The Elephant in the Room | Ep. 219

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(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

This episode is part of our 2023 series recorded live with musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra plus a star-studded cast at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts. Photos of the event are courtesy of Hilary Scott.

Think about one of your special skills.

Maybe you’re a whiz at math, or doing puzzles, or drawing pictures, or running really fast!

Have you ever used your skill to help someone else? In today's story, a judge needs help in his courtroom. And one big, gray animal has the special skill to help!

Our story is called “The Elephant in the Room.” Versions of this tale originally come from China, in East Asia.

Some really great people came together to bring you this story — at a really special place!

We recorded this episode live at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with musical accompaniment by a quintet of BSO musicians: Rachel Childers on horn, Clint Foreman on flute, Catherine French on violin, Ben Levy on double bass, and Suzanne Nelsen on bassoon.

Our cast included: Lauren Ambrose, MaConnia Chesser, Scott Cohen, Josh Gondelman, and Peter Riegert.

Lauren Ambrose is an Emmy, Tony, and Grammy nominee from the award-winning Showtime series, “Yellowjackets.” She’s also starred in “Servant” on Apple TV+ and “Six Feet Under” on HBO.

MaConnia Chesser is a company member at the esteemed Shakespeare & Company, where she’s starred in numerous plays. She’s appeared at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and on the HBO series “The Wire."

Scott Cohen has starred in such television hits as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Billions,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Allegiance,” and “The 10th Kingdom,” as well as the romantic comedy, “Kissing Jessica Stein."

Josh Gondelman is a regular panelist on Wait, Wait… Don't Tell Me, the weekly NPR news quiz. He’s also a standup comedian and Emmy-Award-winning television writer.

Peter Riegert is an actor and director with nearly 100 TV and film credits including “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Disjointed”on Netflix, plus “Animal House,” “Crossing Delancey,” and “Local Hero.” He also hosts the podcast, Peter Riegert’s Vocal Heroes.

This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Sofie Kodner. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.

Special thanks to everyone at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood for their assistance, including Anthony Fogg, Amy Aldrich, David Chandler Winn, Emily W. Siders, Becca Mansfield, Relyn Myrthil, Steven Palacio, James Campbell, Ricardo Mora, Paul Ginocchio, Mark Rulison, and Leah Sagan-Dworsky.

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

GROWN-UPS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We invite you to share your picture on Facebook and Instagram, and tag it with #CircleRoundPodcast. To access all the coloring pages for past Circle Round episodes click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.

Things To Think About After Listening

What’s one skill that makes you special? Maybe you build mind-blowing Lego creations, or you do a mean cartwheel. Perhaps you can ride your bike really fast, or tell really funny jokes!

Draw a picture of you doing your special skill. Then share that picture with someone you have fun with – a family member or friend – and ask them to talk about one of their special skills!

Story Transcript

NARRATOR: There once was a judge. Like so many others in his profession, the judge was well-educated, well-mannered, and well-versed in the law.

But unlike many others in his profession – or any others, really – the judge had a rather peculiar pet:

ELEPHANT:  [horn sound]

NARRATOR: …an elephant!

JUDGE: Good morning, my gentle giant! Would you like some luscious leaves for breakfast? How about some tasty tree bark?  

ELEPHANT:  [horn sound]

JUDGE:  You’ve got it!

NARRATOR: But here’s the thing: the elephant wasn’t just the judge’s pet. She was also… his assistant! Because if the judge needed help deciding a case… he called on the colossal creature.

JUDGE: What do you say, my gentle giant? Will you come to the courthouse and help me with my verdict?

ELEPHANT:  [horn sound]

JUDGE:  You will? (beat) Splendid!

NARRATOR: The judge’s courtroom was always swarming with spectators. All of them wanted to see justice served, of course. But they also wanted to see whether the judge would summon his elephant!

Elephants have long been viewed as powerful symbols of strength and wisdom. But the people in the judge’s town were convinced that his elephant wasn’t just strong and wise. They believed she understood the hearts and minds of human beings! Because every time the judge called on his elephant to help him issue a verdict, she never made an error.

Well… one summer day, in his very packed courtroom, the judge presided over a case…

JUDGE: This court will now come to order!

NARRATOR: …of theft.

JUDGE: Ladies and gentlemen! Three suspects are being investigated today for robbing the town grocery. Our grocer has been kind enough to come and deliver her testimony. (beat) Grocer? Can you please tell the court what happened?

