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The ‘Guess Who’ Grandpa

For professional writers, any surface that holds writing is meaningful, even if it's the back of a postcard. The mundane communiqué, the kind that says, "Weather is fine, wish you were here", just isn't allowed to happen. Upper West Sider Howard Eisenberg is a professional writer. When filling out postcards to his grandchildren while traveling some years ago, he opted for a challenge. Instead of a list of places visited, he would, for example, write verses about the kinds of animals he’d seen at the zoo, leaving it up to his grandchildren to figure out, based on clues, exactly which animals he was talking about. Later, Eisenberg recognized the commercial and educational potential of his grandfatherly gesture. It has resulted in the creation and release of a music CD, The Guess Who Zoo. For a quarter of a century, Eisenberg collaborated with his late wife Arlene (co-author of the legendary What to Expect When You're Expecting), on scores of magazine articles. The partnership began when Eisenberg, who was struggling over a Sunday supplement story about The Music Man's composer Meredith Wilson, was finally told by his wife to "move over" — meaning, away from the typewriter. "It went on for days — I kept rewriting the lead and couldn't decide which one to use," Eisenberg remembers. "Finally, when it got to the point where I had to get the story in, she just said 'move over', and wrote the whole thing in an hour-and-a-half using one of my leads. All I had to do was sit down and polish it. That was the start of our career." But it was his wife's individual — and extraordinary — success with What to Expect that got Eisenberg writing animal verses on postcards. Traveling with Arlene during a 10-city worldwide book tour, Eisenberg would visit local zoos, where he accumulated the subject matter and background information for his verses, penning his postcards, as he likes to say, "at 30,000 feet" while he and his wife flew to another city. Eisenberg would always leave the last word — the animal's identity — blank, for his grandchildren to fill in themselves as part of a rhyme. The concept of filling in verses came from Arlene, known to entertain her children and grandchildren by reading poems aloud and astutely leaving out certain rhyming words for the kids to drop in themselves. The technique worked wonders in the area of language development, in that the Eisenberg's three children have all become professional writers. Although the postcards remained in the possession of his grandchildren, Eisenberg, like any smart writer, kept copies of his verses in a drawer. While taking a performance class with his current producer Ann Ruckert, Eisenberg met composer Sherwin Kaufman, a widely published composer and grandson of author-humorist Sholom Aleichem of Fiddler on the Roof fame. A grandfather himself, Kaufman resonated with the material, and the pair, together with producer Jimmy Wisner and Ruckert, committed "The Guess Who Zoo" to the burnished surface of a compact disc. The lyrics on the CD, Eisenberg says, are identical to those he penned on his postcards — written in the first person, with bears, alligators, raccoons, giraffes and other creatures slowly revealing themselves through their distinguishing physical and behavioral characteristics. The animal's name, sung by the child, supplies the song's final rhyme. "I hadn't written a lot of songs at that point," says Eisenberg of his meeting with composer Kaufman. (Eisenberg has since written a musical comedy, Fame and Fortune, which has yet to be staged). With an unreleased CD in one hand and a book proposal for his verses in the other, Eisenberg and his wife lunched with Phyllis Grann of Putnam Penguin, who suggested creating a ‘buzz’ about Guess Who prior to publication of the lyrics. (HarperCollins is currently considering the lyrics for publication). The ‘buzz’ subsequently became Rebecca Lichtenfeld and Brian Muni, collectively known as "The Guess Who Zoo Troupe". Both widely experienced singers and performers, Lichtenfeld and Muni have been taking the live act, based on a script by Eisenberg, to numerous city venues, from birthday parties to schools. The CD itself, released 10 months ago and featuring different performers, has been picked up by institutions such as the Bronx Zoo, The Children's Museum of Long Island, and The American Museum of Natural History — a strong indicator of its educational worth. (According to Eisenberg, 50 school administrators throughout the city are currently reviewing proposals as to how the CD can be integrated into their curricula in the areas of language arts, science, music, theater, and even social studies). As for Eisenberg, the indecision that nearly killed his writing career as it was being born, the one saved by his wife Arlene, doesn't taunt him anymore. Currently working as "a visible ghost" on the autobiography of former major league pitcher Mickey McDermott, he says, "I sit down now and just write." For further information on "The Guess Who Zoo" CD, go to