My Mom Met Obi-Wan-Kenobi, and it took a Dumpster Dive to Figure it out
On an unseasonably warm November Saturday morning I was standing in a nearly full roll-off dumpster. I had just run an errand for my wife and as headed home my mind wandered to the possibility of a “dig” to explore. My normal scan of estate listings online had come up empty, and when that happens I often turn to an app on my phone called “Tag Sale Finder.” This app searches Craig’s List and places electronic push-pins on a map within the desired region.
Craig's list brings to mind Obi-wan’s unflattering description of the space port, Mos Eisley in the first Star Wars film: “You’ll never find a more wretched hive of (something, something)” I use the search results with caution because the scams are often closely mixed in with the successes. Despite my misgivings, I found myself driving south toward a sale in Monroe, CT based only on a few pictures and a vague description.
I arrived to a sale that was just about to end. The owner had passed away in 2012 and to settle the estate the bank had contracted a service company to sell and empty the home’s contents. “Adam” who was running the sale, congenially accepted my card and desire to search for a story. He immediately handed me 2 framed prints (the subject of a future post) for free. I thanked him and pointed toward the dumpster and that I saw something and wanted permission to dive. “Sure, but watch out for broken glass.” He said.
I don’t recommend that anyone consider a dumpster at a sale to be a good place to dig. There is more bad than good in each and unless you’re prepared for the worst - just don’t. I had locked on to something with my gaze and my desire to know outweighed my sense of self preservation. The item I spied turned out to be an empty wooden box, but next to it was another box full of magazines from the 1940s. The potential for old advertising made the contents worth grabbing and within minutes it was in the trunk of my car.
Back in the nearly empty house, Adam explained that the owner was involved in the theater “…and right there, Meryl Streep,” pointing to a sun porch, “would sit and chat with her.” This is where I often find myself at sales, I have a few pieces of the puzzle but no cover image to go by and the rest of the pieces are no where in sight. Resolved to find out more later, I shot some video (see previous story here), chatted with a few other visitors, and even helped Adam fill the dumpster a little higher, and left.
Fast-forward to later that evening as I am removing the magazines from the box, tucked to one side is a folder of papers. As you can see from the samples included, they had the look and feel of authentic costume design illustrations. I really thought I had made the rescue of the century (again). Unfortunately, I still had almost no context and my internet prowess was not helping me to connect these with their origin. Time to call an expert.
My mom attended drama school in London and was evacuated during the blitz of WWII, when the Old Vic Theater was hit by a german rocket. The irony in knowing someone who there to witness history is that you often can't get them to discuss it. From my public presentations I have learned that the sharing of these discoveries can bring about some good conversations that releases memories. For Christmas, I had included 2 of the magazines from the box in a package to her.
During a weekly phone call to my mom, she thanked me for the magazines and I shared my dumpster dive and the found illustrations. When I mentioned the one that listed Alec Guinness as the actor to wear the costume in “Richard III,” immediately my mom talked about how he was not the type to play that role. How did she know? “He came to visit us while we were evacuated, He must have known one of the teachers. He hadn’t really done much in his career at that point” she said. Wait. What? I asked he if she got to speak with him. She told me they all had a chance to ask questions, but she didn’t really remember much more than that. “Mom? You met Obi Wan Kenobi?” I was incredulous, but the one role he’s known for was lost on her. Commenting on the magazines she pointed out to me that owner's name was written on the cover of each. With renewed vigor and another search term I finally found the source of the illustrations.
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada is the oldest and largest of its kind in North America. It came about as the idea of a journalist who was looking for a way to revive the economy of his city as the rail industry was waning. On a $125 grant he managed a call to a prominent British director, Tyrone Guthrie who agreed to sign on as the festival's creative director. Their first production? It was “Richard III,” starring Alec Guinness in 1953.
This collection of prints was in fact exactly that - 22 Prints, published by the Stratford Festival as souvenirs in 1962 titled, "Costume Designs for the Stratford Festival." There was no folio cover but my research reveals these are scarce. How did they come in to the possession of the home owner? It was time to learn about her.
Berenice Weiler began her career in entertainment as part of a USO tour for occupation troops in Europe. She then became part of the golden age of television as a casting director and then as associate producer for live TV such as “Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “Sid Caesar Presents” among others. Along with a partner she began a management firm managing many on and off-broadway plays including the Tony Award-winning "Nine." Prior to that she had been involved with the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, Connecticut where she reached the position of managing producer.
According to the archivist at the Ontario Festival, this is where she may have picked up or been given these illustrations as gift. The Connecticut festival was considered a sister organization to the Canadian one.
Mystery solved? As in most of my digs I regret the fact that I never got to know Berenice Weiler, she lived a very active life, and I have only touched on a small part of it here. I would like to thank her for helping me to reveal some of my mother's memories which is the greatest find of all.
I've got to keep digging...