JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

Janus—Rehearsals Begin

According to the rehearsal schedule, we had just over a month to bring Janus to the stage. Happily two of the three leading parts had been cast with truly outstanding amateur actors, and in another life either or both of them might very well have made choices that would have struck the “amateur” from that description.

The rehearsal schedule for Janus

There was Molly Costello, a bright, late-twenty-something woman from Lancaster playing Jess, one half of the Janus writing team. She had had some experience acting, and she was a delight to be around, both on and off stage. She took direction well, and never had to be told twice what to do in a scene. Sometimes not even once.

And there was John Roberts, a burly, late-thirty-something veteran of the LCTI stage playing Gil, Jess’s husband. He had a commanding stage presence, was a natural comedian with a great sense of timing, and even when he flubbed a line, his ad lib kept the action moving without a break. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was a lot of fun to be around.

And then there was me.

I had very limited experience on the stage, I was nearly 20 years too young for the role whereas the other two actors were nearly age appropriate, and then there was the problem of my voice. Now for some time I had been told that my voice was one of my great assets even though I could never hear it myself, but I had come to accept it. There was a problem though: my Pennsylvania Dutch accent. Specifically how I pronounced, well, “how”, for example.

“How now brown cow”, that classic elocution teaching phrase, in my rendering would sound more like “Haw naw brawn caw.” That just would not do for the role of Denny, a public school teacher from Andover, Massachusetts.

A scene from Janus where Jess and Denny start working on a new book. Notice that I’ve highlighted all the “ow” sounds so I could work on pronouncing them correctly. Also note all the detailed stage directions that I’ve penciled in. Click on the image to enlarge

Mrs. Papson, our high school Public Speaking and English teacher, had tried in vain to vanquish those “aw” vowels from my speaking voice. Now the need was more urgent.

Plus, Denny was a teacher of French, and it was implied that he had a slight French accent (the play was intended in part as a variation on a French bedroom farce). The Director, or John as I now felt more comfortable with him, suggested that I only needed to imply a French accent by pronouncing some vowels in the French manner. But I think I would have needed a vocal coach to work with me on that, and neither John nor I really had the time for it with so many other things to work on in that month. It’s my greatest regret about performing in that play. In the end we had to adjust some of the dialog where Denny is referred to as a “Frenchman”. It certainly removed one subtlety from the play, although I don’t think it did it any great harm.

But sometime in that first week of rehearsals, when he saw me interact with Jess and Gil—oh, I should note that during the rehearsal process we were almost always called by our play names. John always called me Denny, for instance. I’m going to do that as well, as I think it will avoid confusion between John Roberts who played Gil and John Osborne who directed.

Betty Schultz

Anyway, once John saw how I interacted with Jess and Gil, he became very concerned about my youth, so he arranged for me to go see Betty Schultz, so she could, as I told my friends at the time, “teach me to act like a man.”

So one evening I went over to Betty Schultz’s house, which as I recall was right on Cumberland Street, and we spent an hour or so talking about the play, my character, and various other theatre-related topics.

She revealed that she thought that the funniest line in the play would probably not get a laugh because most audience members would probably not know the meaning of the word “concubine”. And she described how she would direct the opening pages of the play as a very cozy, intimate scene between Jess and Denny to emphasize the closeness of their relationship. (This was not how John was directing it, by the way; he was trying to emphasize the comedy and seemed to be downplaying the romance.)

Cast bios from the program for Janus

Since Denny was a pipe smoker, as was Betts’s husband, she found an unused pipe on his pipe rack and gave it to me to use as a prop. Finally, she decided that I had a pretty good grasp on my character and sent me on my way. There was no discussion of acting more like a man.

As I think back to that period, the month that we were rehearsing Janus may very well have been one of the busiest times in my life. I was still attending high school with graduation coming up near the beginning of June, at an LCTI meeting I performed in a repeat of a show that we had previously put on as an exchange assembly for Annville-Cleona High School, and right after graduation I started a job at the VA Hospital in Lebanon, PA.

Meanwhile, not only were we rehearsing a play, but there was some backstage drama going on as well. Isn’t there always?

The One Where I Auditioned

Janus, A Romantic Comedy in Three Acts by Carolyn Green

In these posts about incidents and people from my past, I try to write about things that might be of interest to folks today. So humorous incidents, interesting people I’ve known, surprise endings, the sort of thing I can shape into some semblance of a coherent story or anecdote, all these are fair game. Which is why I’m going to skip over the April, 1967, LCTI production of She Loves Me, even though I loved being involved (even if only via the spotlight) with that gem of a musical.

Except to say that while the entire cast did an outstanding job on that show, F. John Osborne was absolutely brilliant in the small part of the head waiter. He was originally from Great Britain, had lived for awhile in Canada, and had a perfectly charming British accent which automatically lent him an air of sophistication. I wonder why that is?

So I was excited to learn that that very same F. John Osborne was going to be directing the June production of the comedy Janus. Well, excited and scared, because I had decided to audition for a part in the play.

