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Quill2

The Italian Hall – Part 3

Posted on 2006.09.20 at 01:39
Current Mood: artistic
Current Music: House of the Rising Sun - The Animals
[For a link back to Part 1, click here.]
[For a link back to Part 2, click here.]


Winter comes early to the Keweenaw Peninsula. Many a blizzard has covered the land while Labor Day picnic leftovers were still edible. So it was with fingers crossed that we caravanned to Calumet in early September of 1985 to perform The Mother Lode at the Calumet Theatre (pictured here). I had been in the Detroit production plus two revivals in Ann Arbor, all directed by Jim Moran. I was in fact the only actor who had been in every one of those productions, though after playing the union-buster Marinelli at the Attic, I had moved up to the larger role of Charles Moyer, president of the Western Federation of Miners. For the Calumet production, we had an added treat – our playwright, John L. Beem, came with us to play the role of the young reporter.

Getting to Calumet was a matter of hooking up with a carpool. My friend Bill M. was playing the role of the coroner and the two of us rode up together. We arrived in town at dusk and pulled up across the street from the theater, near the firehouse. I suppose it was pretty obvious that we were new in town, for the moment we exited the car, a corpulent, creaky older man approached us and asked who we were. I don’t remember his name, but as I later learned, he was something of a notorious figure in certain local circles. He was into real estate. His specialty was acquiring old buildings in town, stripping of them of every last fixture and trim, and selling them by the truckload to dealers on the west coast, leaving the discarded shell of a building standing in Calumet, mute and worthless.

He asked what characters we were playing in the show. When I mentioned that I was playing Moyer, the union leader, his eyes brightened. It turned out that the old long-unused union hall was only a few blocks away, he owned it, and he happened to have the keys on him. He offered to give us a tour and we accepted. The last mines had closed decades earlier and the building did not appear to have been used since then. I asked for the man’s indulgence and he allowed me to push aside some rubble and stand on the speaker’s platform. It was illuminated by only those few streaks of the dying evening light that had somehow strained through the dusty glass high on the side walls. From that platform, I delivered Moyer’s main speech from the play. John Beem had taken it from a transcription of Moyer’s actual words, so there I stood, delivering Moyer’s words on the very spot from which he might possibly have said them over 70 years earlier. I suppose a lot of people would have thought I was just being a silly actor at that moment, but that’s OK. It meant a lot to me.

Our accommodations in Calumet were quite varied. Some cast members (including my brother Frank, who came along and played the role of Marinelli) had rather, well, rustic accommodations. Bill and I lucked out – we were put up in a fairly new home a few miles out of town that was owned by a nice retired couple. The woman made us a nice breakfast every morning and treated us like family. Bill and I realized immediately that we were in a far more comfortable situation than most of our fellow cast members, and we agreed to say little to rest of the group about how good we had it.

The woman’s brother was a fellow named Arthur W. Thurner. I bought a copy of his book while I was up there – Rebels on the Range – The Michigan Copper Miners’ Strike of 1913-1914. It was published by a small company in nearby Lake Linden, and I imagine the book is probably a little hard to find today. Though I never met Arthur Thurner, he did come to see the play. The morning after that over breakfast, his sister told me about Arthur’s reaction to my first entrance. “He said he almost fell off his chair. He said he didn’t need to wait for anyone to say who you were because you looked exactly like Charles Moyer!” It is interesting to note that none of us – not John Beem, Jim Moran, nor myself – had ever seen a photo of Charles Moyer. I’ve seen a few photos of Moyer since then, and while I wouldn’t call us twins, I would say that he could certainly pass for a member of my family.

We gave a total of 3 performances in the Calumet Theatre and we were near capacity every night. A few remarkable things happened in the course of those performances. Even then, so many years after the incident, the Italian Hall tragedy remained a central part of local lore; it was a story that anyone raised in that part of the Upper Peninsula would have been well versed in. I don’t know whether this is still the case, but at that time, you could buy picture post cards in the local laundromat that featured coroner’s photographs of the dead children lined up like cordwood. Let it also be noted that the stage of the Calumet Theatre was used as a temporary morgue for victims of the tragedy, so in the final scene of the play when we reenacted the pileup, we were portraying corpses on the very spot that those bodies had been laid out.

On our second night, the audience contained a trio of very elderly local women who looked as if they were easily old enough to have remembered that night in 1913. They wept audibly through most of the play and left quickly the moment it ended, though they did stop long enough to tell an usher to “thank the actors for releasing us from purgatory.” No additional explanation for that remark was ever given and I feel distinctly unfit to speculate on the matter.

Closing night in Calumet was memorable not so much for the show itself, but for what came afterward. Just as we completed our company bow on the stage, a few local people escorted a fragile old woman out of the audience and onto the stage. It was Anna Muretich, of whom I wrote in Part 1 of this story. She sat center stage. We actors all sat where we were on the stage and no one in the audience left the theater. It was obvious that everyone in Calumet knew who Anna was. She spoke for a solid half hour, in a soft but clear voice, about all that she could remember from Christmas Eve of 1913. As I said in Part 1, one got the distinct feeling that this incident had twisted and warped Anna’s entire life across seven decades. When she was done, we were drained and exhilarated in a great crush of emotion, but we had to set about tearing the show down and packing it up, which we did very quickly. The next morning, we hit the long road back to southern Michigan as the shadows of our performances took their place next to the older shadows that easily outnumbered the living residents of Calumet.

There is one more chapter yet to come in this story. It concerns a trip to Calumet that CC and I took in 1999 that completed a few arcs in our lives.

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