84 Charing Cross Road was a play we had been wanting to do for some time.
Stephanie Hepburn had appeared in the regional premier of the play in Norwich, England and it had
been her last appearance there before coming to the U.S. and so we decided to present the play as
the last production of the 1996-1997 season. The play is based on the letters between Helene Hanff, a New York writer and a bookstore in London. Born in Philadelphia to a theatre-mad family, Helene Hanff won a fellowship from the Bureau of New Plays and moved to Manhattan in 1938. She wrote screenplays for television series such as Playhouse 90, The Adventures of Ellery Queen and Hallmark Hall of Fame. She educated herself largely through her voracious reading. She saw an advertipement for Marks & Co., Antiquarian Booksellers of London and wrote to them to try and get copies of books that she couldn't find locally...the great classics, by Pepys, Newman, Donne,
Quiller-Couch...the great purveyors of the English language. The letters that passed between herself (witty, acerbic) and Frank Doel of the bookshop (gentle, self-effacing) catalogued a delightful relationship that grew and blossomed until Frank's death in 1968. The letters were published in 1970 and the volume was an instant hit. In 1983, James Roose-Evans assembled selected letters into a play.
The stage is split in two: Helene Hanff's apartment in New York and the bookstore in London. Through the lettters, we see Helene gradually breaking through the very English reserve of the
staff of the bookstore as she sends them food parcels, and teases them ("WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS'
DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS? This is not a Pepys' diary, this is some busybody editor's miserable
collection of EXERPTS from PEPYS' diary!"). What comes through in her letters is an extraordinary
love of literature and a fighting resilience. She was always living hand-to-mouth, working at
home in moth-eaten sweaters, picnicking in Central Park or rooting for the Dodgers or the Mets. She was the first woman to serve as president of the Lennox Hill Democratic Club.
Despite many attempts to get over to London to meet the people she had been writing to, it
wasn't until after the book had been published and the publishers wanted her to publicipe it
in England that Helene actually managed to cross the Atlantic--only in time to visit the empty
shop that had closed some time previously. When the shop was eventually pulled down, one of
Helene's fans managed to get the sign from out front and sent to her where it held pride of
place in her apartment until she died.
For our production, Stephanie Hepburn reprised her performance as Helene and Angus Hepburn
played Frank Doel of the bookshop. Jane Reibel who had been in The Good Doctor with PRT
came back to play Joan Todd, secretary to the owners. We originally got to know Doris Jean
Velez (Cecily Farr) and Bill O'Connor (George Martin) through the PRT theatre classes.
Doris Jean had also been in 6 RMS Riv Vu. Megan Wells, who looked after the
accounts, was played by Donna Sordi who commuted from New Jersey for the production. Closer
to home, Helene's actress friend, Maxine Stuart, was played by Lindy Hatzmann who was
well known to Peekskill audiences from many local performances. Our last actor was James
Hepburn (Bill Humphries) who, at the beginning of the play is a young schoolboy starting
work and, by the end takes Frank Doel's place when he is too ill to continue.
It was an extremely successful production and well worth the effort of assembling over
a thousand books for the set. It became quite a challenge to keep track of which book was
where since there were many instances where Helene and Frank had to pick up identical copies of the same book.
There was one very sad aspect of the production. Helene Hanff died at the age of 80 a
few weeks before we opened. Below is the Director's note from the program, dedicating the
production to the memory of Helene Hanff whose love of the theatre was as great as our own.
From The Director
84 CHARING CROSS ROAD is the true story of the twenty year friendship between Helene
Hanff, a New York writer, and Marks and Co., an antiquarian bookshop in London.
In 1985, I had the privilege of portraying Helene Hanff in the regional premiere of
84 CHARING CROSS ROAD at the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich, England. To research
the role, I read her books, her autobiography, and listened to her radio interviews. I
felt I understood her pretty well, that we were very alike in many ways, and that in
some fashion, we were friends. In 1991 when I came to New York, I looked her up in the
Manhattan telephone book and there she was at the same address as she was in the script,
forty years later!
I wrote to her and she was kind enough to write back and we started talking on
the telephone. We made plans for lunch but I got an acting job and had to leave town.
She said she understood, her whole life was about breaking into show business! The
idea soon grew to produce 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD in Peekskill and invite
her as our honored guest. I wrote Miss Hanff, finally giving her the details of
the time and place of our production. Concerned that we had not heard from her,
on April 9th I asked my husband to stop by her apartment in the City and make sure
all was well. The next day he stopped by and asked the doorman for Miss Hanff's apartment. The doorman hesitated and then said Miss Hanff had passed away the day before. A few days later, her great-nephew, Jim Ulrich, called to say he had found my last letter to Miss Hanff on the top of her desk. We talked of her great humor, her many friends, and a Memorial Service to be planned
for her. He said, "She was the funniest woman I have ever known".
We would like to dedicate this production to the memory of Helene Hanff, a
true lady and a true eccentric, who inspired thousands with her love of literature
84 Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff
adapted for the stage by James Roose-Evans
directed by Stephanie Hepburn
Cast in order of appearance