This photo shows the site of the Italian Hall as it appears today. The front doorway is all that has been left standing – the same doorway behind which so many children were crushed to death on Christmas Eve 1913. Our story now moves to 1974, when a group of college students spent their summer working in the Calumet Theatre, which is only about 2 blocks from the site of the Italian Hall.
My present-day roommate CC was an undergrad theater student at Michigan State University in 1974, though this was many years before we met each other, and she was part of an MSU group that got to spend their summer doing shows in Calumet. Another company member was a fellow named John L. Beem. In the course of that summer, John became fascinated by the local lore of the Italian Hall tragedy, and an idea began to form in his head. It took several years and several more trips to Calumet, but the ultimate result of his fascination was a play he called The Mother Lode (there was also a 1982 Charlton Heston film with the same title that bears absolutely no relation or resemblance to John’s play).
John’s play was the winner of the 1980 American College Theatre Festival’s top prize for play writing, which then led to the play receiving its first professional production at the Attic Theatre in Detroit in 1980. This is where I enter the story. I had made my professional acting debut less than a year earlier in the Attic’s production of Steambath, which had also marked John Beem’s acting debut at the Attic. I played a dual role in “MoLo,” as John’s play came to be informally known. I was Marinelli, an anti-union activist, and I was a member of the Greek chorus, commenting on the ongoing action of the play through mostly wordless vocalizations and movements. The director of both Steambath and The Mother Lode was Attic co-founder Jim Moran. Jim absolutely relished the task of directing John’s play, as it offered a cornucopia of directorial opportunities.
Let’s talk about the structure of the play. It opens many years after the tragedy, in 1938. A young reporter from a big city stumbles across an account of the Italian Hall disaster and is intrigued by the fact that no specific person was ever held accountable for yelling “Fire!” He decides to go back to Calumet and try to solve the mystery, accompanied by his mentor, an older reporter. The scenes alternate between 1913 and 1938, telling both the story of the reporters in 1938 and the people and events that led up to Christmas Eve 1913. But the two storylines begin to overlap – the reporters are beginning to hear voices from the past and by the final scene, the two reporters have been taken back in time to that fateful night and are participants in the tragedy. In the end, we find that the older reporter has been the ghost of a copper miner killed in the pileup that night, and the younger reporter was his son, plucked from his dying mother’s arms as she was being crushed to death – which, as you may remember from Part 1 of this story, was an actual event from that night. As for answering the question of who yelled fire, John casts a wide net of guilt, indicting a broad cross-section of the event’s participants.
The other primary aspect of the play’s structure is that it purposely borrows a variety of character and thematic concepts from the Greek Oresteia, the story of the fall of the house of Atreus. I spoke to the playwright about this on several occasions. John wanted to make a point about what he felt was the loss of ritual in modern Western life; by which he meant the type of ritual that would have been a familiar part of life to an ancient Greek. In the original version as produced at the Attic, this structure was on the surface for all to see – there was even a scene in which two characters came onstage in Greek robes and engaged in a Socratic dialogue – but later incarnations of the script positioned this structure far beneath the surface of the play.
It is fair to say that there was no consensus, among either the actors or the audiences, on what to make of the Attic’s production of The Mother Lode. Some thought it was a mish-mash of half-realized ideas and self-indulgent nonsense. But some, such as myself, thought it was a very special work, unlike anything we’d encountered before, that moved us deeply. I was on the theater staff at the time, and I was in a position to learn that some of our subscribers felt it was the best thing they’d ever seen at the Attic. It did, however, inspire a certain amount of parody, some of it from admirers such as myself. I quote here a snippet from a song lyric I wrote at the time, sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”:
. . . My father was a miner, mined that copper ore.
My mother made her living by installing one-way doors . . .
. . . Oh mother, tell your children, what to do on Christmas Eve.
And if someone yells ‘Fire’ there,
Don’t you try to leave! . . .
I also recall one particular night after a performance. I had come back onstage to put away some props, and I noticed one audience member still sitting in the theater. I walked up to him and asked him how he felt about the show. His response: “I think I have a better title. You should have called it ‘Mining Becomes Electra.’”
Let me also add this story from the Attic production: During rehearsals, we had a weekend off which several cast members (who were all members of the same improv troupe) utilized as an opportunity to drive up to Calumet. The Italian Hall was still standing then, though it had become a long-disused derelict building. The cast members waited until the dark of night fell upon Calumet, at which point they broke into the hall and tried to spend the night on the stairs – yes, the very stairs upon which all those children had died. In this attempt, they were not wholly successful and they ended up spending much of their night upstairs in the hall. A few of them said they heard things and saw things on the stairs that frightened them quite a bit, though they never would go into specifics about that with me.
In the next installment of this story, we take the show to Calumet, where we portray corpses upon the very spot that the 1913 corpses were laid out, and we encounter the shadow of the past.
[If you’d like to jump to Part 3, click here.]