CBC Interview

[This is a brief 8 minute slice of an interview Mary gave in September of 1981 to CBC journalist Sheila Shotton in Toronto while she was working on the musical “Say Hello To Harvey”, starring Donald O’Connor. It was probably the last interview that she gave. She died on Oct 20th.]

SS: I’m Sheila Shotton and I’m talking with [for a voice level] the author, Mrs… I’ll let you finish your chocolate.
MC: Oh no, I’ll put it down here. The author… now do I speak?
SS: Just what is your name?
MC: Mary Chase.
[break]
SS: Record’s going… You were born in the States, but your mother was Irish and came over from Ireland. Do you still in your mind, do you hear her Irish accent?
MC: I do. I’ll never forget it. She came from Londonderry. And I was raised on Irish folk tales told to me by my uncles. I had four old bachelor uncles. They used to tell me Irish folk tales and ghost stories when I was a child. I think that’s always had an imprint on my work. Harvey the Pooka and the changling in Mrs McThing. So I have to say I’m very grateful for that heritage.
SS: Tell me about your uncle Timothy. He was the one.
MC: He was the one. With his tongue in his cheek, he used to delight in frightening me as a child in telling me these ghost stories, doing it in such a way, lowering his voice, whispering, so that as a child I was terrified, but delighted at the same time.
SS: Do you remember any of them? The ones especially that you may have believed in even as an adult and even still might?
MC: I believed in all of them, Sheila. [Sheila laughs] Every one of them. All my childhood memories are filled with dialogue and speeches from the greenhorns we called them who used to come over and spend time at our house, for instance, I remember my uncles argue about politics. I must have been 11 years old before I realized that Cromwell was not somebody they were meeting downtown everyday shooting pool with. [Sheila laughs] And I also remember this bit of vaudeville repartee going on in the hall downstairs when I was a child having been ordered up to bed, I would hear one of these greenhorns say to the other one, like a vaudeville routine, “Now do you think you’ll ever go back?” And the answer was, “Not until they build a bridge back.” I also remember the wakes, the laughter, and the arguments. So that I didn’t really become identified with the American West—which I dearly love now and all its history—until I was a grown woman. Part of me always seemed to be someplace else.
SS: Was there a stigma against the Irish? Which there was certainly in the New York area…
MC: No. There was not in Denver. Or if there was, I was not aware of it. Because I grew up in a working class neighborhood—white collar but working class neighborhood—where there were a lot of Germans and Italians, but mostly German and Irish. And the question we most frequently wondered about and asked each other and our parents inquired of us when we brought playmates home is, “Now what old country is she from? The German old country, the Irish old country?” No, I felt no sense of stigma at all. Should I have?
SS: No.
MC: It wasn’t there to my way of thinking.
SS: You’ve always written even as a small child…
MC: When I was 7 years old.
SS: Do you remember the first thing you wrote? Some people do.
MC: It was a fairy story about a family of country mice who moved into the city, made a nest in a bureau drawer. I’m sure it was imitative and derivative but I worked on it and laboriously wrote it out and had my father get it typed and sent it to St Nicholas magazine and they sent it right back. But I came across a book, “A Tale of Two Cities”, it had been in our library at home, I came across this book a few years ago in our house in Denver and on the flyleaf it said, “My name is Mary Coyle. I have just read this book. Don’t you think that I am smart?” [Sheila laughs] Eight years old. What a brat!
SS: You can’t help but think that you were smart.
MC: Ah. And fresh.
SS: And fey.
MC: Probably. Probably.
SS: It’s a word that’s not very much used and it’s a word that’s always been used to describe you and of course, it’s irresistible.
