To most fans of Sherlock Holmes these days, he is either a character in a book or he has the face of Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr. or the myriad of actors who have played him on screen (big or little).
However, the tradition of Sherlock Holmes is being kept alive thanks to live radio plays. New Jersey has the Cape May-based East Lynne Theater Company (recently, I spoke with Alex Dawson of Raconteur Radio’s performance at another library). Every year, a troupe of actors will travel the state performing Sherlock Holmes. Today, I had the chance to see the troupe live at the Township of Washington Public Library.
In the playbill passed out by the members of the East Lynne troupe the program was called “Holmes & Carter Mysteries.” Besides a Sherlock Holmes play, the actors performed a Nick Carter adventure. Nick Carter, according to Gayle Stahlhuth the artistic director of the East Lynne company, “was busy in Manhattan” solving crimes at the same time Holmes was in England. Carter’s adventures were published in 1886, which was the year before A STUDY IN SCARLET (Holmes’s first tale) was released.
Stahlhuth said to me, before the program, that she actually adapted their production of “The Red-Headed League” from Arthur Conan Doyle.
In the past, Edith Meiser’s had adapted the radio plays. Stahlhuth explained Meiser “proposed the Holmes radio series to NBC” in 1930. With the death of Arthur Conan Doyle (Holmes’s creator) in 1930, his estate allowed Meiser to adapt the series.
Stahlhuth said her goal as the writer was to stay as true to Doyle’s work as possible and for the last ten years, Stahlhuth has said East Lynne has been performing Holmes adventures and taking them on tour around New Jersey.
The meeting room of the library was decked out in chairs. At the front of the room was two old fashioned microphones and to the right (stage left) was a table with a wooden box with doorknob and chain, piano, old style typewriter, stones, slabs of concrete and bottles of water. Behind this was a box that flashed red sign with letters “On Air.”
The actors sat on wooden chairs and waited to say their lines and each wore 1940-style suits with bow ties and suspenders and held scripts.
As “The Red-Headed League” began, host James Rana announced the sponsor of both shows was Bond Street Pipe Tobacco.
“There is no bad smelling pipe, only bad smelling tobacco,” Rana said with the enthusiasm as an announcer from the Golden Age of Radio.
Actors Lee O’Connor and Fred Velde played Holmes and Watson. As they played, I found myself being transported from the library to 1890s London. Yes, I could see actor/sound effects man Robert LeMaire knock on the wooden box and crumble a plastic bag to create the ambiance of a fire burning in the hearth, but the illusion of Victorian England, set in.
O’Connor and Velde had a chemistry not unlike Basil Rathbone and Nigel “Blech” Bruce and kept me focused. I also want to mention Mark Edward Lang was great as Nick Carter and actor Thomas Raniszewski also helped complete an amazing performance.
At the end of the show, I spoke with O’Connor about playing the Great Detective. He called Holmes a “savant” believing Holmes was able to remember everything.
“When I play Sherlock Holmes, I try to channel Rathbone,” O’Connor said to me. “I also try to bring in the irony of Christopher Plummer [who played Holmes in MURDER BY DECREE] and the cynicism and sarcasm of Cumberbatch.”
So, what is that the East Lynne Theater Company bring to the world of Sherlock Holmes?
It encourages the members of the audience to use their imagination.
As Sherlock said to Watson in THE VALLEY OF FEAR, “How often is imagination the mother of truth?”