Ten things you never knew about the comedy-writing team of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman

by Daniel Tarker

When the names George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart come up, most people think of a dynamic pair of comedy writers who collaborated on such memorable plays as You Can’t Take It With You, Once in a Lifetime, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. However, few may know the following 10 facts about their storied careers and even more colorful personal lives.

  1. When he was in the 7th grade, Moss Hart dropped out of school to help support his family after his father lost his job as a cigar roller when the mechanical cigar roller came on the market. He worked a variety of menial jobs to help his family make ends meet in their tenement apartment in the Bronx.
    [image: Moss Hart, 1940]

    Moss Hart in 1940. (Source: Wikipedia)

  2. Hart was introduced to the theater by his flamboyant Aunt Kate, an aspiring actress. According to Hart’s memoir, Act One, Kate grew increasingly erratic as she got older. She reportedly set fires in theaters and even attacked her nephew on several occasions.
  3. Hart also was said to suffer from mental illness in the form of depression; some speculate that it was bipolar disorder. Reportedly, he was constantly swinging back and forth between writing and threatening to commit suicide, a condition that he reportedly drew on when penning the musical The Lady in the Dark. Read more about his Hart’s struggles.
  4. Hart was only 57 when he died of a heart attack in Palm Springs, Calif., in 1961.
  5. Kaufman and Hart were paid $200,000 for the film rights to You Can’t Take It With You in 1938. That sounds like a small sum, but it would equal $3,329,390 today.
  6. Like Hart, George Kaufman also experienced a difficult childhood after his father was laid off from his job. He would pursue a law degree and a job as a ribbon salesman before becoming a humor columnist—a turn that would lead to a job at The New York Times as a theater critic in 1917.
  7. All of Kaufman’s successes as a playwright came through collaborations. In addition to Moss Hart, he worked with George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and the Marx Brothers, to name a few.
  8. Kaufman directed the Broadway world premiere of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in 1937.
    [image: George S. Kaufman]

    George S. Kaufman around 1915. (Source: Wikipedia)

  9. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize with Hart for You Can’t Take It With You, Kaufman won the award for the now lesser-known musical Of Thee I Sing! in 1931, which he wrote with Morrie Ryskind and George Gershwin.
  10. Kaufman enjoyed numerous affairs with many of Hollywood’s most beautiful leading ladies, which caused him to become embroiled in a scandal in 1936. During a bitter custody battle, the ex-husband of actress Mary Astor threatened to publish a portion of her diary containing very explicit details of their affair.

 

“You Can’t Take It With You,” by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, runs May 29-June 21 in the Studio Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to westernstage.com/tickets.

The eclectic world of the You Can’t Take It With You props

[image: pocket watch]

A few props from a recent You Can’t Take It With You photo shoot: a pocket watch, a typewriter, stacks of plays, a dish of candy.

In 1937, the New Yorker magazine speculated that You Can’t Take It With You might be setting a theater record: for the most props. The original Broadway production just had an incredible amount of stuff on the stage.

There were about 700 props and three props designers: everything from hundreds of magazines to a model of the Queen Mary to three mechanical snakes, hand-fed with flies during the show. (The flies were played by raisins.)

At The Western Stage, the operation may be a little smaller than on Broadway, but the props have just as much character. Props designer Nicole Anne Bryant Stephens also has just as crucial a job. She’s been on quest after quest to fill the Sycamore family’s home with a wild variety of gadgets, objects and objets d’art.

“It’s a great show, because it’s very eclectic, and my normal life is eclectic,” Nicole said. “My favorite thing is to figure out in their heads where they would have bought these things, or how someone would have given them to them. Did somebody travel to Japan or Bali?”

At a recent publicity photo shoot for the show, Nicole assembled a colorful mix of props on a lace-covered table. Penelope, the playwriting matriarch of You Can’t Take It With You, would of course need a proper typewriter, and Nicole found one painted forest-green. She then surrounded it with stacks of plays, a bright paper fan and a heavy electric one, a black dial phone, an ear trumpet, a phonograph, a mysterious family photo, and a vase of orange flowers. Red bound books filled one corner of the table, and a shiny pocket watch gleamed next to a candy dish.

It was a sight to behold, and a slice of history dating back even farther than the ’30s. After all, in those days people might very well have antiques from the previous century in their homes. “Stuff actually lasted back then, because things were better made,” Nicole said.

[image: Props designer Nicole Anne Bryant Stephens]

Nicole Anne Bryant Stephens, props designer for “You Can’t Take It With You,” arranges a table of props for a publicity photo shoot.