NARRATOR: The grocer’s eyes glistened with tears as she rose from her seat.

GROCER: (teary) Well, Your Honor… Earlier this month… in the wee small hours of the morning… a burglar broke into my grocery store! They ran off with all the money I kept in the cash register in the front of the store – and all the money I kept in a safe in the back!

JUDGE: And did you happen to lay eyes on the person who broke into your grocery?

NARRATOR: The grocer blew her nose with a handkerchief.

GROCER: (ad-lib nose blow) It just so happens I DID lay eyes on the scoundrel, Your Honor! (beat) Sort of.

JUDGE: “Sort of”? What do you mean, “sort of”...?

GROCER: Well, as luck would have it, I got to work early that morning. But when I went to unlock the front doors, I saw they were already open! And I caught sight of a masked figure! Running away! With a bulging sack of money slung over one shoulder!

JUDGE: This person wore a mask, you say? So you didn’t see their face?

GROCER: I didn't. But I noticed they were rather tall, with hunched shoulders – just like those three suspects over there!

NARRATOR: The grocer gestured toward the side of the room, where three suspects sat in a row. They were all tall, with hunched shoulders. The first suspect was a man wearing orange, the second was a woman wearing yellow, and the third was a man wearing blue.

JUDGE: Alright, grocer. Among these three suspects here… do you recognize the masked robber?

NARRATOR: The grocer squinted her eyes. She was quiet for a moment, then

she thrust a finger at the man in orange.

GROCER: HIM! That man looks just like the one who stole from my grocery!

NARRATOR: But then… she pointed at the woman in yellow.

GROCER: Though it could also be HER…????

NARRATOR: Now, she gestured toward the man in blue.

GROCER: Or maybe HIM…????

NARRATOR: In a flash, the three suspects jumped to their feet. First, the man in orange…

MAN IN ORANGE: But I’ve done nothing, Your Honor!

NARRATOR: Then the woman in yellow…

WOMAN IN YELLOW: I would never steal!

NARRATOR: Then the man in blue.

MAN IN BLUE: I’m as innocent as the day is long!

NARRATOR: The judge furrowed his brow as he studied the suspects’ faces.

JUDGE: Hmmm… Tell me, you three. Where were you the morning of the robbery?

NARRATOR: One by one, the suspects replied. First the man in orange.

MAN IN ORANGE: It was early, so I was asleep in bed!

NARRATOR: Then the woman in yellow.

WOMAN IN YELLOW: I was at work in my fields!

NARRATOR: Then the man in blue.

MAN IN BLUE: I was out of town!

NARRATOR: The judge continued his investigation, asking question…

JUDGE: Do you have witnesses who can prove your whereabouts?

NARRATOR: …after question…

JUDGE: Have you visited the grocer’s store before?

NARRATOR: …after question…

JUDGE: How much money is in your bank account?

NARRATOR: …and all three suspects were quick to give their answers.

MAN IN ORANGE: My wife was with me, Your Honor! She can prove where I was!

WOMAN IN YELLOW: I’ve never visited the grocer’s store, Your Honor! I grow everything I need on my farm!

MAN IN BLUE: I have nothing in my bank account, Your Honor! I am completely broke!

JUDGE: I see…

NARRATOR: The judge leaned back in his chair. He folded his arms and closed his eyes. After a few moments, he blinked his eyes open, and slowly – very slowly – swept them around the courtroom.

Then… at long last… he opened his mouth and uttered the words each and every onlooker had been waiting to hear.

JUDGE: Well… it’s official, ladies and gentlemen! I am going to need some help. (dramatic) It is time to call in… THE ELEPHANT!

NARRATOR: How do you think the elephant will help the judge?

We’ll find out what happens… after a quick break.


NARRATOR: I’m Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to Circle Round, live at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts! Today our story is called “The Elephant in the Room.”

NARRATOR: Before the break, a judge was questioning three people suspected of robbing a grocery. To help make his final verdict, the judge called in his longtime assistant:

His pet elephant!

The spectators leaned forward in their seats as a guard led the elephant into the courtroom. The great animal’s tail swayed and its trunk waved as it lumbered toward the judge’s bench.

JUDGE: Ladies and gentlemen! It’s been said that my elephant can read the hearts and minds of human beings. And those who are innocent need not fear. But those who are guilty, well… you’ve got a BIG problem!

NARRATOR: The onlookers exchanged amused glances. The suspects sat stock still.