MC: I seem to attract unusual people and unusual events. I had a… How long do you want me? I don’t want to be too long with it…
I had something happen to me, this winter. We’d been receiving telephone calls. You answer and then you would hear someone at the other end of the line breathing and it was a very frightening experience because they wouldn’t hang up, I’d hang up. So finally one night I answered it and in addition to the feeling of someone at the other end of the line, I heard a sound of bones crunching. The back of my spine turned to ice, I was really frightened. I was about to hang up and then I had a sudden hunch which said to me ‘This is a child at the other end of this wire’. So I decided to change my voice and I said as an old witch would say, ‘Who is this?’ And the voice at the other end said, ‘Who is this?’ I answered, ‘This is the old witch’, and I hung up the phone. I walked away and it rang again, I went back. And now the child’s voice, obviously a little girl said, “Did you say ‘old witch’ or ‘old bitch’?” [Sheila laughs] I said, “‘Old witch’. I said, ‘Are you having fun”? ‘Oh yes, you could say that.’ I said, ‘Well, I can see that it must be some fun, how do you manage that bone crunching sound?’ And she said, ‘I chew ice. Do you want me to do it for you again?’ I said, ‘No, I got it the first time.’ She said, ‘I’m going to call and try it out on some other people. Should I call back and tell you how I come out?’ I said, ‘Yes, that’s fine, but don’t call for an hour, I want to watch a TV program’ and I hung up. Walked away, the phone rang again, I went back and this kid said, ‘What program are you going to watch?’ [both laugh] And I said, ‘60 Minutes’. So, in an hour, it rang again and she was in tears. ‘Do you think that I’m a dirty, rotten brat, outta have her neck twisted like a chicken?’ I said, ‘No, I think that you’re a nice little girl, too old for dolls, too young for boys and you’re just working out the time in-between.’ So, I made a date to take her to lunch after Christmas, but something happened, I never heard from her again. But I wrote a one-act play about it, sold it to the Play Service. You know, I thought I would never write another play. I write a one-act play, so you never know whether you’re through or what’s going to happen.
SS: Why did you think that you’re through?
MC: Well, after all I’m a golden age, senior citizen playwright and it takes a lot of vitality to write for the theater. And I felt that I didn’t have it. But when they call up on the phone, what can I do? [laughs]
SS: Make a play. One of the most beautiful, poignant things I’ve read in a long time was in the program….
[interruption]
I’m going to talk…the first time… A tear came to my eye when I read the story, how you came to write ‘Harvey’.
MC: I came to write ‘Harvey’ after having a bad flop on Broadway in the late 30’s. But I decided at that point that the theater probably was not for me and I settled down to raising my three boys and I had done this and come to terms with myself and my life and I was quite happy. I was married to a wonderful man and I had three fine boys, I used to walk to school with them every morning. And then one day, in the early years of WWII, something happened which changed my life. Across the street from our house was an apartment house. As I was leaving home every morning at 8:15 with my boys, a woman would emerge from the door of the apartment house and go in the opposite direction, to the bus to go downtown to work at the State Capitol in the income tax department so I heard, I didn’t know the woman, but I heard that she was a widow with one son who was in the naval air arm, who was a bombardier in the Pacific. One day, I heard that her son was lost. Things like that were happening to so many people then, that wasn’t what jolted me so much as the fact that in a week or 10 days, I saw the woman leaving the apartment house, going a little more slowly, to catch the bus to go back to her old job. I couldn’t endure it. She began to haunt me. And the question began to haunt me. Could I ever think of anything to make that woman laugh again? So I dreamt about her, she followed me up and down the stairs, she was in my thoughts, and I kept looking for ideas and rejecting them, I knew that she wouldn’t laugh about any comedy about sex; I knew she wouldn’t laugh about any comedy about money or politics. Then one morning I awake at 5 o’clock and I saw a psychiatrist walking across our bedroom floor followed by an enormous white rabbit. And I knew then I had it. I knew positively that I had it. I worked on it for a year and a half. Sent it to my good friend Brock Pemberton, Antoinette Perry’s partner. Antoinette Perry is a Denver woman. She’s the woman from the Tony awards. So, I knew them both. They had produced my first play, a flop, a bad one. So I sent them this play and I told them, “I think I have it.” And they immediately called and said, “What’s the next step? We can do it.” So, I had the play, I had Antoinette Perry, a fine producer. And the play opened to rave notices and ran for four and a half years. I came back to Denver after the opening and the woman across the street had moved. I didn’t know where she moved to, so I never met her. But I kept receiving so many letters from people who had lost cousins, brothers, sons in the war, saying ‘we’ve seen the show, and we’ve had the first laugh we’ve had since…’ So I felt then that somehow I had done what I set out to do.
