Hollywood Sign Girl Interview

THSG-HZ-interview
Top, James Zeruk and Peg Entwistle, the Hollywood Sign Girl. Bottom, Henry Zecher and William Gillette, America’s Sherlock Holmes.

THSG: Henry, thank you for stopping by The Hollywood Sign Girl.

HZ: You are most welcome. The pleasure is mine.

THSG: Tell us, please, when did you first want to become a writer and were biographies your first endeavor?

HZ: My first endeavor was a history of the world, but I was 12 years old at the time and discovered that I might need to know about it before I wrote about it. I covered sports for my high school and college newspapers and, with a university journalism degree, I became a sportswriter – the best five years of my professional life. Later, my interest in history superseded my interest in sports.

THSG: You have quite an interesting mix of articles — from the great reformer Martin Luther to entertainment legend George Burns to the Papyrus Ipuwer to how the Grandfather clock got its name, and even a DraculeanSystem of Criminal Justice! How do you decide on what to write?

HZ: Whatever interests me at the moment. With a day job, I wasn’t pressed to write for a living, so I did it as a hobby, and my reading interests are rather eclectic. I wrote about C. S. Lewis after Shadowlands came out, and about George Burns after he died, both published in the Pipe Smoker’s Ephemeris, a privately-printed journal devoted to pipe and cigar smoking. The Dracula satire was just whimsical fun. He ruled a genuinely crime-free society because, for some reason, even hardened criminals didn’t like the idea of being impaled, so they took their criminal activity to other kingdoms. Writing for the Ephemeris really got me back in the mode, and my best scholarly work, on the Papyrus Ipuwer, was published after that. In it, I argued that, rather than being an Egyptian version of the plagues on Egypt described by Moses, it described the aftermath of the Exodus after the Israelites had escaped. But the Luther article was one of several I wrote at the time of Luther’s 500th birthday and, of them all, it was really the only good one. It also taught me a valuable lesson.

THSG: What was that?

HZ: If you want to be published, your best chance is to do what no one else is doing. I don’t think David McCullough picked it up from me (Smile), but he amplified that to say you should do what no one else has done, what no one else has done recently, or what no one else has done well. Several people in 1983 wrote articles on Luther’s life, his marriage, his music and the Reformation, but no one else wrote about his massive impact on the English Bible. I did, and it was the cover story in a prominent Christian magazine ahead of some pretty notable writers. It has also been my most successful piece, being reprinted several times and recorded for the blind. But through it all I always wanted to write a book, and now I have.

THSG: That is your biography of the great American stage actor, William Gillette. Tell us a bit of what we’ll learn about him.

HZ: Gillette is remembered today mainly because he played Sherlock Holmes, but he was so much more than that. He was an enormously talented triple-threat theater craftsman – playwright, stage manager and actor. He was not the best as any one of those, but I believe you can count on your fingers those who were so enormously talented and successful, at that level, doing all three.

He was as fascinating a character as those he knew, and his friends included Mark Twain, Frank Fuller, Arthur Conan Doyle, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Nast, Otis Skinner, Maurice Barrymore, and his manager and close friend, Charles Frohman, the Stephen Spielberg of his day. Among those who visited his castle and took a ride on his miniature railroad were Calvin Coolidge, Albert Einstein and Yukio Ozaki, the great Japanese parliamentarian who gave us the cherry blossoms in 1912. That’s the kind of company he kept.

He was no party animal, yet he was the life of every party he attended. His multitude of interests and endeavors is fascinating. If, as one writer claimed, he was most entertained by his own mind, I can identify with that because I was, too. He was often rude about being interviewed but otherwise he was good to people, kind and generous, helpful any time he could be. His neighbors in North Carolina and Connecticut all loved him dearly, not as a celebrity but as a neighbor and a friend. He was a genuinely good man who never had a scandal attached to his name. He actually made his world a better place for having been in it. You can’t ask any more than that.

THSG: Gillette holds a special place here. As you well know, Peg Entwistle was his female lead in Sherlock Holmes during his 1929 ‘‘Farewell Tour.’‘ How important to theatrical history in general was William Gillette?

HZ: Gillette was part of the vanguard of actors and playwrights bringing realism to the stage in the era of very unrealistic melodrama. He was the first playwright to pay such exquisite attention to the realistic details of the mise-en-scène, his sets on stage. Rooms in the homes he fashioned on stage looked like rooms you’d see in 19th century homes. The jail in Held by the Enemy, the telegraph office in Secret Service, and the Stepney Gas Chamber in Sherlock Holmes, all looked authentic and real. Among countless trivial details, the telegraph office featured a real telegraph key on which messages were tapped out in authentic Morse Code. No one at the time he appeared paid such close attention to details.

Unlike most other playwrights, then and now, he exalted women, his female characters being intelligent and strong. In Sherlock Holmes, Madge Larrabee is the dominant villain, rather than her husband; and the heroine – Alice Faulkner – actually defies Holmes himself, which even Irene Adler didn’t do to his face.

