For those of you who need a little educating before I move forward with still another chapter that didn’t make the book, here’s the skinny: The creation of a former journalist named Mary Chase, “Harvey” is a large white rabbit, a likeable rodent who stands a tad over six feet tall. Fond of “rumpots and crackpots”, Harvey is something of a philosopher who seems to handle his liquor well. Harvey has but one drawback: He can be seen and heard only by his special friend, a rather eccentric, but very nice (and rich) fellow named Elwood P. Dowd. Elwood, who never married, lives with his sister and niece, in a small town “out west”.
“Harvey” is the title character of Ms. Chase’s now timeless play.
The play opened on Broadway in 1944 and was an instant hit. With former vaudevillian Frank Fay playing Elwood (and with Harvey as himself), the show had still another point on which to brag — the director was Antoinette Perry, called “Tony” by her friends. Ms. Perry’s name was later given to the trophy awarded annually to the best of Broadway, which has become the iconic symbol of professional theatre excellence.
As seniors at University High, our English, speech and dramatics teacher, Gene Ritter, who had guided us earlier in presenting plays well above what most high schools of the period were doing, would again direct us. The play’s popularity had already been felt with a film version released a few years earlier, with Jimmy Stewart starring as Elwood. Stewart had taken over from Frank Fay and had played the part of Elwood over much of the show’s long Broadway and London run. Meanwhile, Harvey continued honing his on-stage craft in the title role.
Those of us who loved doing plays had long before been bitten by the acting bug, and were eager, with Ritter’s help, to make Mary Chase proud of us. While I wanted and auditioned for the part of Elwood, I was also attracted to the small, but pivotal role of the cab driver. This guy, E.J. Lofgren by name, was something of a philosopher himself – who pretty much sums up the meaning behind the play in a final scene soliloquy.
I went into auditions facing stiff competition. My classmate Roger possessed not only a natural talent, he had acquired something of a Jimmy Stewart “accent” when speaking his lines, making his delivery even more believable. Ritter wound up giving us both the nod — double-casting us in two roles. So on a night when Elwood was played by Roger, I would play Lofgren; then we’d switch. In doing so, Mr. Ritter challenged us both to give each role our own special interpretation.
All I remember about rehearsals was that they were a blast. We were in the final months of our high school careers, and if part of our exit strategy included going out on this superb little play, we wanted to make the most of it. But in the interim we were kept on the straight and narrow under the directing guidance of Gene Ritter.
Although we gave only 4-5 performances, we were the talk of the town, drawing big crowds to each performance. And in the years that followed I have been told by many who were in the audience during our short run how transfixed they were as they sat in our fine old Education Building auditorium, watching us perform Mary Chase’s classic work, and after awhile, feeling that they could “see” that big, white, furry guy too!
(There’s more to this story, which will be told in the sequel to Thumbs Up, “V” for victory, I Love You: watch for it.)