Monday, August 28, 2023

Arsenic and Old Lace


You have probably heard by now that the Trine University Theatre will be producing “Arsenic and Old Lace” in November. To say that I am excited about this show is a vast understatement! As always, shows just take over my life. Sometimes it is my own show and other times it is directing for others to enjoy! I really do love my new role (okay, now a year old!) as theatre director. Of course, this means nights without sleep. How can I sleep when my dreams show me an empty stage or an empty theatre or a cast ready to go as the curtain opens, but no show! Right?

Now some of you know the show! You have attended the show or actually been in the show. I know years ago Angola High School produced this show. I have actual photos to prove that! The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre produced this show in 1943! Yes, an oldie but great show. But how did this show come to be produced? Let’s chat.

It all started by a woman named Amy Archer-Gilligan (1873-1962.) She ran a boarding house by the name, The Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids, in Windsor, Connecticut. (By the way, that is a really long name to hang out on a shingle!) Anyway, she lured seniors to her place, poisoned them with arsenic and buried them in her back yard or her cellar. She married Michael Gilligan in 1913 after she caught him up in a whirlwind romance. He was, of course, one of her boarders! February 19, 1914, she had him sign a will and he was dead in 48 hours! Her neighbors became suspicious! Afterall, it is rumored she poisoned between 20-100 elderly customers! It was also noticed that she was buying arsenic by the pound. (I do think that would have tipped me off!)

On May 8, 1916, she was formally charged and sentenced to hang for her deeds, but was instead sent to the state prison in Wethersfield. Ironically, she worked in the cafeteria! Really?

Joseph Kesselrig, writer and author of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” heard this story as a kid and later went to research the story through the newspapers. He was fascinated by the story and decided to write a play about it! The first draft was a drama, but because of WWII, he changed it to a dark comedy. It opened on Broadway in 1941 and was one of the longest running shows of Broadway at that time. It ran at the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre in September of 1943.

Of course, it couldn’t just stay a play! Warner Brothers bought the rights to do the film in 1941. This was exciting for Warner Brothers and for Frank Capra as he would become the director. (You know that name because he also directed, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”) There was a clause in the transaction that would not allow the film to be released until the show ran its course on Broadway.

Capra wanted Cary Grant to play the lead, but Warner Brothers had another idea. They wanted Bob Hope to play the lead. If not Hope, they wanted Jack Benny or Ronald Reagan. However, Hope was under contract with another publishing house. Capra wanted Boris Karloff also. Karloff really wanted to act in the film, but was also under contract with Broadway film productions so was unable to do so.

Cary Grant got the role of Mortimer and loved doing so. However, later in his life he said he thought Jimmy Stewart would have been better!

The film was finished in December, 1941 right after Pearl Harbor. Capra enlisted and the Corps let him finish up before swearing him in. Grant also helped the war effort by donating all his salary, $160,000, from the film for the war effort.

As for the plot and complete story line, well, my friends, you really have to wait until November when we roll out the red carpet and invite all of you to see the show. As always, there is much to do as we are just in the process of auditioning now. Are there any Boris Karloffs or Cary Grants out there? If so, you know where you should be. But for the rest of you, we will see you at the theatre.

Oh, one last thing. Beware of arsenic and old lace this autumn season. Just a warning and you heard it first from me!

See you at the show!

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