Last summer some dear friends of mine gave me a bunch of items they found when cleaning out a relative’s house that they thought I could sell in my shop, one of which was an old, copper dust pan. How excited I was to recently sell it to a BBC prop house in Canada for filming in one of their current television shows, a series aptly called COPPER. The BBC Channel does not come with my basic cable subscription, so after I made the sale, I rented the first season of this show on DVD to see what it was all about & l got hooked! The show is set in the gritty Five Corners District of New York City post Civil War and focuses primarily on a police officer (referred to back then as “Coppers” – hence the title of the show) working that tough, impoverished & underprivileged precinct.
I’m on pins & needles waiting for the second season to come out so I can continue following the great story line, and also to hopefully catch a glimpse of my dust pan that is supposed to make an appearance in one of the new episodes! When I last caught up with my friends, I was filling them in on all that had transpired with the unassuming, little dust pan and it got me to thinking about props, shows, and subsequently, remembering a rather creepy incident that occurred many moons ago in college with me and a stage prop.
I went to a small New England college with a wonderful theatre department and an even more wonderful theatre director named Hal. (He, like many of the professors at my college preferred to be on a first-name basis with their students). This beloved mentor of mine was brilliant, talented and had such vision, he could make you discover things within yourself while on stage that you never knew existed. He was in a league all of his own and, in my opinion, would have made quite a name for himself in Hollywood or on Broadway had he chosen to take that route. Hal had gone to college in New York City back in the day & studied with the Tony award-winning actress-turned-acting teacher, Uta Hagen, who had voice-coached Judy Garland and taught countless other movie star elite such as Al Pacino & Jack Lemmon. Prior to that, Hal had attended a private prep school in the north-east where he had become close and life-long friends with three gentlemen who each went on to become incredibly successful in the Hollywood scene afterwards. He never exploited these relationships to better his own career, nor did he boast or brag about knowing any of them, that’s just the kind of person he was – so I do not feel the need to mention them by name out of respect for Hal. I will say, however, that I had the great honor of meeting two of them at a party once and was very star struck! But to Hal, they were just the people he had been friends with for forever. So although he rubbed elbows with the best of them, he still chose to teach at this small college where, I can only assume, his work & teachings were more personally rewarding. Over the years though, Hal carved out a creative niche in that artsy town and eventually became famous in his own right!
Hal took his craft very seriously and was an absolute stickler for details. For him, it was all about being believable and every, single thing mattered in creating consecutive, believable moments on stage in all of the plays he directed. No detail was ever overlooked by him. There were the obvious technical specifics like staging and lighting, ambience enhancers like appropriate music and clever stage sets, period-correct costumes and makeup, and of course, props…..oh gosh, the props!! Hal once drove to every existing general store in the state searching for a simple, old paper bag. After a few hundred miles and probably 25 store clerks who thought he was nuts, he finally found the right one. I witnessed Hal’s obsessive attention to detail countless times with the most mundane of items like an apple, a handkerchief, a Sno-Ball snack cake (remember those?), gauze bandages, and once, even a bucket. I just might be getting ahead of myself here, but the point is, Hal settled for nothing less than what he envisioned and never made do with a substandard prop. And he kept all his notes, research, directions, cues, lighting, ideas, prop lists, to-do lists, etc., (basically everything related to the play he was currently working on), in a three-ring binder that he always referred to as his “notebook.” One night on the way home from a play rehearsal that had gone quite late, Hal hit a deer that had darted out onto the dark road and flipped his truck into a ditch. When rescue crews showed up they asked a slightly dazed Hal, “Are you alright, sir?” Hal responded with, “My notebook!! Where is my notebook??” So you see…. this was a man truly dedicated to not only his props, but the dramatic arts in general!
My junior year of college Hal cast me in a play called BLOOD RELATIONS by Canadian playwright, Sharon Pollack. If you think that title sounds a bit eerie, well you’re right, because I was given the lead role of none other than Lizzie Borden in this play. Yes, that Lizzie Borden. I’m sure you’ve heard the tale (or at least the nursery rhyme) about the alleged murderess, Lizzie Borden, who was accused & later acquitted of hacking to death her father & stepmother in their Fall River, Massachusetts home in 1892. It is so gruesome to imagine such a crime, even 121 years later!
