who fell in love with the tale while reading it to their kids.
It’s been 50 years since Don Freeman’s story — about a department-store teddy bear looking for a friend (and a missing button) — made it into print. The Museum of the City of New York is marking that milestone with “A City for Corduroy: Don Freeman’s New York.”
The show, brimming with lively sketches, oils and lithographs, is perfectly child friendly. Low-placed display cases make it easy for kids to see early sketches for “Corduroy” and Freeman’s other books, while a small stage, like the one in 1953’s “Pet of the Met” — about a mousey maestro at the opera house — makes a perfect perch to read them on.
The free audio guide is narrated by Renée Elise Goldsberry, the Tony-winning star of “Hamilton,” and a hard-core “Corduroy” fan.
“The illustrations are beautiful, and the story is timeless,” says Goldsberry, who read the book as a kid and shares it now with her two children. “It’s one of those books you want to revisit.”
Freeman, who died in 1978, was an interesting man. In 1928, the San Diego native hitchhiked to New York City to study at the Art Students League. He was barely 20 years old, but he played the trumpet, and his gigs paid the bills. One day, he left his trumpet on the subway. He took that as a sign, and focused his energy into art for newspapers and magazines.
He loved the theater. When he couldn’t afford a ticket, he’d pluck a discarded stub off the street and walk in after intermission. He often sweet-talked his way backstage, drawing what he saw.
“For him, the magic of theater was the product of hundreds of people’s labor,” says curator Morgen Stevens-Garmon, “and he wanted to celebrate every one of them!” And so, along with sketches of stars Ethel Waters and Carol Channing are pictures of bored-looking stagehands and hardworking cleaning women.
In his 1948 autobiography, “Come One, Come All,” Freeman revels in the city’s diversity. Maybe that’s why Lisa, the girl who befriends Corduroy, is African-American.
Living in New York, Freeman wrote, “was living proof . . . that all people could live together if they but would.” What a lovely thought for the holidays — and every day.
“A City for Corduroy” runs through June 23 at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave., at 103rd St., MCNY.org
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