This is Nicole’s second show with TWS, after also serving as props designer for The Arsonist last season. More often she works as a set designer. She has a bachelor of fine arts in set design from The Theater School at DePaul University in Chicago, and has done a great deal of work in television as well as theater. She has worked on shows featuring such artists as Penn & Teller and Cher.

Locally, some of her favorite shows to work on have included Alice in Wonderland at the Forest Theater in Carmel and Anything Goes at Monterey Peninsula College.

Nicole’s props quests take her to many stores, especially thrift shops, but The Western Stage’s own storage areas yield treasures, too. One of the longest quests has been trying to locate a tabletop printing press.

Then there are the kittens called for in the script—and the fireworks. Tune in on opening night on May 29 to see how Nicole and the whole show team bring these particular challenges to life.

“You Can’t Take It With You,” by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, runs May 29-June 21 in the Studio Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to westernstage.com/tickets.

Scenic designer David Parker chats about xylophones, stairs, and the friendly chaos of You Can’t Take It With You

When scenic designer David Parker began working on the set for You Can’t Take It With You, one of the first things he thought of was the xylophone. He’s also an actor, and when The Western Stage put on the play in 1995, David had the role of Ed, the xylophonist and printer who’s married to the dancing Sycamore sister Essie.

David even learned how to play the xylophone for the show. “There was a gentleman here in the music department who would hook up with me once a week here to teach me,” he said.

Now David’s challenge is not mastering the instrument but deciding where to put it. The Sycamores’ bustling house is packed with furniture, rooms and people, and the Studio Theater is only so big. “Width-wise between the seats, the acting space is about 17 feet,” David said. “We try to scale down as much as we can.” Big standing xylophone? Typewriter table? Snakes and kittens and a staircase? It’s all got to fit.

One choice David made was to build a staircase with the door to the Sycamores’ cellar tucked underneath, to convey different levels in a compact space. Levels always add interest, he said; characters can make grand entrances coming down the staircase, or pop in and out from the cellar.

The intimacy of the Studio Theater makes it a perfect place for the Sycamores’ chaotic world and vivid cast of characters, David said. “In a small space, the chaos will take care of itself. They are going to be shoulder to shoulder,” he added with a laugh.

[image: 1995 production of "You Can't Take It With You"]

David Parker, left, played the xylophone as Ed Carmichael in The Western Stage’s 1995 production of You Can’t Take It With You. The cast also featured Joyce Lower Sherry as Ed’s dancing bride, Essie, and Joe Yedlica as Grandpa.

David has been creating sets at The Western Stage since 1991. His first set here was for the John Olive play The Voice of the Prairie, about a 19th-century storyteller. Since then, he’s worked on a variety of shows, and loves TWS’ large scene shop and storage space outside. “We save everything,” he said. “Hey, there’s half of a car. We got a wagon out there; we got a truck out there.”

Ample storage space makes it easy being green: recycling wood and items from one show to another. Recycling is a time-honored scenic tradition David enjoys—and you never know where you’ll find something new you can use on stage.

“I did a couple of shows in Telluride, Colorado. The scene shop was under the bar, and my paint would freeze because of the snow,” he said, adding with a laugh. “They did an article on me and called me ‘Dumpster-Diving Designer Dave.’”

 

[image: David Parker, Nicole Bryant Stephens and LuAna Speelman]

Scenic designer David Parker in the Studio Theater with You Can’t Take It With You props designer Nicole Bryant Stephens and LuAna Speelman, who is also working with props and the set.

As well as being an actor, David has a background in fine arts: painting and drawing. He loves color and texture, and sometimes thinks of his scenic designs as sculpture, a 3-D version of a painting. Overall, he calls his designs representational and straightforward, sets that support the show but don’t distract from the storytelling.

And You Can’t Take It With You has a story that he’s clearly very fond of. “It’s charming … reaffirming to be yourself,” he said. “It’s simple that way; that’s what I like.”

“You Can’t Take It With You,” by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, runs May 29-June 21 in the Studio Theater at The Western Stage. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2. For details, go to westernstage.com/tickets.

“Harvey” Actor Arlene Nissen Talks About Her Ideal Invisible Friend and the Secret About Veta’s Tea

Arlene

Arlene Nissen

Who are you playing? What’s his/her favorite cocktail?

I am playing Veta Louis Simmons, Elwood’s sister and Harvey’s biggest fan (insert sarcastic smile here). Veta enjoys her tea with a little something extra in it.

If you had an invisible friend, what kind would it be?

It would have to be a dog, a weird combination of my dogs over the years – Kiowa -a wolf hybrid, Duchess – a Cocker Spaniel and Gracie Boo – a Carolina Dog.

One of the reasons Harvey was so successful when it premiered on Broadway in 1946 was that it offered a welcome escape for a war weary nation – much like the main character Elwood uses his invisible friend to create a more palatable reality for himself. Do you think the play still offers a similar escape almost a century later? How? Why?

