Katherine Hall Page, Agatha Award-winning mystery novelist

Dear Readers,
         It’s that time again and when a new book comes out, I’m still as excited as the first time—The Body in the Belfry way back in 1990! The Body in the Casket is the 24th book in the series and my 31st book overall. And yes, I am working on # 25, a silver anniversary! Here’s some background on the inspirations in my life that led to Casket, specifically inventing Max Dane, the Broadway producer, who is throwing himself a weekend long birthday party after receiving an ominous early gift. Enter Faith bearing food and sleuthing skills.
I’m sitting at my desk with a stack of Playbills next to me. Although Max Dane’s musicals are off stage in this book, Broadway has been in my mind throughout. Living in northern New Jersey, not far from Manhattan, meant growing up with theater in my family. My parents had friends who were professionals and went to on and off Broadway performances often. When we were old enough, we did too.
I wish I had the Playbill from the very first production I saw: Gertrude Lawrence, the famous British actress, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, a matinee in 1952. The musical, which opened in 1951, had taken Broadway by storm. Rex Harrison turned down the role of the king and Yul Brynner, who would forever be associated with it, was cast. I was quite a little girl, but remember the two of them whirling about the stage to “Shall We Dance”, Lawrence’s hoop-skirted silk gown shimmering brightly in the spotlight. The other memory that is still so clear all these years later is of the vibrant colors—the costumes and the sets. The songs must have made an impression as well, but so many were hits that I can’t be sure whether I am recalling the original experience or the repetitions, (Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s “song” while courting was “People Will Think We’re in Love”!). Sadly, Gertrude Lawrence died of cancer unexpectedly in September 1952 and Deborah Kerr played Anna in the film. As a first stage memory, nothing could ever equal Lawrence’s elegant, vibrant figure in Brynner’s arms.
My mother, Alice, and her sister Ruth loved musicals. We used to tease my aunt because she wore out the record of Carousel, playing it so much she had to buy a new one. We grew up knowing the lyrics to all the classic musicals. Looking over at my Playbills there’s Robert Preston and Barbara Cook in The Music Man, Joel Grey in Stop The World—I want To Get Off (directed by Anthony Newley), Nancy Kwan in Flower Drum Song and many more. We would take our chances going from Broadway box office to box office on a Saturday morning—we couldn’t go wrong!
Starting when my cousin John and I were twelve, our mothers allowed us to go into the city on our own. While musicals were all well and good, we thought of ourselves as “serious” theatergoers. Richard Burton’s Hamlet—I still get shivers. Albee’s Tiny Alice with John Gielgud and Irene Worth, The Deputy with Emlyn Williams and a very young Jeremy Brett! Colleen Dewhurst as Miss Amelia Evans in Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café. Just now looking at that Playbill, I notice that the artist Leonard Baskin did the cover. And inside those covers, besides reading about the play and the cast, it is and was almost as much fun to look at the ads—“Does She or Doesn’t She?”, “Give her L’Aimant…before someone else does,” and listings for restaurants long gone. We always ate at one of the Automats—the best macaroni and cheese ever created or the baked beans in the little green pot.
One of our family’s closest friends was the director, actor, and playwright Jack Sydow. When he was the assistant director for Once Upon a Mattress in 1959, he not only gave my younger sister, Anne, and me front row matinee seats but also took us backstage afterwards to meet Carol Burnett, then at the start of her illustrious career. At one point during the show, when the ladies quite literally in waiting appeared on stage, Anne had whispered to me “How can those ladies be pregnant without husbands?” We were so close that Burnett heard. Ushered into her dressing room later by Jack, she was laughing about it, the distinctive laugh that would become so famous. “Oh I know who you are!” she said. It has remained a family joke for years.
Jack provided me with the amazing opportunity to be a part of a Broadway show when he directed Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with Denholm Elliot and Farley Granger in 1963. Jack wanted to use the actual hymns as they would have been sung for certain scenes and asked me to do the research. I used the Rose library at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, which has an extensive collection of theological volumes and manuscripts, including an original Bay Psalm Book. I’m looking at the Playbill now: page eleven, “Musical Research by Katherine Page”. I was there for opening night—meeting the actors afterwards —and saw it several more times in New York, and then once when it went to Philadelphia. I thought Farley Granger was the handsomest man I’d ever met and wept for him as John Proctor again and again. When the run was over, Jack gave me his director’s copy of the play marked with his notes.
Jack is also the one who told my parents, after trekking out to Livingston, New Jersey to see me as Emily in my high school junior class’s production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town: “She was marvelous—and she should never play anything else!” I haven’t.
Broadway has had its ups and downs, especially when television arrived in every household; but there’s always been something like a Wicked or Hamilton to tighten any flickering lights. So many of the names I’ve mentioned here in this Author’s Note—what I always refer to as stepping from behind the curtain—won’t be familiar to many readers, but the productions will be, enduring as they are. There is nothing like live theatre. Community productions, summer playhouses, a play reading group in a living room.
Go see a show!

With many thanks and best wishes,

P.S. Those of you who are film buffs may recognize several that informed the writing of this book: The Wrong Box (1966), Sleuth (1972 version), Deathtrap (1982), Clue (1985), and especially Murder By Death (1976). These also explain why Max Dane and Michael Caine became one in my imagination.



Copyright Katherine Hall Page and Proximity Internet Productions, 2007-