Which was sort of ironic because a few months earlier, not realizing that Janus was already scheduled as the June production, I had recommended against performing it. It was one of two plays that I read as a member of the Play Reading Committee, and because the plot revolved around adultery and because the resolution of the plot seems to celebrate adultery, as the cuckolded husband realizes that his wife needs both him and her lover, so in order to save his marriage he agrees to let her continue with the affair, I thought it might just be a tad too modern for Lebanon, PA. Apparently I underestimated the sophistication of the Lebanon play-going audiences; they weren’t all Edgar Messerschmidts (a frequent and quite conservative contributor to the local paper’s letters section). (For the record, the other play that I read was The Odd Couple, and I rejected that as not being very funny. After that they didn’t give me any more plays to read. I don’t know why.)

I think the auditions were held at the conclusion of one of the regular LCTI member meetings because I remember Maryann Shelhamer being there, and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t there to audition for a part. Arlene Herr was there as well, and she was there to audition.

Now I’m not a particularly competitive person, and after watching a few people audition, including Arlene, I got cold feet. I’ve never had a problem with getting up in front of a large group of people and making a speech or performing; that doesn’t bother me at all. In high school I regularly gave speeches, appeared in plays and assemblies, and was part of a group that produced a morning program over the PA system. But auditioning is a different thing. I did have a bad case of nerves when I tried out for the Junior and Senior plays, and I only ended up getting relatively small parts.

I don’t think I would have even considered trying out for a community theatre play except that the previous year, Mike Huber, who was then a senior in our school, had successfully gotten a part in an LCTI show. But, I now reflected, he had played a part that was approximately his own age in the musical The Fantasticks, whereas I was going to be auditioning for the part of a 35 year old man. I was an 18 year old high school senior, short and thin, and if you’ll recall, Betty Schultz didn’t think I looked old enough to pass as a college student. What chance did I have trying to pass myself off as a 35-year-old in a play that would presumably have the other roles cast with more age appropriate actors?

But when I mentioned my decision to Arlene, she wouldn’t have it.

“Oh, no, you don’t!” she cried. “I tried out, and you’re damn well gonna get your skinny ass up there too. Now move!”

And then Maryann chimed in. “You came here to audition, and you’re not leaving until you do!”

And with that, these two determined women, one pushing from behind, the other pulling me by the nose, dragged me kicking and screaming into the tryout area.

Or at least that’s how I remember it.

So I read for the part of Denny who, as the script first describes him, “is on the small side of medium height, about thirty-five years old, is wearing glasses and has a scholarly look.”

After I read, The Director (as I now thought of F. John Osborne) came up to me and said that I did well and should consider sticking to the theatre, but he admitted that he didn’t think I looked old enough for the part. I appreciated his forthrightness and figured that was his way of letting me down gently.

But he was as good as his word, because for the rest of the auditions, whenever a woman was reading for the part of Jessica (the character that Denny was having the affair with), he had me read with her. I guess he really did think I had read well.

It also produced an awkward moment, when Rose Marie Barry, who in addition to being a prominent member of LCTI was also a substitute teacher at Elco High School, got up to try out for the part of Jessica, and I had to read with her. I knew her well, but mainly as a faculty member, in other words I knew her as Mrs. Barry. “Wouldn’t this be a switch?” she laughed as she moved into place. I really couldn’t imagine playing the part opposite her.

If I’m not mistaken, that audition night took place on a Tuesday evening early in May. I believe the procedure The Director had to go through to cast the play involved getting the approval of the LCTI board, so the decision wouldn’t be revealed for about a week.

I think it was the following Monday, but I’m hazy on the day, but I do know that when I arrived at school, Arlene sought me out with the news.

“You got the part!” she said.

“Huh? What? How do you— Really? I mean, who told you? That is—” I was a bit incoherent.

It turned out that Rose Marie Barry had found out the evening before. I think she may even have been on the board, I’m not sure. In any case, she had informed Arlene as soon as she saw her that morning. Arlene, alas, had not been so fortunate.

Arlene and I went to see Mrs. Barry and she confirmed the good news. She also explained that casting decisions aren’t necessarily about choosing the best possible person for each part, but finding a balanced cast where there are physical contrasts between the actors, etc. For example, in a play with two female roles, you probably wouldn’t cast two blonde women of the same height (unless the plot called for it).

That evening when The Director himself called to give me the news over the telephone, he was a bit surprised that I didn’t sound more enthusiastic, but I had been living with the news for about eight hours already, although I didn’t tell him that.

My initial reaction was something like Joey’s:

Joey reacts to getting a part

The One Where I Met Betty Schultz

I mentioned in my last post how Allie (Allyce Mulhern, and I hope I’m remembering her name correctly) approached me about participating in a play reading at Lebanon Valley College (LVC). The single rehearsal was on an evening a few days later at Allie’s home.

The play was essentially a short radio play in that it was meant to be read, not staged, and it was written by a local member of LCTI. Apparently it was a sequel to the play that had been performed the previous year at LVC, and it had three characters: a Jewish woman referred to only as “Mama”, her college age son, and his non-Jewish girl friend. Or rather she had been his girl friend in the previous play. Since then, they had secretly gotten married, and the premise of the new play was how to break the news to Mama.

