October 29, 2012 by JoBe Cerny
Halloween is a great holiday. It is frightening fun. Good jokes always surprise people, and when someone’s head explodes in a horror film that is also surprising. I have always liked horror films and good mysteries with unexpected endings. A master of mixing murder and comedy in a tongue in cheek fashion was Vincent Price. If you’ve never seen Who Is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe, rent it and watch it. Writing and directing on Carl Amari’s Twilight Zone Radio Drama series gave me a chance to stretch my mystery and horror skills, and we won AFTRA’s highest honor, The American Scene Award for the series. But, my interest in reading and writing mysteries goes back many years. I wrote my first full-length play, Clues, in the 1970’s. At one point in the writing the play, I asked my writing partner, Annie Ryerson, to help me finish the script and she brought many wonderful changes, laughs and surprises to the script. Shortly after we finished the script, Annie got married and moved to Los Angeles. I submitted the script to Dick Sasso, who was the director of the Chateau Louise Mystery Theatre in Dundee. Their first play was Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap which had a very long run. Dick submitted the play to the producer, but they had committed to another play, so Clues got put on the back burner. About the same time, Annie submitted Clues to the Hollywood Actors Theatre, and they instantly decided to do the production.
They did a great job of casting and producing the play. Clues had a great opening and a killer surprise ending with lots of crazy characters, and an odd, eccentric mixture of laughs, mystery, and devilishly clever murders. I flew out to Los Angeles for the opening of the play, and since it was my first play, I was pretty nervous. But, I loved the cast, the direction, and especially the audience response. I couldn’t have asked for more in a first production of a play. Variety reviewed the play and said: “Clues is a play destined to make a lot of bucks.” It was very encouraging to read those words. I had submitted the play to the 500 seat Kalamazoo Civic Theatre in Michigan, and when they read the LA reviews, they decided to produce the play as part of their season. The first production was done on a small stage in a small theatre. The second production had many more production values behind it. And as it turned out the cast was very good. It was great seeing a first class production of Clues, and the reviews were once again excellent. Next a theatre company in Detroit heard about the production and produced it the East Detroit Civic Theatre which was an even bigger house, and once again, we got good reviews.
I submitted Clues and the reviews to a number of Chicago theatre companies, but none of them were interested – except one – Tony DiSantis, who owned Drury Lane Water Tower. Vincent Price was touring nationally at the time in a play about Oscar Wilde, and word was out that he was looking for a new play. Vincent Price was perfect for the lead in this play, and he was drawing big audiences. I called my friend Dean DiBrito and asked him if he could submit Clues to Vincent Price’s agent. He did and word came back quickly that Vincent Price loved the script and would be willing to do the play when his Oscar Wilde tour was over. Dean put together a group of investors to finance half of the production costs, and Tony offered the Water Tower Theatre which was over a thousand seats at that time. But just as we were ready to go into production, Vincent Price fell ill. Then Cineplex Odeon made an offer to buy the Drury Lane Water Tower Theatre. I hoped we could move the production to one of the other Drury Lane Theatres, but Vincent Price’s health continued to fail. His agent offered up Jack Palance, but I had my heart set on Vincent Price. In retrospect, we should have taken Jack since his career soared upwards while Vincent Price passed away later that year. I regret I never go to work with this unique actor who had the ability to make people laugh and scream at the same time. Happy Halloween. By the way, we still welcome trick or treaters at my studio every Halloween.