Arsenic and Old People
It was a Wednesday matinee of Arsenic and Old Lace, at the Guthrie. There was a large contingent of senior citizens.
[I don’t like that term. I guess I am a senior citizen, but I don’t remember every being called a junior or sophomore citizen. Why can’t we just be called old people? Some people don’t like the idea of growing old; but it certainly is better than not getting any older.]
Anyway, the play had reached the critical exposition scene. The two old aunties, played by Barbara Bryne and Virginia Payne*, are telling their nephew Mortimer, played by Peter Goetz, who the dead body in the window box is and why they put arsenic in his elderberry wine, and about the other dead bodies buried in the cellar.
Three senior citizens, a man and two women, came down the center aisle. The man was holding some tickets and looking down the rows. When they reached the moat, the section that separates the audience from the stage, they continued walking along the audience right of the moat. In the booth the stage manager was trying to get a hold of an usher, and the sound man and myself were laughing. On stage the three actors were trying to keep the play going while glancing slyly at the three patrons.
The three stopped walking the moat, and the old man carefully stepped up the steps to the stage. He held out the tickets and spoke directly to Peter. ‘Sorry we are late. Can you help us find our seats.’ An usher ran down the center aisle and offered assistance to the three.
Surprisingly, the audience didn’t react, perhaps they thought it was a part of the play. Up in the booth though, all three of us reacted. We were laughing so loudly the patrons in the balcony turned around to see where the noise was coming from. And the actors!!!
Peter and Barbara lost it. They both headed upstage and faced the scenery. They tried to keep their laughter from being heard but their bodies shaking gave them away. Thank goodness for Virginia Payne.
Virginia had played the other aunt a year before in the Alley Playhouse in Alley Theatre in Houston, so she was familiar with Barbara’s lines as well as hers. She turned what should have been a dialogue between three people into a monologue. It was a work of art. It moved the play along and gave the other two actors a chance to regain their composure.
Later, in the second act, poor Barbara lost it again. She swatted at a fly that was buzzing around her face. The sleeve of her dress got caught on her earring. Naturally, Peter lost it also. Luckily, it was the end of the scene and the blackout gave them a chance to get offstage.
Just as they did in the first act, both got on the horn backstage and apologized to the stage manager for losing it on stage. And in both incidents, the stage manager told them they weren’t alone. The three in the booth were holding their ribs to try and stop laughing.
In the original script, Peter, whose character is a drama critic. When he first enters he says that he has just come from the Bellasco Theatre. The director, after the first preview decided the audiences weren’t literate enough to know about Bellasco, changed it to the Helen Hayes Theater. Sometimes Peter remembered and said the Helen Hayes Theater, and sometime forgot and called it the Bellasco Theater. Once he forgot both names, paused for a second, and finally blurted out the Cloris Leachman theater. That cracked the booth crew up.
The stage manager told Peter how the electrician and the sound man had a beer bet on if Peter would say Bellasco or Helen Hayes. The following matinee Peter came onstage and looked up at the booth and hollered out that he had just come from the Edmond BOOTH theater. Naturally that cracked the booth crew up.
Another time, thank goodness it was also a matinee, the actor, playing the next old man that the aunties picked out for their arsenic elderberry wine, was sick. His understudy had gotten the job, not because he could act, or even remember his lines; but because he was old.
The understudy stuttered. He stammered. He went up on his lines and he had to get whispered cues from the aunties, on what to say next. Suddenly, with still many lines to say, he bolted for the door. He tripped and fell on the two steps leading to the door. His cane cracked a vase glued on a stand next to the door. He tried to open the door in, forgetting it opened out. He pulled on the door so much the set shook and a stuffed bird, that was on a sill above the door, fell and nearly hit him in the head. When he finally got the door opened, he was holding his cane horizontal, which hit the door and the side of the jam, preventing him to exit. Finally he dropped the cane and went out the door. We cracked up again in the booth.
Ken Ruta, who played the evil brother Jonathon, like to see if he could get Barbara to crack up. He got her one time. The aunties admit while his voice is Jonathon’s, his face isn’t. He pulls out a photo to show them how he looked before his plastic surgery. He always had different picture, like Clark Gable or Marilyn Monroe. The time she cracked was a picture of a naked body builder with the face of Barbara’s husband, Denny Spence, superimposed on it.
*Virginia Payne was the one and only Ma Perkins. Ma Perkins was the most successful daytime soap opera on the radio. It was sponsored by Oxydol Soap, and hence the name of soap opera was born. It was so popular that it ran on NBC and CBS at the same time.
It was the story of an old lady who was loved by all and gave out down home advice. Virginia got the part from the first even though at age 27, she certainly was not an old lady. In the 27 year run, five days a week, Virginia never missed one episode. When the show finally ended, Virginia was the highest paid actor in daytime radio.
She was Ma Perkins. In the season she was at the Guthrie she was loved and respected by everyone at the theater. She only spent that one season because the next year she was too sick to work. She died shortly afterwards. What a sweet person!
If you want to know more about her and the soap opera, Ma Perkins, go to the Old Time Radio at http://www.otrcat.com.