Tuesday, July 22, 2008


"THE CASE OF THE SULKY GIRL." Now that sounded like a play the Junior Class could sink its tonsils into! Most of us knew Perry Mason the same way we knew Jack Armstrong, Fred Allen, and Superman--from radio. The radio version of Perry Mason ran from 1943 until 1955, so the Class of '53 felt very comfortable with Mr. Wall's choice of a play. No silly Shakespearean tights or tangled English needed for this! And we even had a leading man an audience wouldn't snicker about.

Jim De Ciancio wasn't really handsome, but he had broad shoulders, and even wider confidence. Because of his heft and dark coloring, he spookily resembled Raymond Burr, who was to play the TV Perry Mason later in the decade. In addition, fate had gifted Jim with a deep, rich voice and a love of drama, onstage and off. At 17, he could easily pass for 21, and often did. More than one Arizona traffic cop played bit parts in Jim's ad lib comedies.

Now I knew I wasn't going to play the "Sulky Girl" in this drama. If parents and friends are coerced into showing up at school and college productions, the very least they have a right to expect is a pretty girl in the leading role. Tall, blonde Carol Ann fit that bill, with a few bonuses thrown in. But what about Della Street, Perry's secretary? She had pages of lines, and I was great at memorizing.

Lewoy had other plans. Now, you need to know that most of us really enjoyed Leroy Wall, the speech and drama coach. His minor lisp, his little problem with the letter 'r,' which could have made a high school teacher's life miserable, was just one more fun aspect of the man. Yes, we called him "Lewoy," behind his back. We also hung around after class to talk with him, and crowded into his office whenever he absent-mindedly left the door open. He was something like a young bear, with a shambling walk and dark blond hair, rather shaggy for the Fifties. His hands were large, well-shaped, and constantly in motion, often framing his face, or reaching out into the air, trying to capture some idea, some theme, some vision he wanted us to share.

I don't know why I lost the role of Della. Maybe the image of Jim and me together on the stage was a little bulkier than Lewoy had in mind for a play that was not a comedy. Maybe he thought our combined auras would suggest something other than a boss and his "girl Friday." I seem to recall a scene where Della sat on Perry's desk, legs crossed, skirt raised. Perhaps Lewoy knew my version would be heavy on tomboy and light on temptress.

In any case, with the parts of the Sulky Girl and Della Street gone, I figured I would serve as prompter for this production. But then Lewoy motioned me towards him, his splayed hands scooping the air: "C'mere, c'mere, Bell!" There was something conspiratorial in his voice.

"Bell, I want you to play the maid." Talk about sulky! For a moment I sulked mightily. The maid had perhaps three lines; she was actually there just to swell the assembled crowd in the drawing room in the last scene, when Perry Mason explained the how's and why's of the dastardly crime.

"No, no, listen!" Leroy implored, in a stage whisper. "I know it's not a big part, not many lines. But ya notice she's on stage a lot, right?" I nodded slowly.

"Think Rebecca ." He waited for it to sink in.

"You mean, like Judith Anderson?" (In 1941, Dame Judith Anderson had been Oscar-nominated for her role as the mad housekeeper in Hitchcock's Rebecca. She also won crates of Emmys for later television work.)

"Bingo! Play this maid like Mrs. Danvers. Deadly quiet. Menacing. Full of danger. Knows where the bodies are buried." His eyes lit up, and so did mine. "But don't tell anyone else in the cast--keep it all inside. Very secretive."

Lewoy's vision for the nameless maid was infinitely richer than whatever Erle Stanley Gardner had intended in his pot-boiler. I have no idea what the hapless audience thought as I skulked about the stage, narrowing my eyes at the other characters, glaring wordlessly at the Sulky Girl, at Della Street, at Perry Mason.
I seethed danger (pointlessly), clasped my hands to my breast dramatically at certain innocuous statements by those actually involved in the plot, and generally behaved like someone who had dropped onstage from a totally different play.

After the curtain fell and the polite applause petered out, I looked over at Lewoy, deep in discussion with De Ciancio. When he saw me, he held up those big fists, both thumbs up, and waggled them happily at me.

Mrs. Danvers winked.


Emily said...

:) When I read this I couldn't help thinking of Cloris Leachman's "Frau Blucher" in Young Frankenstein...obviously a Mrs. Danvers spoof 30 years later.

Bellabell said...

Now why didn't I make that connection? Brilliant!