‘Harvey’ playwright led rich life in Denver

New book by Colorado author is biography of Mary Coyle Chase

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“I’m an old stage and drama teacher,” said Colorado author Mimi Pockross, who has recently published a charming book about a theater legend, Denver’s Mary Coyle Chase, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Harvey” debuted on Broadway in 1944, ran until 1949 and has been produced across the nation and around the world since by professional theatres, high school theatres and many community theatre companies.

Pockross said that in the process of writing “Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase,” she sought Chase’s children and spoke with her son Jerry, the youngest sibling, who recently passed away — and his wife.

In her lifetime, Chase published 14 plays, three screenplays and two popular children’s books.

Her parents were Irish immigrants who brought a storytelling tradition with them to the lively Western city of Denver, where a mixed population varied from Mrs. Crawford Hill’s “Sacred 36” to middle-class folks and rowdy miners and others from across the world. (Pockross skillfully tucks a mini-history of Denver and the nation between the lines here.)

Young Mary soaked up tales of pookas, as her uncles and parents traded stories after family dinners. Elwood P. Dowd’s 6-foot-tall rabbit friend is considered a pooka. Mary is described as a bright, restless child who graduated from West High in three years.

One spring day in 1918, she skipped out of school and headed for the theatre district, Curtis and California Streets, where she was attracted by a sign at the Denham: “the Wilkes Players Company Presents Shakespeare’s `Macbeth.’” Or it may have been “Hamlet” or some other play at the Orpheum or Broadway — accounts are mixed, the author says. (More than 66 theatres existed in Denver at the time. By 1929, the few that remained became movie houses.)

With the first scene, Mary was hooked ... She found a copy of “William Archer’s “Playmaking: A Manual of Craftsmanship” (1911) at the library, which addressed craftmanship and practical aspects and advised a reader to rely on her own instincts.

She enrolled at the University of Denver to study the classics, then became a reporter with the “Rocky Mountain News” at a time when a few women were starting to “find their way into journalism,” Pockross writes. She next returned to college at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she was not invited to join a sorority …

Social commentary entered her work — an early play was “Chi House,” which became “Sorority House,” eventually a movie in 1939. Disenchanted with higher education, she left Boulder and eventually was hired by the Rocky Mountain News as a society columnist at $15 a week. She dressed as a flapper in black, with pearls, and covered stories that ranged from society events to shootings ...

She met and married reporter Robert Chase, a solid, steady, supportive man, who eventually rose to an associate editor’s rank during a 47-year career with the Rocky Mountain News. (Mary was fired after a prank.)

The couple had three sons between 1932 and 1936, living in rented homes, and money was scarce. Bob gradually rose at the paper and Mary did some freelance writing and charmed her boys with wonderful bedtime stories. Bob worked a night shift and she went to a typewriter on the dining room table to develop her ideas. A novel was rejected and she set up a tiny box stage and used spools as characters as she began to develop “Me Third,” a play about a social climber.

The Great Depression hit the nation and theatres closed as they have today. The Federal Theatre Project developed as part of the New Deal. In Denver, the University Civic Theatre was formed on the University of Denver campus. Popular Broadway touring companies, Pockross says, appeared at Central City in the summer and at the Elitch Stock Theatre.

Mary Chase met Andy Slane, local director of the Federal Theatre Project, who became an advocate for her and produced her “Me Third.” Mary acted some and decided to aim for Broadway, where wealthy Coloradan Antoinette Perry lived and funded friend/producer Brock Pemberton. (The Tony Awards were posthumously named for her.) Chase sent her “Me Third” script to Pemberton, who invited her to come to New York and rewrite it five weeks after her third son was born. Chase’s husband took care of the children, sold their car and took out a loan to raise money for train fare and living expenses in New York. The title was changed to “Now You’ve Done It” and it ran for 43 days ...

Pemberton encouraged Chase to keep writing as she sadly returned to Denver.

Next try was with “Sorority House,” inspired by her unhappy experience. It was turned into a film in 1939.

World War II started, and Mary, affected by a sad time such as we are experiencing now, started thinking about pookas and completed a lighter manuscript after two years. She had a nightmare about a psychiatrist being chased by a tall white rabbit, which launched her.

A perfectly constructed “The White Rabbit” interested Pemberton , who raised money to produce it and sought an actor for the lead part of Elwood P. Dowd, responding to a friend’s suggestion that he hire actor Frank Fay, a reformed alcoholic, with the right bit of Irish. Fay was interested and Josephine Hull was perfect as Elwood’s sister Veta.

This time, Mary had a cash advance to get to New York, rewrites were completed, the name was changed to “Harvey,” at Fay’s suggestion and after a Boston tryout, “Harvey” opened at the 48th Street Theatre on Nov. 1, 1944. Audiences were enchanted — and the rest is history.

It played for four and a half years at first and Mary Chase became a millionaire. In May 1945, “Harvey” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama “on account of its richness of content and the fresh imaginative field it has taken over; as well as in plot and character that marked a departure from the usual Broadway play.” (Other candidates: “Dark of the Moon,” “The Hasty Heart” and “The Glass Menagerie.”)

“Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat” by Mimi Pockross offers interesting ideas about what it may take to create a play, as well as a slice of local history — perfect fare for a reader wanting diversions and ideas on a winter’s night — or any time. Published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Sonya Ellingboe

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