Lebanon Valley College

Allie was playing the the part of Mama, and I was playing the part of the son. I no longer recall the name of the young woman who played the girl friend/secret wife, nor do I recall the name of the playwright, who was also present at Allie’s home for the rehearsal. The play required a narrator, but the person who was to read that part was not present at the rehearsal, so the playwright did the honors.

There was a bit of an uncomfortable moment when we received our scripts because it turned out that Allie had rewritten about half of the dialog, apparently without the playwright’s knowledge or permission. At the end of the rehearsal she asked him if he approved of the changes, and he graciously shrugged. If I’m not mistaken, Allie was originally from New York City, and well, one just didn’t argue with her, even though she was a relatively diminutive woman. She was a good choice to play Mama.

The day of the performance arrived; I believe it was just before Thanksgiving. Anyway, Betty Schultz, who was to read the part of the narrator, had made arrangements to pick me up somewhere, I’m not sure where, I just remember riding in her car to LVC.

Now I had heard the name Betty Schultz many times. The previous year, when Debbie Miller was a member of LCTI, she had mentioned her name often, but this was the first time I had actually met her. She was one of those people that you want to describe as a force of nature.

I was to come to learn that she was a night person who usually slept in until noon. At a subsequent meeting I heard her complain about having to “get up at the crack of dawn—9 AM” for a meeting of some sort. But she was fiercely devoted to LCTI, and had strong opinions as to how it should be run, and these sometimes brought her into conflict with other members who had equally strong opposing opinions. Later on in the 1970s she ran for mayor of the city of Lebanon, but her campaign faltered because, I think, she was too closely identified with LCTI and there was a perception that she was only seeking the office in order to divert city resources to the theatre group.

When we arrived at the college, Betts decided that I looked too young for the role. I was a high school senior playing the part of a college student in a reading of a play. But there was really no arguing with Betty “Force of Nature” Schultz.

So she dragged me into a rest room, whipped out her eye liner (in my original post I erroneously called it mascara), and proceeded to draw some age lines on my forehead and at the sides of my mouth until she was satisfied that she had sufficiently aged my appearance.

Then we proceeded to the performance area, which was just a large dining room, where there was some sort of ladies social group meeting in progress. We found our way, or perhaps were directed, to the table where we were to perform. I think the others were already there.

When our time came, we were introduced, and Betts began the narration with a brief recap of the events of the previous play. Our performance went off without a hitch, the audience laughed at the appropriate lines, and at the end we were treated to enthusiastic applause.

Afterwards the ladies came over to thank us and chat a little, and while they were polite and gracious, I couldn’t help but notice that they were all giving me rather strange stares.

And then I remembered that my face was covered with eye liner. Thankfully it wasn’t indelible marker.

Rachel and Ross in Vegas after writing on their faces with indelible marker

The One Where We Joined LCTI

I have no idea whose idea it was. The previous year, when we were Juniors in high school, our classmate Debbie Miller had been a member of the Lebanon Community Theatre (LCTI, the “I” standing for “Inc.”), and it had sounded like a lot of fun. Now Debbie was dearly departed (to New York City), and a bunch of us decided to attend one of the LCTI monthly member meetings. I think this was in November 1966, our Senior year.

And I’m not even sure just who exactly went to that first meeting. Before the school year was over the Elco High School Seniors who had participated in at least some LCTI activities included Maryann Shelhamer, Dennis Keener, Gary Wells, Arlene Herr, Eric Blouch, Beth Horst, Randy Klopp, and probably one or two more that I’m blanking on right now.

I think that meeting was held in the awful barn that they had just bought, and which they were in the process of converting into a performance space. At a later ill-attended meeting that barn was voted an equally awful Pennsylvania Dutch name, Die Rote Scheier (The Red Barn), but thankfully it burned down a few years later and eventually the group obtained a much better performing space at Stoever’s (pronounced “stay-vers”) Dam, where they are still active to this day. But I’m getting side-tracked from my story.

The only thing I recall about that meeting is being approached by Allie (that is, Allyce Mulhern), a woman of a certain age who was a stalwart LCTI booster. She’s the one who had discovered that awful barn to begin with, and she never lost an opportunity to say how much she regretted it. But this evening she was looking for someone to play a college undergraduate in a reading of a short original play that they’d be doing in a few days at Lebanon Valley College. I distinctly remember Maryann pushing me forward and saying something to the effect that if I didn’t do it I might never be given another chance. So I said yes, and that is a story in itself, and not the one I want to tell here. Meanwhile, Gary and Maryann got volunteered to do some sort of Christmas play for an elementary school, I think.

As the school year progressed our loose little group kept on attending meetings, helping out with the renovations of that awful barn, and volunteering for backstage duties on the productions.

I recall an afternoon where Dennis and Eric, I think, were putting up insulation. During the production of the musical She Loves Me, Eric and I were working the spotlights while Arlene kept us company in the booth.

Because we were spread out in several different towns, we carpooled, cramming five or six of us into a car, and since Richland was sort of the end point, I think it was usually someone from Richland, like Randy or me, who most often drove (I might be wrong about that).