I still feel uneasy, in a haunting kind of way, mentioning that I was ever in this play, let alone admitting I had played Lizzie herself! It was just as unsettling when I was first cast, and that feeling continued throughout the preparation and run of the play. Hal, as I’ve indicated, was a very intense director and treated every play he produced and character he cast as an opportunity for learning and “being in the moment.” To be cast in a play of his was really quite an honor, however it entailed doing quite a bit of work, so it was almost like taking another course along with the requisite five already on my plate that semester….but it was well worth it. Before rehearsals were to begin for BLOOD RELATIONS, each actor and crew member was required to read a volume of material supplied by Hal on the subject of the Borden murders…..newspaper articles from that time, old photographs, autopsy reports (eek!), trial transcripts, excerpts from the many books on the Borden murders, historical documents, etc. We were to study all of it and come to the first rehearsal undeniably certain of who we believed to be the actual, not alleged, murderer.
Hal did his research….and therefore, so did we. At the end of the final show, he wanted the cast and crew to share with one another who they believed was responsible for this heinous crime…..and we did! It was interesting hearing why and how all of us, individually, had reached a different conclusion. There had been numerous suspects and wild theories that still exist in the 21st century, but in the end, I did come to a determination of my own that I firmly believe to this day. Talk about preparing for a role! Talk about leaving a lasting impression! That was only one of the many ways in which Hal worked his directorial magic……and it was both fascinating and marvelous!
To comprehend the rest of my story, you must understand that the role of Lizzie in BLOOD RELATIONS was written in such a manner, that she would sometimes slip temporarily into the character of the Borden’s Irish live-in maid, Bridget Sullivan. Bridget’s testimony in the actual trial of Lizzie Borden, many feel, had been pivotal in determining her guilt or innocence. That was because Bridget had been the last person to see Abby Borden, Lizzie’s stepmother, alive…..and because the often heartless Abby had demanded Bridget wash the exterior widows of their Fall River home on that fateful and dreadfully hot August day.
It was thought that perhaps Bridget, having been outside for so long, may have seen someone enter the Borden home who potentially could have committed the murders. Therefore, Bridget the person, and Bridget the character, were equally crucial to both the real and staged stories. So while playing Lizzie, I occasionally would don an apron and maid’s cap, and grab the essential window-washing bucket, then transform myself into Bridget. Consequently, it should come as no surprise to realize that the bucket was a very critical prop in this play and for Hal, no ordinary bucket would suffice. He had in his mind’s eye a distinct, galvanized bucket he wanted to use, certainly nothing that could be obtained from Ace or Aubuchon Hardware stores. So while he went on one of his notorious and compelling “must-find-the-perfect-prop” hunts, we practiced with a plastic bucket in rehearsals until my oh-so-particular director found the exact one. When Hal finally did find his bucket, it was nothing short of chilling.
It happened on a dreary fall evening. After catching a quick dinner with my roommates, I headed out to my rehearsal at the college auditorium on campus. Hal preferred his actors be prompt and I never disappointed him. As it was already starting to become dark, I hurried along the back path that led from the dorms to the school buildings with deliberately quick steps. The path was well-lit, and I knew Tim, the friendly security guard, was more than likely patrolling the area close by, but I still felt nervous walking alone….especially with thoughts of the play’s morbid subject matter at the forefront of my mind. Had it been a clear and star-lit night, the sky would have been a bit brighter, but tonight the it was overcast and the moon barely peeked out from behind the heavy clouds. As I neared the end of the path, I approached the dreaded blackout spot on my route in a hollow of crooked maple trees in front of the nuns’ convent. The leaves rustled hauntingly in the trees and somewhere an owl hooted, so instinctively I picked up my pace. All of a sudden I heard an abrupt Crack! and that’s when I ran the rest of the way to the steps of Matthew Hall and almost knocked over the President herself as she was coming out the door. “What’s your hurry Miss Willoughby?? The building isn’t going anywhere!” she quipped as she stepped aside to let me in. “I’m so sorry, Sister Jacqueline, just here for rehearsal,” I explained. “Very well, then. Make it a good one,” she said and off she went towards the convent.