SS: Hmmm, a psychiatrist walking across the floor followed by a big white rabbit… You’re loony you know?
MC: Oh, I know. I know that. I know that. Because I did see that rabbit, I did see him and I saw him so clearly that it was one of the mistakes that I made and it was almost fatal. I insisted that Brock Pemberton have a rabbit suit made, which he did. They paid 650 dollars for it. And at a preview in Boston, the stage manager got into it and walked across the stage in it. Well, a pall fell over the house and the play went out the window. And we never tried that again, we simply unlocked the doors, counted eight when we crossed the stage, and he was more real in his absence than he had ever been in the rabbit suit. Well, that was good luck, wasn’t it?
SS: Now where did I read that first of all Harvey or whatever his name was—the Pooka was going to be a canary?
MC: Oh, that was a… I always test when I’m writing a play, I always test out the validity of the idea by changing the sex of the main character and certain symbols that I’ve used. That way I can test whether it would provide in another form. I thought for a while, ‘suppose Elwood was a woman’ and ‘suppose it wasn’t a rabbit, suppose it was a canary’ would the story still hold up? But that’s always been a working trick.
SS: Is there a bit of shock in the world because really Elwood P Dowd was a drunk, a nice drunk, the nicest possible kind of drunk and almost 40 years ago was that considered shocking? Right now, “Arthur”, the movie, with Dudley Moore as a drunk is knocking everybody in the aisles, but that’s considered very current. You were before your time.
MC: Well, “Harvey” is not a play about a drunk otherwise it wouldn’t have succeeded and survived the way it has. “Harvey” is…and I don’t mean this in the wrong way… “Harvey” is or turns out to be somewhat of a religious experience for the audience, which is why it works. It accomplishes a change and shows the influence of a… a change in people’s attitude. And the reality of “Harvey” is achieved through the humanity of Elwood. He’s not achieved by a rabbit suit, he’s not achieved by any kind of stage trick, well that’s how I interpret it.
SS: It’s the things we all want.
MC: Right. You’re so right.
SS: Who was your friend that you always wanted, and that you modeled Harvey after, this Harvey that wasn’t there?
MC: I don’t know that. I really don’t. I know that I from a child—childhood—I had sensed that there was in all human beings, rich, poor, criminal, nice, a common denominator that if you could once reach it, you were in a wonderful country. And this stayed with me and I have always wanted to somehow express that. And finally this seemed to me since I was not thinking of my own ego and my own career, I was targeted always towards that woman across the street, I was fortunate to be led along into the proper way of expressing it.
SS: You’ve had so many wonderful people playing a part in “Harvey”: Jimmy Stewart, Helen Hayes.
MC: Sid Field, Helen Hayes, and foreign actors [unintelligible]
SS: I want gossip now. I’m sure you won’t tell me who is your favorite Elwood P Dowd.
MC: Well, it would disloyal of me not to say that there’s something about the first of anyone in any experience that leaves an impression. Frank Fay was the first creator of the role and he was marvelous. Just in case he is listening to me now, I want him to know that he has been unsurpassed.
SS: Where does that put Jimmy Stewart?
MC: Oh, Jimmy Stewart has great charm and people loved him. Frank understood the rabbit, you know, he was a reformed drunk himself. And Frank had gone through many, many bitter experiences in his life.