On one of those nights on the drive back, we were dropping off Arlene at her home just outside Schaefferstown, and I’m not sure who was left in the car but clearly Arlene Herr was there. And Eric Blouch. I was still there, obviously because I’m the one remembering it. Dennis Keener, I think he was sitting in the back with me, and Randy Klopp must have been driving.

Anyway, when Arlene got out of the car, Eric got out too, or maybe Eric got out to let her out. I’m not sure.

And… Do you remember that scene from Friends in the episode The One Where Everybody Finds Out where Phoebe first sees Monica and Chandler kissing and starts screaming? Well, it was like that. Only different.

Because when Eric and Arlene got out of the car, he planted a big kiss right smack dab on her lips.

And time stopped.

And our inner Phoebes, well my inner Phoebe anyway, started screaming, because we, or at least I, had not had any idea that these two friends were now a couple, an item, if you will. I distinctly remember exchanging a bewildered look with Dennis. Or maybe Randy.

And then Eric got back inside the car, and we drove off, and not a word was said. Because Eric was not the kind of guy that you spoke to about that kiss that he had just planted on Arlene’s lips.

And that’s how we, or at least I, found out about Arlene and Eric.

Shortly after graduation Arlene Herr and Eric Blouch were married with Dennis Keener performing the duties of best man, and all these years later they are still living happily together in Arizona.

Congratulations Arlene and Eric!

The Case of the Incompetent Cross-Examination

Another old black and white TV series that I’ve recently added to my Plex streaming library is the original 1957 Raymond Burr 271-episode Perry Mason show.

Perry Mason The Complete Series DVD

Perry Mason The Complete Series DVD

The show started airing when I was in third grade, but I’m not sure just when I began watching it. It’s all sort of confused with the Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason whodunits, which were among the best-selling paperbacks in those days.

My mother was a big fan of the books, and there were always a few Perry Mason paperbacks lying around the house. At some point I began to read them as well, but whether it was before or after I started watching the TV show, I don’t know.

The cover to The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll, a typical cover for a Perry Mason paperback

I do know that by fifth grade I was an avid reader of the Mason whodunits, because of an incident that occurred on a class trip to the Capitol in Harrisburg. During a visit to a gift shop, I spied the rack of paperbacks and discovered a Perry Mason novel that we did not yet have, but when I tried to buy it, the sales clerk turned to our teacher, Miss Klopp (that would be Miss Irene Klopp) to see if it would be all right to sell it to me. You see, the Mason paperbacks invariably featured an illustration of a woman in a provocative pose, which generally promised a much more salacious read than was actually delivered. Miss Klopp sharply questioned me, and once I understood that they thought the book was too adult for me, I explained that my mother always read the books first and only allowed me to read them if she thought they were suitable. There was a kernel of truth in that. Anyway, they allowed me to make the purchase.

The Perry Mason whodunits first appeared in the 1930s, and I don’t think they ever lost the 30s atmosphere. They were filled with foot-loose dolls, negligent nymphs, and spurious spinsters, and the characters uttered epithets like “Hell’s bells!”

I learned lots of useful things from the Mason novels, as Gardner tried to keep the forensic science and legal gymnastics as accurate as possible within the confines of his twisty, turny plots. So I became quite an expert on rigor mortis, how long after death it would take to manifest, how long it would last, and various techniques for delaying or extending it. Sticking the corpse into a freezer was a good one.

And there were lots of legal terms to learn like habeas corpus, corpus delecti, and the differences between the various types of murder: 1st degree, 2nd degree, manslaughter, premeditated, etc. And many very useful phrases such as “I object, your honor. That question is incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial and not proper cross-examination.” I used that on my teachers a lot. (Not.)

Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale as Perry Mason and Della Street

I probably started watching the TV series around the same time that I started reading the novels. For me Raymond Burr is Perry Mason, Barbara Hale is Della Street, William Hopper is Paul Drake, and William Talman is Hamilton Burger. Only Ray Collins fails as Lt. Tragg; he’s too old compared to the character in the books although otherwise he’s perfectly fine.

Anyway, I was curious to see how the Perry Mason shows would stand up after all this time, and to my delight, they hold up quite well. Erle Stanley Gardner maintained tight control over the scripts, and he was adamant about keeping the characters true to the spirit of the books and keeping the courtroom and other legal procedures accurate. He went through a dozen writers before he settled on a group that could give him what he wanted, thus delaying the show for a year. So the shows are reasonably faithful to the books; the main problem is fitting so much plot into 53 minutes (TV shows didn’t have so many commercials in those days).

Oh, and I’ve also found The Perry Mason Book: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s Favorite Defender of Justice to be an invaluable resource. It has detailed information on Erle Stanley Gardner, the Perry Mason novels, comics, movies, radio shows, as well as the TV series (all of them) with interesting info about each episode. And no spoilers.

My only beef: With all that data (the print edition runs over a thousand pages) there’s nary a word about the Perry Mason theme music or how it came to be written. That jazzy theme (actual title “Park Avenue Beat”) by Fred Steiner is one of the all time top themes ever created for a TV series. There’s got to be a story behind it!

Update: I just realized that I wanted to name this “The Case of the Improper Cross-Examination” not “Incompetent”, but as my mother used to say, I schussled.