JUDGE: Suspects! Before my elephant works her magic, I will give you one last chance to confess. (beat) Did you break into the grocer’s store?

NARRATOR: The man in orange, woman in yellow, and man in blue all shook their heads from side to side.

MAN IN ORANGE: I told you! I’ve done nothing, Your Honor!

WOMAN IN YELLOW: And I would never steal!

MAN IN BLUE: And I’m as innocent as the day is long!

JUDGE: Very well!

NARRATOR: The judge turned toward the elephant.

JUDGE: My dear gentle giant. I am convinced that one of these three people broke into the grocer’s store, and made off with her money. We just need to figure out which of them did it. So… one by one… I want you to examine our suspects. Observe them carefully. And tell us which one is guilty!

NARRATOR: All eyes were on the elephant as she tromped over to the suspects. First, she approached the man in orange. The giant creature reached out her long trunk and skimmed it down his body, from his head to his feet.

The man in orange held his breath… before bursting into a giggle.

MAN IN ORANGE: (ad-lib giggling) Ha ha ha! The elephant’s trunk tickles! Ha ha ha!

NARRATOR: After a few moments, the elephant lowered her trunk and let out a snort.

ELEPHANT:  [horn sound]

NARRATOR: Then, she clomped over to the woman in yellow.

Again, the colossal animal extended her trunk, then brushed it from the woman’s head to her feet. The woman immediately began to squirm.

WOMAN IN YELLOW: (ad-lib giggling) Ha ha ha! It really does tickle! Hee hee hee hee!

NARRATOR: After some time, the elephant dropped her trunk. She let out a grunt.

ELEPHANT:  [horn sound]

NARRATOR: Then… finally… she shuffled over to the final suspect:

The man in blue.

As the elephant drew nearer, the man began to tremble. His face flushed, and a tiny bead of sweat slipped down his brow. And then… as the elephant thrust out her trunk, and lifted it toward the man’s head… he threw up his hands and practically bounced out of his seat.


NARRATOR: The spectators in the courtroom gasped. The man in orange and the woman in yellow sighed. The judge grinned.

JUDGE: Well well well! Looks like we have our culprit! The court hereby finds this fellow guilty of burglary and theft! (beat) Guards? Take this man away!

NARRATOR: Two stocky guards came marching over to the man in blue. The judge, meanwhile, rose to his feet and patted the elephant on the head.

JUDGE: I am so grateful to have this wise assistant who helps me take care in my judgments! May you continue to help me judge correctly for years to come, my gentle giant. (beat) This court is adjourned!

NARRATOR: As the courtroom emptied out, with the two innocent suspects going free…

MAN IN ORANGE: (relieved) Thank goodness!

WOMAN IN YELLOW: (relieved) I SAID I’d never steal!

NARRATOR: …and the confessed criminal going to jail…

MAN IN BLUE: (miserable) So much for “as innocent as the day is long”!

NARRATOR: …the grocer stayed behind and approached the judge.

GROCER: Your Honor? I want to thank you for taking my case – and finding the thief who burglarized my store!

JUDGE: You’re very welcome, grocer! (beat) But did I find the thief…? Or did the ELEPHANT…?

GROCER: That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you! I mean, we humans believe we are so very wise. But the truth is, we struggle to know anything for certain! (beat) So… how does your ELEPHANT have this skill? How can she read our hearts and minds, and know the innocent from the guilty?

JUDGE: Well…

NARRATOR: The judge gazed at the grocer, then at the elephant, then back at the grocer again.

JUDGE: …Since you asked… I don’t think my elephant actually knows the innocent from the guilty.

GROCER: You DON’T?!? But –! (gets interrupted)

JUDGE: (interrupting) BUUUUT… as long as people BELIEVE she knows the innocent from the guilty… then the innocent have nothing to fear, because they have done no wrong. (beat) But the guilty HAVE done wrong, so their hearts fill with terror. Terror that this wise elephant will see right through them, and find them out! (beat) So, the elephant's skill lies in making the guilty confess... simply by being herself! Nothing more, nothing less.

NARRATOR: And with that, the judge took hold of the elephant’s lead rope and guided his beloved companion out of the courtroom. And as the grocer watched them go, she suddenly knew, in her heart and mind, the truth. The elephant was a powerful symbol of strength and wisdom. But with the elephant’s help, the judge was the strongest and wisest of all.

Rebecca Sheir Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.



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