May 29, 2002
fanfic gone wild and distributed and I don't know what

From the NYT, via Kio, and I don't even know what to say about it. You tell me:

For Teenagers Nationwide, It's New York and It's 1904

Most of the young women involved agree that the frenzy all started because there were so many cute teenage boys singing and dancing in one place.

The boys were the cast of the 1992 Disney film "Newsies," a live-action musical inspired by the 1899 strike by newsboys against two of New York's most powerful newspapers, Joseph Pulitzer's World and William Randolph Hearst's Journal.


The movie, a kind of David and Goliath meets "West Side Story" with a dash of the Bowery Boys, was also a box-office flop. But for hundreds of young women in their teens and early 20's, the film struck a chord, spawning a cult following that spans the United States and extends even to Europe. Participants meet online, where they have set up virtual "lodging houses" for the characters, mostly orphaned teenagers, who are based on the film.

The first lodging house, in Lower Manhattan, was established in early 1999 by Maria Hanton, a "Newsies" fan who felt isolated when she found no like-minded friends near her home in Sarasota, Fla. Within weeks, that lodging house filled up with newsie characters created by fans who had watched the movie more times than they could count.

New houses soon appeared all over their virtual Manhattan, and when they filled up, they spread to Brooklyn and Queens. Their inhabitants, characters with names like Piggy Postlethwaite, Fingers Mulcahy and Giggles Malloy, speak in a New York accent heavy on dese, youse and heah.

The mostly female fans devise elaborate plots for their cast, which now has 637 characters (some share a creator) and includes newsgirls, even though the film's newsies were all boys. Time in the "newsie-verse" corresponds roughly with real time. It is now 1904 there, and a virtual theater, pharmacy, restaurant, dress shop and library have sprung up on the groups' shared Web sites to go along with the houses.

To open a location (there are currently 26), a potential house leader must carefully research a neighborhood's history, including whether that area was likely to have had a lodging house at the turn of the 20th century. "We're very, very big on historical accuracy," said Ms. Hanton, 19, who lives in Salem, Mass., but still runs a virtual location called Bistro Lucio in Midtown Manhattan. "I did a lot of research into opium dens and dance halls, because that's what my place is."

Elizabeth Osborn, 23, of Columbiana, Ohio, has developed a deep and quirky expertise on New York.

"I have a dozen period New York City maps on my computer, and bookmarks to things such as the histories of zippers, toothpaste and elevators," she said. Her library includes publications like "Crime Extra: 300 Years of Crime in North America" (the newsie-verse is well acquainted with crime and mayhem) and late 1800's volumes of Harper's Magazine.
AS the fans immersed themselves in New York history and lore, they thought more deeply about why the film had affected them. Some feel that the era's characters give them access to a basic human condition they feel is missing in modern life.

"Their everyday existence seemed to have so much more importance than everything I saw around me," Ms. Hanton said. "We seem so superficial. The fight to find food and keep clothes on your back, it's a very raw existence, and something about it just got to me. Like, I have all these things, but what if I didn't?"

Most characters are teenagers, and stories involve struggles for independence, and peers who can be both supportive and backstabbing. Some have escaped to the streets from stultifying homes. In one plot, Adrianne, who has run away to avoid her debutante ball, gazes at the street kids who walk by: "They seemed so happy, despite their obvious poverty. And here she was, rich and miserable."

Adrianne is befriended by a newsboy and welcomed into a house. But not everyone has an easy time. There are turf wars between neighborhoods, expulsions from houses and even rapes and murders (since some fans are as young as 12, nothing is ever more graphic than an "R" rating).

Sara Shandler, author of "Ophelia Speaks" (HarperCollins, 1999), a book about adolescent girls' writing, said the Web sites' success did not surprise her. "Teenage girls are particularly drawn to creative writing," she said. "A very important part of adolescence is having a certain amount of self-absorption, not in a bad way, but having to do with finding out who you are and putting it down on paper."

For some, it took the newsie-verse to spark that passion. "Amazingly, I didn't even start writing until I found the writing circle," said Kyla Sterling, 18, of Hilton, N.Y. It didn't even seem like something people did in today's society." Now, she plans to study creative writing in college.

Sarah Allen, 21, of Salt Lake City, added: "This may have started out as a bunch of teeny-boppers writing cheesy stories with bad characters and even worse dialogue, but it's grown into something much more than that. I've learned a great deal about not only myself as a person, but also how to really, truly write from the heart."

By now, the stories' links to the movie are tenuous; and the fans' original shared obsession has blossomed into friendships that are often, as Ms. Allen put it, "as close to me as my best `real' friends." Most have never met, though in 1999 around 30 of them converged on New York, where they visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the statue of Horace Greeley in City Hall Park and other newsie-related sites.

Some have outgrown the site. Ms. Hanton thought she had, but found she missed it. "It gives you an outlet for your emotions," she said. "At the most unstable points of my life, when I was the most distressed, I could go in and create utter havoc with my characters and find a way to resolve it."

Posted by at May 29, 2002 06:21 PM
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