Do-do-do-do Do-do-do-do

I’m in the process of adding another classic television program to my Plex library, even though this one is currently available on Netflix.

“Why?” I hear you ask. Well, in the case of the Blu-ray edition of The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series, there are tons of extra features that make it worthwhile, not to mention that TV shows have a habit of disappearing from Netflix without warning. The extra features include things like un-aired pilots and lots of audio commentaries to individual episodes, as well as isolated music tracks to some of the episodes.

The Blu-ray, alas, is out of print, but happily I managed to snag a copy at a reasonable price.

Agnes Moorehead in The Invaders

I can still recall my first viewing of some of the famous episodes. For example, Agnes Moorehead, in what may be her greatest performance, in The Invaders (Season 2 Episode 15), is alone in an isolated cabin when her tranquil life is disturbed by tiny invaders from some unknown world. The episode is entirely devoid of dialog and is unforgettable. At least I never forgot it after seeing it when it first aired. And like so many of the best Twilight Zone episodes, I learned a valuable lesson from it.

The bandaged woman in Eye of the Beholder

Another episode that taught me a useful lesson while scaring the bejesus out of me was Eye of the Beholder, which aired on 11 November, 1960 (Episode 6 of Season 2), when I was 11. I remember watching it with my uncle Reed. It was about a horribly disfigured woman who had undergone several rounds of plastic surgery in a desperate attempt to correct the problem so that she could live a normal life. Her face was completely bandaged during the course of the episode which was clearly building up to a climax where the bandages would be removed. It got so intense that my 11-year-old self covered my eyes at the big reveal because I was sure that the surgery had failed once again, but then Reed said something that surprised me, and I uncovered my eyes just in time for the actual big reveal. Boy, I didn’t see that one coming. Donna Douglas, shortly before she became famous as Ellie May Clampett, starred. Strangely, Rod Serling, in his closing commentary, seemed to completely miss the point of the piece.

And then there was Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Season 5 Episode 3), where William Shatner played a man who might or might not be seeing a gremlin on the wing of the plane. Was he really seeing it? Nobody else did. Or was he having a recurrence of his nervous breakdown? In this one the big shock actually comes about halfway through. I’m not sure I learned a valuable lesson from this one, but it sure was memorable.

William Shatner in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

Betts and Barney--A Detective Story

It all started when Cindy Behney referred to Helen Fortna as our aunt.

Helen wasn’t Donna’s and my aunt, but just how was she related to us? I had no idea, and neither did my sister.

Helen Fortna. This and most of the photos are details taken from the group Zellers clan picture featured in a previous post.

Helen Fortna. This and most of the photos are details taken from the group Zellers clan picture featured in a previous post.

Helen was one of two daughters of Betts and Barney Fortna, and I recall visiting them (and they us) fairly often in the 50s and 60s.

By the way, my mother always referred to them as “Betts and Barney”; unlike, say, our aunts and uncles, who could be interchangeably “Mark and Joan” or “Joan and Mark”, “Jane and Allen” or “Allen and Jane”. Always and only “Betts and Barney”. There was another family we often visited, Arlene and Ray Light, and my mother always called them the “Ray Lights”, as in “We’re going to see the Ray Lights”. Odd. It was almost as if Arlene Troutman just couldn’t bring herself to acknowledge another “Arlene”. Whatever.

Anyway Betts and Barney were a fun couple, well matched, I thought, as they both had a great sense of humor. Betts was a hairdresser, which is probably where my mother got the idea to become one herself.

Betts Fortna

Betts Fortna

That they were related to us, I always took for granted, just as I assumed that the Ray Lights were related to us as well, but other than our immediate aunts and uncles and their children, our cousins, I never really tried to keep track of the actual relationships.

I’ve long since lost touch with Betts and Barney. I knew they had retired and moved to Florida (“Come down to visit,” declared Betts, “but don’t expect me to cook for you!”) and had died some time ago. Ray and Arlene Light had also died in the early 2000s. I had always sensed there was some sort of closer relationship between the Fortnas and the Lights, because they always seemed to go visiting at the same time, but I never knew what it might be.

Well, there was only one person left who might be able to help, so the next time I called my aunt Jane, I asked her about Betts and Barney.

“I don’t really know the details,” she replied, “but Barney was the son of one of Pop’s sisters and was raised with the rest of them.” Beyond that she couldn’t supply any information.

But that was enough to determine our relationship. “Pop” is the name our family uses for grandfather (when my father became a grandfather, he became “Pop”), and in this case she was referring to my grandfather, Harry J. Zellers.

Barney Fortna

Barney Fortna

So if Barney was the son of one of Pop’s, that is, Harry Zellers’s, sisters, a quick visit to the cousin chart revealed that Helen Fortna was Donna’s and my second cousin. Thus, Ulysses Grant Zeller (or Grant Ulysses Zeller, if you will) was our common ancestor. Pop and his sister were siblings, making their offspring (my mother and Barney) cousins, and thus their offspring in turn (my sister and me and Betts and Barney’s children) second cousins.

So we had our answer. Which I relayed to Cindy.

