It was on this date in 1941, nearly a full year before America would go to war, a comedy with nothing more on its mind than to entertain opened on Broadway. Armed with the unlikely title of Arsenic and Old Lace, it premiered on January 10, 1941 at the Fulton Theatre (later to be renamed for Helen Hayes and demolished in 1982). It would run for three and a half years and bid its fond farewell in 1944 as the fourth longest running play in Broadway history. Its run in London’s West End was almost exactly the same length.
Arsenic and Old Lace, 1941 (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair)
Its author, Joseph Kesselring, was not nearly as fortunate with his two previous outings on Broadway. Cross-town ran a weekend in 1935, and in 1937, There’s Wisdom in Women not much more than that. This is why there have always been rumors that the producers of Arsenic and Old Lace, the playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, had a hand in crafting the play. Besides being the authors of dozens of hit Broadway shows, they were well known “play doctors,” regularly called in while struggling out of town shows were in need of their well-heeled wisdom and advice. It was also hard not to notice that Kesselring’s follow-up, Four Twelves are 48, ran but two nights and that he never had another play produced in his lifetime over the following twenty years.
This is how rumors get started. Still, nothing can stand in the way of Kesselring’s name connected not only to his most successful play, but to a charitable endowment set up by his widow, Charlotte Kesselring. In conjunction with the National Arts Club, she helped to establish an award called the Joseph Kesselring Prize, that for every year since its inception in 1980 acknowledges a promising playwright with a cash award of $10,000. Many of the names who have benefited from this largesse is a veritable who’s who of the American Theatre: Tony Kushner, Doug Wright, Anna Deavere Smith, David Auburn, Rajiv Joseph, Nicky Silver, David Lindsay-Abaire, Naomi Wallace, Tracey Scott Wilson and Marion McClinton. Mighty impressive.
But for those who have no idea what Arsenic and Old Lace is, here’s the basic plot: Two elderly sisters have taken it upon themselves for many years to put older single gentlemen out of their misery by poisoning them, having them partake of their homemade elderberry wine that happens to be laced with a touch of arsenic and old lace. They are buried below their Brooklyn home at the hands of their brother Teddy, who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt and that his digging is all part of his personally completing the Panama Canal. When the sisters’ nephew (whom they raised), a prominent drama critic pays a visit, he stumbles on their long-kept secret and is stunned to discover there are thirteen bodies in the basement. Mayhem ensues.
This was a highly unlikely vehicle for success. It was a black comedy at a time of world unrest and there was no precedent for anything like it ever before on Broadway. But Lindsay and Crouse were intrigued upon receiving the play from Kesselring, who sent it to them directly with no agent or middleman. They were convinced there was something in this first draft and immediately sought a star for one of the roles. It was to play the part of the drama critic’s half-brother who shows up unexpectedly in the middle of the chaos. A proud, self-proclaimed murderer, the script calls for a line after being asked what prompted him to knock off his first victim. His reply: “I killed him because he said I looked like Boris Karloff.”
Yes, the star Lindsay and Crouse asked to play the look-a-like was Boris Karloff.
Boris Karloff as Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace (1941)
At first, the famed Hollywood star, world renowned as Frankenstein’s monster, was reluctant. Not only did he think the joke wouldn’t work, but though trained in the theatre, it had been many years since he stepped foot on the stage. He told the producers that he couldn’t make his return in something that he would have to carry on his own. When he was informed that there were three roles larger than his in the play it softened his resistance. But the poor man was so nervous that he dropped over twenty pounds in rehearsals and was convinced right up until opening night that he had made a terrible mistake, in spite of its out of town run boding well for New York.
“I was lousy,” Karloff once said in an interview. “There were no two ways about it. I was going to (Lindsay and Crouse) and (Bretaigne Windust, the director) and say ‘Forgive me — tell me how much money I owe you — I’m going home.’ Then all I could think of was how kind everybody had been — and I knew I had to do it.”
Not only was opening night a triumph for everyone involved — Karloff included — but Arsenic and Old Lace would go on to gross more than $4 million prior to the end of its third year on Broadway due to productions all over the world. Even though that’s about a two-week take today for Hamilton, it was a fortune back in 1944.
In looking at the Playbill for the original cast, I found it odd that Karloff wound up being listed first in the billing:
Upon closer inspection, I saw that the actor playing Teddy, John Alexander, was listed last. Gee, swap “Adair” with “Alexander” and the billing is backwards in alphabetical order. Hmmm…
I found out much, much while researching this special play that it warrants a continuation. Come back tomorrow for Part II.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/