SS: He was married at one point to Barbara Stanwick.
MC: He was. They had a very stormy relationship. But he was a strange man. He was also fey. Intuitive. But the very best trooper I ever saw. He never missed one performance in four and a half years. Even with an ulcerated tooth. How can you not be grateful to a man like that?
SS: He saw “Harvey” like you saw “Harvey”?
MC: He did see him. A strange and wonderful man.
SS: The story about Barbara Stanwick when she was…
MC: Oh, when they called her at the hotel, said, ‘What night can we send you tickets to see “Harvey” and she said, “Never, thank you, I’ve seen all Fay’s rabbits”. [Sheila laughs]
SS: I’ve never seen it on stage: I’ve only seen the movie about 300 times, I think, but I loved Josephine Hull…
MC: She was wonderful. She was a very proper, little woman from Radcliffe, proper Bostonian, very up to date in her personal life and in her behavior, but one of the funniest women I’ve ever seen on stage.
SS: Did she know that she was funny? [unintelligible]
MC: Oh, she knew she was funny. Absolutely. She knew she was funny. And of course she was about to give up, she told me once that she had made a bargain with herself, for ten years she had been playing bit parts, walk-ons, nothing parts, so she said to herself, this spring, no at the beginning of the tenth year, if I don’t make it this season, it will be ten years, I will give up the New York theater, and I will teach drama at a college in a small town—she had had many offers to do that—and then that same season there began her list of hits, first “Arsenic & Old Lace”, then “You Can’t Take It With You”, and then what? I think she played each of them for years.
SS: How did you as a writer from Denver get to Broadway?
MC: Well, Antoinette Perry was a Denver woman. She was the Perry of Harris & Perry Productions that produced “Harvey”. So I knew her and I had known her since she produced my first play and it had flopped. I had written to her from Denver and told her I had a play, she produced it, it failed and then…
SS: That still rankles doesn’t it? You say, ‘flop’, how long 40 years later…
MC: Well, a failure in the theater is very painful, it’s so public. You stand there and… You get up the next day, and you wear the leper’s bell, you know ‘I’m clean, I’m clean’ as you walk out into the street. Kind of like politics. You know, you’re dead in one night if you don’t make it. But after I had written “Harvey”, Bob said to me, ‘You must go back to the people who taught you so much about playwriting in your first failure. And I said, ‘I certainly must do that’. [unintelligible]
SS: I read a wonderful story too about how you tested Mrs McThing on the neighborhood children.
MC: Oh that was fun. I had a lot of fun doing that. It took me a long time. A little kid finally after listening to it said very politely, a boy said, ‘Gee Mrs Chase that was sure a nice long play.’ [both laugh]
SS: And you’d be bribing them in with ice cream and hot dogs.
MC: Oh yes.
SS: Why would you test on children?
MC: Well, because I think when you’re writing for children and I was writing this play for them, they are completely different from an adult audience. And they are a very, very tough audience to write for because they’ll tell you without any politeness whether you have pleased them or whether you have displeased them. And the challenge is greater because you are limited, you can’t use sex, you can’t use politics, you can’t… there are so many things… You have to depend on the eternal verities, the timeless things in the world and that’s challenging.
SS: You have to have the gangsters and the extras…
MC: You do, and you have to have… What I learned most about the theater was… I wrote my first two or three drafts and it was pure comedy and they didn’t accept it. They know that life is composed of many other elements, so I had to put in separation and loneliness, trouble, danger, suspense. And scariness, they need still to be scared.
SS: What happens when you see a play by Neil Simon, what do you think?
MC: I think Neil Simon is a very, very clever writer. And I just don’t know how he does it. To turn out those funny shows as often as he does. I couldn’t write shows like that now. I don’t think Kaufman & Hart could write shows like that. Simon can write shows with a small cast. You couldn’t have “Once in a Lifetime” produced today on Broadway. There are too many people in it. You couldn’t have “The Man Who Came to Dinner” produced, shows with 18, 26 people. And of course, to get a certain quality in the parts, to hit a certain note, which I happen to love, you can’t be limited by the number of people you have in it. I think that Neil Simon, through all those difficult conditions, has made a wonderful adjustment and I wish I knew how he did it.
