During our junior year at Columbia’s University High, I mentioned in the book that we decided to produce Joseph Kesselring’s classic play, “Arsenic and Old Lace” – a production that had been a hit on Broadway during the War years, and later a film staring Cary Grant and Josephine Hull. Our version would be directed by Gene Ritter, our great English and Dramatics instructor; students, mostly juniors and seniors, would do everything else — including set construction, with help from assistant principal and industrial arts instructor Bob Sonderman.
For those of you who have seen the play or the film, you may remember that central to this one-set show is a staircase that leads off the stage floor, stepping up to a two-step landing, and then turning, parallel to the seated audience, rising to an unseen second floor, where a platform and ladder would be hidden for actors to use in their exit to the stage floor, behind the wall flats, unseen by the audience. It is utilized primarily by the character “Teddy”, a slightly daffy member of the family who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt and is still engaged in storming San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. The stairwell represents to him, that hill.
Around this time several old homes were being demolished on the western edge of the downtown area to make room for what was to become a new Sears store. Someone possessed with an eagle eye who was a member of set construction team noticed that one of the homes being demolished contained a perfectly formed Victorian-style stairwell — one which would serve our needs perfectly, providing it could be extricated it from its location without being noticed, and moved in sections to the University High School stage for re-assembling.
The deed was done successfully, in the dead of night.
The following afternoon after school, as the cast went through its rehearsal, the set crew was busy behind them, throwing up and painting flats around a magnificent stairwell that seemed to have appeared magically almost overnight.
As Mr. Sonderman stood looking at what was becoming a very realistic set, some of the members of the ‘retrieval’ team, anxious to tell him of their overnight exploits, gathered ‘round. Anticipating what he might hear while at the same time considering his leadership position, held up his hand to the group, saying "I don't want to know about it…don't tell me.”
Then he smiled and said “Great Job!"