Except…

There was the matter of Barney Fortna’s last name. None of Pop’s sisters had married a Fortna as far as we knew. And Jane’s somewhat cryptic remark that Barney was “raised with the rest of them” seemed odd. Did that mean Barney was illegitimate? I didn’t think so, because if that were the case, wouldn’t he take his mother’s last name? Perhaps he was the product of a brief marriage where his father died shortly before or after he was born.

Arlene Light

Arlene Light

It seemed we had even more questions now than we did before.

As it happened it was right around this same time that I had become interested in our family tree and had started to research it on a web site. (I’ll have more to say about that in a separate post.)

One of my discoveries on that site was that Pop’s sister Sallie had married a Martin Light, and they were the parents of Ray Light. So Ray and Arlene Light’s children, Barbara et al., were also Donna’s and my second cousins.

But there was no Barney Fortna to be found in the lineage of Grant Zeller. It didn’t mean, of course, that he wasn’t part of our family tree, because I’ve discovered there are a lot of gaps on that site. If no one adds a person and/or if a person doesn’t show up in census or other records, that person won’t appear in the database on that site. So I’ve spent a lot of time these last few weeks not just looking up but also adding and editing the records when I could.

If Barney wasn’t connected to our family tree, maybe there was still a record of him in the site’s database. I tried looking up “Barney Fortna” with an estimated date and place of birth in as many ways as I could, but to no avail.

Then I decided to try looking up Betts. I was pretty certain Betts was not her actual name, I wasn’t even sure “Betts” was the correct spelling for what was likely her nickname, though it was the only name I ever heard anyone ever call her. “Elizabeth” seemed a good bet for her birth name.

Ray Light

Ray Light

And there was an “Elizabeth Rothenbach” who had been married to a “Warren Fortna”; they had been living in Myerstown, PA, in Lebanon County in 1940. I had only ever known Betts and Barney to live in the city of Lebanon, but this was certainly promising. Was “Barney” really a nickname for “Warren”? Well, why not?

Even more promising was that both of these persons had died in the late 90s in Florida!

But Warren had two parents listed, and neither of them were in any way related to the Zellers clan, at least not that I could see.

Except…

Warren’s father’s name was “Earl Light Fortna”. Now where have we heard the name “Light” before? It was a relatively common practice (maybe it still is, for all I know) to take the mother’s maiden name and assign it to the middle name of offspring.

Sure enough. Warren’s grandmother was “Sarah Dorcas Light”. So Warren Fortna was a member of the Light family.

Barbara Light, cousin Kathy Zellers, and me circa 1954

Even better. Well, not better better, but you know what I mean. Warren’s father Earl Light Fortna died in 1930 when Warren was 16. Given that Warren was related to the Lights, it’s not too hard to imagine that he might have been taken in by a related Light family to make things easier on his mother. Perhaps that family was Sallie (Pop’s sister) and Martin Light (Ray Light’s parents).

Things were falling into place. If Warren really were Barney, this all made a lot of sense. I was about 99% convinced that Warren was Barney, I just wanted something a little bit more definitive.

And then while researching Ray Light’s sister, I found it. In Ray’s obituary in 2002 there is the following line: “He was preceded in death by a brother, Warren L. Fortna.”

What more did I need? Warren Fortna was Barney and Elizabeth Rothenbach was Betts. I now had all the evidence I needed.

While Ray Light and Barney weren’t actually brothers, when Barney’s father died, or possibly when he fell seriously ill maybe a year or more earlier, he was taken in by Sallie and Martin Light, and Ray and Barney thereafter thought of themselves as brothers. That also explains the closer connection I always felt between the Fortnas and the Lights.

One of the other surprising things I discovered is that Betts was born in Wisconsin, and her parents had been born in Hungary. I mean, it’s a small world, isn’t it?

Oh, and just to deflate my detective bubble a bit, after I discovered all this, I belatedly looked at the list of sources that the family tree site had available for Warren Fortna, and one of them was his gravestone, which clearly had “Barney” engraved on it. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble.

But one question still remains, and it’s the question that started this long search in the first place. How is Helen Fortna related to us?

Because we now know that her father Barney was not the son of one of Pop’s sisters, he was raised by one of Pop’s sisters after his own father died; Jane’s memory was a bit confused on that point, understandably after all these years. If we’re related at all, we must be related via a common ancestor in the Light family tree, and so far I haven’t been able to discover any.

Betts and Barney’s Gravestone

Grounds For Justifiable Homicide

I just listened to a 2015 episode of The Incomparable Old Movie Club where the good fellows discussed two of Alfred Hitchcock’s less appreciated films, 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt and 1948’s Rope.

You have to be looking pretty closely to see Hitch’s cameo right after the opening credits

I needed no convincing on the first movie, as I’ve long considered Shadow of a Doubt to be a masterpiece, but my two viewings of Rope had left me feeling much as Hitch himself felt about it: an interesting experiment but ultimately a failed one. After listening to the podcast and hearing all their enthusiasm for the film, I decided to give it another viewing.

