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Baby's First Trip: The Phantom Tollbooth Author Norton Juster Comes To the DMA

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It was 1970. I was 12 years old, sitting the dark of Lowe's 83rd Street, a movie theater in New York City, when I had my first psychedelic experience.

No, nobody slipped a tab in my Milk Duds. I was watching The Phantom Tollbooth, the first and so far only movie version of the classic children's book by Norton Juster, who will be appearing at BooksmART this weekend at the Dallas Museum of Art (along with other beloved authors the likes of David Wiesner, Rick Riordan and Laurie Halse Anderson).

The MGM movie was directed by the late, great Chuck Jones (if I have to tell you who he is, we can't be friends anymore), with voices by the late, great Mel Blanc (ditto), and it stars Butch Patrick, aka Eddie Munster.

At least, he stars in it for a few minutes...until the tollbooth lands in his room and he drives through it into animated trippyland, where he becomes a big-eyed cartoon. The landscapes are Salvador Dali. Legless Officer Short Shrift scoots around on his single wheel, bellowing. Lethargians in the Doldrums ooze and drip like snot. Musical numbers are kaleidoscopic.

I was shocked -- shocked -- that although reference was made to a movie currently in development by Warner Bros., the original didn't come up in last week's Dallas Morning News interview with Juster. Maybe because Juster was not involved with its making, and hated it.

"I don't think they did a good job on it," he said in a 2001 interview. "It's been around for a long time. It was well reviewed, which also made me angry. And for some reason, I don't know why, they never put it into general release." (Reminds me of an old joke: "The food here is terrible, and the portions are so small.")

OK, if we're talking art, I prefer Jules Feiffer's nervous line drawings, no contest, but at least the movie isn't Disney. Really, it could be a lot worse.

I'm sorry, Mr. Juster. I adore your book; I've read it dozens of times. But I love the movie, too. Maybe it's just nostalgia. Or maybe because it was my first mind-altering substance.

BooksmART takes place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Dallas Museum of Art. Admission is free.

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