Absolutely! We are all so caught up in our lives & with trying to stay “connected” via technology, that we are missing the joy of actually being connected – with ourselves, family & friends and the world around us.  Elwood represents all of that connection in a pure & simple way.

What part of the play are you most looking forward to sharing with an audience?

The ending, because it illustrates that no matter what – family is first.10703816_10153235704958154_8580645118547958753_n

Arlene Nissen began performing in local theater in 2004. She is excited to return to The Western Stage to participate in the 40th Anniversary Season and to work with everyone involved with Harvey. She has performed in the ensemble of several musicals over the years:  Kiss Me Kate, South Pacific, Bye Bye Birdie, My Fair Lady, and Footloose.   Her favorite roles to date have been Reggie Fluty in The Laramie Project and Luz in Sunsets & Margaritas.  She works full time in Commercial Property Management and enjoys spending time with her daughters and grandsons, as well as dancing with her Hula Sistahs.  She dedicates this performance to her late father and all those who struggle with dementia.

 

Jeffery T. Heyer Talks “Harvey”, his favorite whiskey, and his pooka.

Jeffrey T. Heyer

Jeffrey T. Heyer

Who are you playing? What’s his/her favorite cocktail?
Dowd is my name, Elwood P. I prefer Mark Twain Whiskey for that relaxing glow.

If you had an invisible friend, what kind would it be?
A pooka, or as they are known in different parts of the isles pucks (yes, there is more than one), pixies or piskys. Ever set your car-keys down for a moment and then find they are not where you put them, search the whole house and then find them exactly where you could swear you first looked for them? That’s a typical pooka trick. You might say they are that part of nature that constantly messes with you and laughs at your little troubles – then throws out a little coincidence to save your life when the chips are down.

One of the reasons Harvey was so successful when it premiered on Broadway in 1946 was that it offered a welcome escape for a war weary nation – much like the main character Elwood uses his invisible friend to create a more palatable reality for himself. Do you think the play still offers a similar escape almost a century later? How? Why?
Absolutely. That is why I enjoy working on this play, watching it in theaters or viewing the James Stewart classic film. I feel rejuvenated after a pleasant dip into a world of peace and joy even amid chaos. Elwood has found the eye of the storm and I enjoy being there with him.

10703816_10153235704958154_8580645118547958753_n

What part of the play are you most looking forward to sharing with an audience?
The climax, one I trust will feel well earned.

What about this particular production will surprise audiences – especially those only familiar with the film version?
How funny the play is. The movie concentrated delightfully on the charm of the story. The play rounds its characters more satisfyingly and is much funnier than the excellent film.

Jeffrey T. Heyer (Elwood P. Dowd)
Veteran of 80 entertainment industry employers, TWS Program Associate, Actors Collective co-founder and former Pac-Rep Actor-in-Residence, Jeff also freelances as actor, director and writer. Among the 53 shows he has directed are PacRep’s Twelfth Night, Cymbeline and Richard III and Actors Collective’s Boston Marriage and Old Times. Roles at PacRep include Kipps (Woman in Black), King John (Shakespeare’s King John), Prospero (The Tempest), Henry VI (Royal Shakespeare Company’s cutting of Shakespeare’s tetralogy Henry VI Pts. I, II, III and Richard III into The Plantagenets trilogy), Falstaff (Henry IV Pts. I & II), Dr. Willis (The Madness of George III), John Honeyman (A Walk In The Woods) and Ratty (Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride).
Roles at TWS include Rev. Casy (The Grapes of Wrath), the Ghost of John Barrymore (I Hate Hamlet), Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure and The Mask of Moriarty in which he doubled as Moriarty), Max Prince (Laughter on the Twenty-Third Floor), Jonathan Brewster (Arsenic and Old Lace), Drummond (Inherit The Wind), Lopakhin (The Cherry Orchard) and Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol).
At various theaters he has played n A Midsummer Night’s Dream as Oberon, Theseus, Egeus, Philostrate, Lysander, Peter Quince and Bottom.
Favorite role: King Henry II (The Lion in Winter) Actors Collective.
So far, Jeff has performed in 43 Shakespeare productions, 44 historical reenactments, 27 Public Play Readings, 16 Puppet shows, 7 Musicals, 51 theatrical performance events, 164 other plays, 8 commercially produced films (including educational), 3 industrials, 14 commercials, 14 voice-overs, 30 amateur films and 2 Radio shows. On other fronts, he has coached 18 shows, choreographed fights for 20, scripted 24 and teched 48.
Jeff studied theater at nine institutions of higher learning and with several coaches.

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