The movie is based on a British play by Patrick Hamilton which was inspired by the Leopold/Loeb case of 1924 (or rather the Loeb/Leopold case as it was referred to in those days). Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were wealthy, over-privileged gay lovers in Chicago who fancied themselves intellectually superior persons, and they thought that gave them the right to kill whomever they wanted. And of course, being so superior, they would commit the perfect murder. Or course, they were caught immediately, and during the course of the first “trial of the century” Orson Welles, I mean uh, Clarence Darrow managed to keep them from receiving the death penalty.

A fictionalized version of the case was eventually published in 1957 as Compulsion by Meyer Levin and made into a movie of the same name starring the aforementioned Welles.

The color cameras used for filming Rope were huge

Anyway, long before Compulsion, which was a realistic portrayal of the case, although it changed all the names, Hamilton’s stage play took the main premise of two gay lovers who commit a “perfect murder” because they are “intellectually superior” to create a suspense drama where the central characters commit the murder at the start of the show and then stuff the body into a trunk in the center of the stage. That trunk remains visible to the audience throughout the rest of the play as the two gay lovers host a party, seemingly daring their guests to discover the body in the trunk.

Jessica Tandy’s husband Hume Cronyn worked with Hitch to develop a motion picture treatment from the play, and that was eventually turned into a screenplay by Arthur Laurents, whom you may know better as the author of the libretto for the musical Gypsy.

Hitch wanted to keep the feel of the stage play by giving the illusion of having the movie filmed in one long continuous take, thus keeping the trunk with the body in it foremost in the audience’s collective mind. He did this by carefully planning the movie (as he always did anyway; that was the part of movie-making that he most enjoyed), and breaking the 80 minute feature into ten shots, none longer than about ten minutes.

The walls of the sets could break away to let the equipment through as the actors moved around

Mostly he disguised the cuts by having the camera move in for a closeup of someone’s back or some inanimate object, but there are a few actual standard cuts as well.

Since Hitch was famous for his technique of montage (basically that means cutting from one clip to another), this new style of working seemed to go against everything he had learned from a lifetime in cinema. For example, one of his standard techniques would be to show a person walk into a room with the camera facing the actor who is clearly seeing something. Then cut to the object that the actor is looking at, followed by another cut back to the actor to get her reaction.

Another challenge with this new style of filming was the huge color cameras then in use (this would be Hitch’s first Technicolor film), and the network of thick cables lining the floor that the actors would have to seamlessly navigate around. He had his set constructed with walls that could be moved out of the way to make room for the cameras to follow the actors as they moved from room to room. This was long before the days of the Steadicam.

I had long read about the film, but it was out of circulation for years, so when it was re-released to theaters in 1984, I was eager to see it. And I was disappointed. It just didn’t seem very suspenseful.

Cut to the mid 2000’s when I got it on DVD, and my opinion didn’t change.

So yesterday, after listening to that podcast, I gave it another view, and while I’m still not as enthusiastic as the fellows on that podcast were, I think I know what my problem is.

It’s Jimmy Stewart.

I think Jimmy Stewart was miscast in Rope

He’s just wrong for the part of the former teacher of the gay lovers of John Dall and Farley Granger, and whose philosophy has inspired them to commit the murder. There’s supposed to be a sub-text that Stewart’s character is possibly gay himself and may have had an affair with one of the lovers in the past. Also, it becomes clear that Stewart’s “philosophy” which inspired the lovers was really meant more as tongue in cheek repartee, not genuine moral guidance. Stewart doesn’t have the light touch to bring this off.

But Cary Grant would have. And Hitch originally wanted Grant for the role, but Grant, who actually was gay, didn’t want to have anything to do with a role or a film with a gay subtext. Given the standards of the time, of course, there is no mention of the word “homosexual”, only the most indirect implications of it.

So there it is. My problem with the film, I think, is the casting. Other people do seem to really enjoy it just as it is. And there is much to like. It’s certainly worth seeing at least once, even for none Hitchcock lovers.

I suspect that the average film-goer might not even notice the experimental way that it’s filmed unless it’s pointed out. And there are excellent performances by the entire cast, really, even Stewart, once he gets past the former teacher part and morphs into a Columbo-like detective role. And when the camera comes to rest on the trunk as the maid gradually removes the objects that have been sitting on it, in preparation for opening the trunk to place some books inside it, some of the old Hitchcockian suspense comes to the fore.

While I tend to give Hitch’s films at least eight stars out of ten, I only gave this one seven. Still pretty good.

Ulysses Grant Was My Great-Grandfather

Not this Ulysses Grant!

In years following the Civil War, David and Elizabeth Zeller were certainly feeling proud of the great general who had secured a victory over the traitorous general of the south and who was now a great president of the United States. So when their son was born on July 6, 1871 in Bethel Township in Lebanon County, PA, they named him Ulysses Grant Zeller (or possibly Grant Ulysses Zeller; I’ve seen it both ways).

Whichever way they chose to name him, he was therein-after known as Grant.

I don’t have many details about his early life, but on September 13, 1890, he married Emma Salinas Schaeffer, daughter of John and Sarah Schaeffer, in Sherksville in Lebanon County. Census records reveal they remained in Lebanon County, although they moved around a bit, as they gave birth to 13 children, the first being Anna Mary in 1893.

