Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"Much Ado About Nothing" tour takes a dark turn, 1958


By all accounts, the 1958 stage tour of "Much Ado About Nothing" was a success. It was a huge gamble, though, despite the presence of a bona fide superstar on the bill. Directors John Houseman and Jack Landau had re-imagined Shakespeare's romcom as a bit of a western, moving the story from its Sicilian locale to 19th-century Spanish-American Texas. It was also the first tour launched by the American Shakespeare Festival, which staged its first play in Stanford, Connecticut, in 1955.

While it was ultimately a financial success, "Much Ado About Nothing" took an unexpectedly dark turn during the tour's final weeks.

Having Katharine Hepburn on the marquee likely helped ease the doubts of the tour's investors. Hepburn was as big a movie star as has ever been produced by Hollywood, and her presence in the show had a curious impact on things. If you were to see ads for the travelling show in your local newspaper, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a movie. Hepburn and co-star Alfred Drake were treated like royalty by the press, although few other names in the cast were able to escape Hepburn's orbit. "Much Ado About Nothing" was a Big Deal.

The production debuted late in 1957 at the American Shakespeare Festival, part of a festival program that also included "Othello" and "The Merchant of Venice." All three shows shared a sprawling cast of more than two dozen actors. At the end of the festival, directors Houseman and Landau must have been pleased with the festival's comedic contribution, because they opted to take the "Much Ado About Nothing" on a short tour of America.

Alfred Drake and Katharine Hepburn in "Much Ado About Nothing," 1957.
Hepburn and Drake agreed to star in the nine-week tour. The roster of actors was trimmed to the meet play's essential roles. When the cast of "Much Ado About Nothing" hit the road in early 1958, Jonathan Frid was with them.

Frid, 32, had received a master's degree in directing in 1957 from the Yale University Drama School.

"I was a directing major there, but we all had to do parts anyway," Frid said during a 2012 interview with the Archive of American Television. "Everybody had to do acting at one time or another. I'd already gone through acting, all kinds of teachers, and I was a perpetual student. I was going to everybody in those days. I had to go through it again and they gave me all these huge roles to play at Yale and it led to getting into the American Shakespeare Festival where I worked with Katharine Hepburn, and John Houseman was the director at the time."

Frid played both "Friar Francis" and "Sexton" at different points during the 1958 tour. In later years, he remained characteristically modest about his importance to the production.

"I was in a small role," he told TV Picture Life in 1969. "I wasn’t important, but it gave me a chance to know (Hepburn). I was able to observe her. I was there, every day, watching her.”

Hepburn was "Beatrice," Drake played "Benedick" and the rest of the cast often traded roles based on the ever-shifting demands of the tour. And those demands took a tragic turn upon the show's arrival in Boston.

"Much Ado About Nothing" ran from Jan. 27 until Feb. 1 in 1958 at the American Theatre in St. Louis. The tour stopped next in Washington, during which the company found it impossible to hide actor Stanley Bell's worsening mental health problems. Appearing as "Don Pedro," Bell walked off stage -- and out of the theater -- in the middle of a scene with Hepburn on Feb. 14. An understudy filled in for the rest of the performance, but Bell was unaccounted for until the following day.

He appeared at Houseman's Manhattan apartment early the next morning to find the director was not at home. Bell told Joan Courtney, Houseman's wife, that he'd "blanked out" during the performance. By chance, Houseman called the apartment while Bell was present and the two spoke. Bell asked to return to the production but, when Courtney left the room to get a cup of tea for him, she found the actor had left the apartment.

On the morning of Feb. 17, Bell jumped from the eighth floor window of the Hotel Touraine. In the interim, he must have convinced Houseman to let him continue with the show. News reports of Bell's death mention that he was expected to take the stage when the play opened that night at the Shubert Theater.

Boston was in the grips of a snowstorm that claimed the lives of more than 30 people that week, and Bell's death was hardly noticed. In fact, the desk attendant who heard the actor's body strike the hotel's marquee initially thought it was more snow falling from the roof. The show went on as scheduled with a few temporary adjustments to the cast.

The Wikipedia page for Hotel Touraine weirdly lists Bell as one of the many celebrity guests to have stayed at the hotel, omitting the tragic way in which he checked out. Worse, Bell was actually registered a mile away at the Hotel Lenox at the time of his death. (Hepburn was staying at the Ritz Carlton.)

A native of Montreal, Bell claimed to be the 18th in a generation of actors dating back to the Globe Theater during Shakespeare's lifetime. His Broadway credits included "Candida" in 1942 (with Raymond Massey and Burgess Meredith), "Lady Windermere's Fan" in 1946, and "Affair of Honor" in 1956.

John Colicos (who would later appear in STAR TREK and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) replaced Drake in the role of "Benedick" in Boston. Ellis Raab (who Kelsey Grammer would later cite as the inspiration for the voice of "Sideshow Bob" on THE SIMPSONS) replaced Bell for the remainder of the tour.

Katharine Hepburn, Lois Nettleton and Jonathan Frid.
"Much Ado About Nothing" earned $300,000 during it's nine-week run (about $2.5 million today) and prompted the American Shakespeare Festival to investigate the possibility of hiring a full-time acting repertoire. Hepburn would return to the silver screen the following year in the ghastly adaption of Tennessee Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER. Drake would reprise his starring role in the TV movie adaption of KISS ME, KATE later in 1958. Colicos unsuccessfully tried to kill the crew of the Enterprise, Battlestar Galactica and the X-Men.

And you probably know what happened to Jonathan Frid.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...