Held by the Enemy in 1887 was the first American play with a purely American theme to be both critically acclaimed and commercially successful in Great Britain at a time when the British held American arts in very low esteem. And Secret Service is still considered a masterpiece of its class, the closest Gillette came to the ‘‘well-made play.’‘ It is also the only play of his available on commercial DVD, and it gave us our first glimpse on film of a young stage actress named Meryl Streep.

He was renowned for his technical special affects – lighting, sound, music. It was in Sherlock Holmes that he introduced the fade-in of the lighting at the beginning of each act and the fade-out at the end, which allowed for scene changes in the dark and, thus, the continuance of the illusion of the play from one act to the next. It has been standard practice ever since. His treatise – The Illusion of the First Time – is still studied and referred to today. In it, he put forth the approach of making lines spoken on stage, and movements and actions, look as if they were being spoken and done for the very first time, not the one hundredth or one thousandth. His foremost desire was to create a ‘‘life situation’‘ each night on the stage.

As an actor, he was mesmerizing, described as one of Charles Dana Gibson’s notables. He was among those actors performing in a natural manner without the old melodramatic exaggerations, speaking and acting like real people, not hysterical maniacs. He could be dramatic and comical, but he couldn’t take on roles that demanded great emotional depth. He could not emote on stage. So, with narrowly defined acting skills, he came to personify the strong, silent, triumphant hero. But, within a narrower range of roles, he was phenomenal. Helen Hayes later said she never saw such a combination of presence and dimension, substance and shadow, intelligence and control. She said she never again saw such timing as he had.

Finally, he was the son of a United States Senator and brother of a Congressman, and he came out of the intellectual haven of Nook Farm in Hartford, Connecticut. As a kind of Yankee aristocrat, he was among those who demonstrated that, even if actors had not always been gentlemen, it was certainly possible and acceptable for a gentleman to be an actor.

THSG: And his impact on Sherlock Holmes?

HZ: Aside from him naming the pageboy ‘‘Billy,’‘ the popularity of his play in England was carefully watched by publishers on both sides of the Atlantic who wanted Doyle to bring Holmes back from the grave. The Holmes icon – with deerstalker cap, curved pipe, profile, and ‘‘Elementary, my dear Watson’‘ –came from Gillette, not from Doyle. The manner in which he played Holmes was copied, to varying degrees, by Clive Brook, Arthur Wontner, Basil Rathbone and every other actor playing Holmes until Jeremy Brett. And Sherlock Holmes created the formula, the template, for mysteries on stage and screen that we follow to this day.

THSG: Which do you prefer doing, researching or writing?

HZ: My friend Les Klinger once warned me about ‘‘research rapture.’‘ You know what that is and so do I, and you and I worked together on a few rapturous hunts. The gems I discovered were truly exciting, for example, an actual short biography of Gillette’s fallen brother Robert containing his letters home during the war; Yukio Ozaki’s description of his visit to Gillette Castle; child star Elsie Leslie’s precious diary entries about Gillette, whom she adored. It’s the hunt and the treasures you find. But, I also love playing with words, finding clever, funny and unusual ways of saying things, of telling the story. I could easily identify with McCullough who said the hardest decisions are not what to put in, but what to leave out. Putting the story together is really challenging and fun. I can’t say which I like better, except that just being in the reading rooms of university libraries and the Library of Congress is a little bit of heaven.

THSG: Speaking of a little bit of heaven, your wife, Gay, is an artist?

HZ: As Gay Zurich, she has been a very successful cartoonist and businesswoman. One newspaper called her the Erma Bombeck of watercolor cartoons. She created her own business selling her own product: personalized watercolor cartoons via www.artandsoulinc.com. They represent professions, hobbies, special interests and roles in life, and are personalized to each recipient with personal information supplied by the purchaser. Gay sold millions of dollars worth over a 30-year run, and recipients of her prints included Ross Perot, Richard Simmons, Sarah Palin and an Air Force One pilot. She also did custom illustrations for major corporations and served as a business consultant, in which role her primary customer now is me.

A friend gave me one of her personalized prints in 1983 and I was so charmed and emotionally uplifted by it that I became a customer, and remained one for 18 years. In 1986 she put her photograph in the catalogue and I was in love, but she was married at the time and lived in Wisconsin. Then, in late 2000, I was invited to a Sherlockian event in Door County, Wisconsin, and emailed her to do a Sherlockian print. We never got it done, but we began emailing, though we didn’t get personal, so I didn’t find out until the following October that she wasn’t married anymore. Then we got personal and we were talking marriage before we’d even met face-to-face.

After we met. I proposed to her at midnight on New Years Eve, and we were married on Valentine’s Day on Maui. Mind you, when advising people on marriage, we’re the heavyweight champions of ‘‘Go Slow! Take your time! Get to know them!’‘ But we knew each other, and we’ve had eight blissful years. When the Lord puts two people together, He does it right.

THSG: Thank you, Henry. What would Gillette say at this point?

HZ: Farewell, good luck, and Merry Christmas! Thank you, James.


Read interviews and features on James Zeruk’s website, Peg Entwistle: The Girl on the Hollywood Sign