Grant and Emma Zeller. I don’t know who she is holding but it might be my cousin Randy

Then came Sallie Rebecca (1894), Elizabeth Carrie (1896), Grant Jr (1898), Harry John (1900), Mabel Mae (1904), Charles David (1907), Katie Ida (1909), Edith Jennie (1911), Margaret Emma (1913), Walter Leroy (1916), Elmer Martin (1917), and last but not least Edwin Adam (1920). Whew! Just coming up with all those names must have been a chore, let alone actually carrying them to term and giving birth to them in the days before modern medicine. Well done, Emma!

Emma and Grant Zeller. See my cousin Kathy and me peeking between them, and in the background on the left is my aunt Jane and grandmother Tillie. (Click to enlarge)

By the way, most of them lived reasonably long lives, with my great uncle Eddie, their last born, having just died in 2016.

Anyway Harry J. Zellers (he added the “S” for some reason to his last name, as did several of his siblings, possibly to indicate there were so many of them) went on to marry Tillie Esther Reed in 1920, and they had a mere five sons and one daughter, that daughter being Arlene, my mother, which is why I proudly claim Ulysses Grant Zeller as my great-grandfather.

(My mother suffered from dementia in her final years, but just a few years before she died, she was still able to name all of Grant and Emma’s children!)

I do vaguely recall visiting my great-grandparents when I was very young (under seven), but mostly all I recall is playing Chinese checkers (probably with my uncle Reed or cousin Kathy), or maybe regular checkers, in the middle room while the adults played cards (probably pinochle or their other fall-back hasenpfeffer, which I think they usually called haussy or somesuch) in the front room.

I don’t recall the occasions when any of these pictures were taken, and I can only name a very few of the people in the Zellers Clan photo below.

On April 21, 1956, Emma died, and Grant went to live with my grandparents, Harry and Tillie. That I do recall. He was very ill and didn’t last long. On June 19 he followed his wife to the grave.

This photo of the entire Zeller(s) clan (one of three taken that day, but it’s the most complete) was most likely taken on Labor Day weekend in 1955. I think my uncle Allen (far left in yellow shirt) took it with a time delay, which is why he looks blurry. Next to him are my uncle and aunt Mark and Joan; he’s holding their son Randy who had been born a month earlier, and my father Arthur is directly behind them. Next to them is great uncle Eddie (Edwin) holding my sister Donna with his wife Clara peeking over his shoulder, and then come my grandparents, Harry and Tillie (my mother’s head is just visible between Clara and Harry). I don’t know the next two people, but peeking between them is my aunt Jane (married to Allen). Sitting in the kiddie row third from the left is Barbara (daughter of Ray and Arlene Light (Arlene’s in the dark dress fourth from the right; Ray’s just a head at the right hand window)). Next in the kiddie row is my cousin Kathy, then me in short pants. Don’t know the next guy, but next to him is my uncle Reed. Of course, those are my great-grandparents sitting right behind the kids, and that tall kid in the white blouse directly in front of Tillie is Helen Fortna, whom we finally figured out is Donna and my second cousin. Her parents are Betts and Barney Fortna (and I’m stopping after this); Barney is second row far right and Betts is wearing a green blouse standing behind Arlene Light, I think. Oh, and Elmer (next to last son of Grant and Emma) is the guy in the horizontal striped shirt second from the right. [Deep exhale]

Oh, yeah, Kathy’s mother Fumiko is completely hidden (that’s the danger of a time lapse photo) and her father Neal’s head is mostly obscured by my sister Donna (being held by Eddie).

(Click on the pic to enlarge and hover the mouse pointer over the pic to see this caption; move the pointer away to remove the caption)

Who Is Elaine Sprecher (and why did she say nice things about me)?

Here’s another example that my memory for my high school days is not necessarily all that great.

Elaine Sprecher

I have a picture of Elaine Sprecher, and on the back of it she has written:

Jimmy, To a nice guy in the 9th grade who is a nut. Remember all the fun we had in homeroom. Good luck in the future. Elaine

Frankly, I have no idea who she is. Or was. I checked the relevant yearbooks; she appears in the section 9-4 class photo and again in the section 10-5 photo the following year. After that she drops out of sight.

But here’s the thing. I don’t even recall whose homeroom I was in in 9th grade. In 8th grade it was Graybill, 10th grade was Souders, 11th was Good, and my senior year I was on the yearbook staff so I was in Donley’s homeroom (though I don’t really recall doing much on the yearbook).

The back of Elaine’s photo

So why don’t I recall Elaine if she and I had so much fun in 9th grade homeroom? The most likely explanation is that after 9th grade we were never around each other again, so the memory of our good times was never reinforced, and it eventually faded away. Of course, it’s also possible that we never really had that much fun in homeroom; we may have just exchanged photos because we sat near each other (alphabetical order), and pressed for something to write, she jotted down whatever came to her mind. Very few people (I can only think of one, Randy Klopp) called me “Jimmy” in high school.

While I’m curious about Elaine and what may have become of her (presumably her family moved out of the area after 10th grade), I’m even more curious if anyone recalls what homeroom I was in in 9th grade.

Anyone?