SS: What turned you into letting “Harvey” be done as a musical?
MC: After resisting it for so many years from so many people, like [unintelligible], I was afraid of it.
SS: Why afraid?
MC: I knew nothing about how to work on a musical. That meant turning it over to other people and not being able to talk to them on their own terms. Finally, Michael McCalenhey came out to see me three years ago in Denver. He talked to me for two and a half days and on the third day, I had a sudden hunch and I said ‘alright, go ahead and do it’. And that’s where we are now.
SS: What was the hunch? Was this the Irish in you saying ‘what the heck, why not?’
MC: It was an intuition, that said, in a way calling me ‘chicken’, saying ‘take a chance’, and I am very happy I did it. It’s been a great experience. To be back in theater on any terms at the age of 72, I’m very, very grateful for it. It doesn’t happen to many people. It happened to Paul Osborne a couple of years ago with his play “Mornings At ” and he’s older than I am by quite a bit. But that’s a late dividend and it’s wonderful.
SS: Does the theater really uses up the talent and drains—but is it so much that as the fight goes out—the change in the whole times from the past?
MC: No, I think that it’s the sense of conflict upon which a playwright must understand. I often think that’s why the Irish are such good playwrights, and so many of them have been, like Shaw and Wilde and those people. The sense of conflict goes out of you, and you seek for peace, inner tranquility, and that doesn’t go with the tension and the stresses and strains of the bridge building type of technique that you need to write a play.
SS: So you just sit back and build a fire, not happily, not contentedly, I’m sure.
MC: Well, not as happy as you are when you’re working. But it isn’t given to many playwrights to have this opportunity to come back in and see a piece of work transformed into another medium and get a chance to sit on the sidelines and thoroughly enjoy it.
SS: In your mind’s eye, do you really see yourself as 72? Come on…
MC: No. No, I don’t. I never see myself that way. [tape of side A ends]

SS: I bet you give people a bit of a hard time—turns of phrase and…
MC: I’m only telling you because I can see that you probably wanted to know. Maybe you didn’t…
SS: I do want to know.
MC: So I told you that I never think of myself as that particular age. You’re quite right.
SS: But the mind goes, the quickness, the wit, the giggles.
MC: Well, I’ll use it as long as I can, as long I keep getting phone calls, [laughs] answering the mail and so forth.
SS: Do you find yourself going back more to thinking about your past?
MC: No, I don’t.
SS: You’re not retreating into that past, are you?
MC: No, no I’m not.

[interruption]

MC: “…the grandchildren, that’s right, and seeing life through their eyes and they’re so amusing and they’re so full of verve.
SS: Isn’t Granny kind of crazy with them though too?
MC: Not entirely because I don’t live in the same town. I see them now and then and enjoy them thoroughly. But I don’t see them often enough to spoil them.
SS: Do you pass on the family stories, the uncle stories?
MC: I do and also certain ball dresses that I bought after “Harvey” was a success from people like Adrien, I’ve got an Adrien ball gown I’ve given to one of my eldest granddaughters. And a Harry Carnegie I’ve saved them and I enjoy all that.
SS: The glamorous life. Did you like Helen Hayes?
MC: Oh, I loved Helen Hayes. Everybody loves Helen Hayes. And speaking of people aging, Helen was in Denver a few months ago to be a guest of honor at a gala in honor of the Central City Opera House Association. Helen is 83. She is sharp, she’s witty, charming, she’s on and off planes, transatlantic or national, going here and there to make a speech on behalf of some charity, or going to make a film—she won’t act on the stage anymore because of her health—but she still does film shots, she still does television, and she still does her constant humanitarian work, she’s a great woman.
SS: What’s your favorite story concerning “Harvey”, do you have one that just still makes you giggle secretly to yourself when you think about it?
MC: I’m sure I do, Sheila, if I could only think of it now. [Aside] Can you think of one, Bob, that….
SS: …does Mrs Chase have a favorite story that you know about?
MC: …do we have a favorite one, I’m sure we do, why can’t I think of it now?
SS: Because you’re not on that wavelength…
MC: Oh well.
SS: Nobody sent you rabbits in the mail?
MC: People gave me rabbits for years, Steuben glass rabbits, chocolate rabbits, rabbits made out of ice cream, rabbits made out of cake at Easter time.
SS: People would say, ‘there’s the rabbit lady’.
MC: That’s right, they do say, ‘there’s the rabbit lady’. I think it’s all fine. But to get back to problems in the theater, whenever things get tough, I always test myself by asking this question, I say, “Well, would you rather be selling ribbons in the basement of the May Company?”. And I always answer, “No, I wouldn’t.” [laughs] I say that whenever I read a bad review, for instance.
SS: It still gets to you, doesn’t it?
MC: Oh yes.
SS: You never get past that, do you?
MC: Oh, no. You never get past it. Well, you hadn’t better. When you get past the point of reaction, you’re in trouble.
SS: I want to see what’s going to happen…Am I ever going to see the end result of that conversation with the little girl on the telephone?
MC: I’ll tell you, I’ll make you a promise that I will tell you. Because I hope some day she finds the number, I’m sure she lost the phone number that she was working on, that’s why I’m sure I didn’t hear from her, and I’ve always been equally sure that one day I would. Even if it’s by mistake.
SS: Is it for Broadway?
MC: Oh no. I wrote it for the high school market. It’s a one act. For the junior high school market. Because there’s a great dearth of plays for those kids. They’re not yet grown up but they’re not tiny children for Winnie the Pooh stuff. That’s a market that’s been greatly neglected and I love writing for it. Just love writing for it. And I really think that I understand that market very well.
SS: It’s another time and another era, “Junior Miss”, do you remember “Junior Miss”?
MC: “Junior Miss” was beautiful. I loved “Junior Miss”. You don’t see plays written like that anymore.
SS: Everybody’s throwing up green bile and being spooked… Spooked in a different way from your nice spooked.
MC: True. Right. You have to get them at the point where they are ‘too young for boys, too old for dolls’ in that limbo in there where they have no other place to go.
SS: Why do I always think when I think “Harvey” and I know I’m from a small town and I told you this before we started this interview that of course I could identify with Elwood P Dowd meeting Harvey leaning up against a lamp-post and saying ‘oh how do you do? My name is Harvey, I know you’re Elwood P Dowd.’ And then somebody says, ‘oh isn’t that strange it’s a rabbit’. No, everybody in a small town knows everybody else. [Mary laughs] Big city people identify with that, don’t they? Or is it wishful thinking?
MC: No, I think that they do identify with it. It seems to have a universal kind of theme. I have a picture at home that’s been translated into the Moslem world, into Arabic, and I have the funniest picture at home of this play which of course I couldn’t read with this Arab and behind him stands the rabbit and the turban is tipped over to the side and he’s kind of winking off the cover. It is so funny. [laughs]
SS: Is Elwood P Dowd and Donald O’Connor, are those two going to be perfect…?
MC: Oh, I think so. I think Donald O’Connor understands “Harvey”, he’s a very sensitive man, he knows what “Harvey” is all about. And he’s a very gifted man. He’s going to put some interesting things into his show, such as a soft shoe, which I can hardly wait to see. He gets better after every performance. He’s a leprachan. I love him.
SS: Have you ever run across an Elwood P Dowd that you haven’t liked?
MC: Yes, but he shall remain nameless. [laughs]
SS: Darn it. [both laugh]

The End

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