Once inside the warm and beautiful hall, I immediately caught my breath and went up one flight of stairs to rehearsal. As I pulled the enormous doors of the auditorium open, they creaked so loudly it echoed, almost with an air of foreboding, throughout the entire hallway. If that weren’t enough, when I stepped inside the darkened room, Bang! went the door behind me giving me a start! The ceiling lights were not yet on, only the side wall sconces were lit, casting an esoteric, orange glow on the mauve colored walls. It appeared I was the first one to have arrived so I called out, “Hellooo??” just to be sure, but only heard the faint reply of my own voice bouncing off the walls of this great room. Suddenly a head popped up in front of the stage and I nearly jumped out of my skin!! It was Hal. Of course, it was Hal!! He’d probably been here for hours already, crouched down and pouring over his notebook and plans for rehearsal tonight as was his custom. “Lizzie, I’m so glad you’re here! Come quickly, you must see this!” he requested without the traditional greetings. (It was Hal’s practice to call all the actors by their character’s name throughout the duration of rehearsals and the show). I hurried to the front seats as Hal anxiously paced with some important news to share. Before I made it to the first row, Hal could no longer contain his excitement and blurted out, “I found the bucket!!! I found the bucket!!”
Instantly he had it in his hands, spinning it all around for me to see and adding, “It’s exactly what I was looking for!” He went on to eagerly describe its various attributes to me, all the while turning it this way, then that, until inadvertently he had tipped it so that the bottom of the pail was facing me. And that’s when I saw it. A shiver ran down my spine and the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up! I felt the blood drain from my face and my mouth dropped open at what I was seeing, or rather, couldn’t believe I was seeing. Hal immediately took note of my unexpected reaction and implored, “What is it?? What happened? What’s wrong??” I lifted a trembling finger and pointed to the bottom of the bucket, for there it stated with permanently embossed black paint, MADE IN FALL RIVER, MASSACHUSETTS!!!!! Hal did a double-take when he glanced at the bucket’s bottom end. I couldn’t possibly imagine how that uncanny detail had escaped his notice, but it had. “Well, my word, would you look at that???? What are the odds?” he asked. “How ever did I miss that?” he asked again, looking at me intently. At that point, I was so shaken that I had to sit down. I was scared enough so that I could not even say a word. “Now, now….” Hal patted my leg in a fatherly fashion. “This isn’t anything to be afraid of…..this is actually quite incredible and a very good omen for our show! I’m sure it’s just Lizzie’s way of giving us her blessing. My, how truly wonderful!” he added, marveling again at my spooky find on the bucket. I don’t know that I would call that experience wonderful, but it was nothing short of timely and it had truly frightened me. Although I hadn’t actually seen a ghost, I felt like Lizzie had seriously made her presence known that eventful night!
The story of that Fall River bucket was retold countless times throughout the run of the play, the remainder of my academic years, and Hal’s tenure at the college. It really was remarkable when you think about it, and I’ll always remember, like it was yesterday, the terror I felt when I first discovered that manufacturer’s stamp on the bottom of the bucket! Over time, the events of that night really became almost as infamous as the Borden murders themselves, at least in our small college town, and I will never forget them. Incidentally, as a parting gift from BLOOD RELATIONS, Hal gave me another prop from the show to keep as a souvenir…..the ax we had used to simulate the handle-less hatchet found in the cellar of the Borden home, presumed, but never proven, to have been the murder weapon all those years ago.
Friends and family thought it was creepy, but I was proud of it and had kept the ax in my possession for some time until, somehow, it mysteriously disappeared and was never found again. I have often wondered what became of that ax, as the circumstances under which it went missing were indeed odd, and further pondered if Lizzie herself might have had anything to do with it! Perhaps therein lies one more spooky tale to tell some day. And maybe, just maybe, it will be another opportunity for Lizzie to make her presence known to me yet again!
Dedicated to HC. I am finally “sharing my voice.” It may not be in the manner you had intended, but I hope it makes you proud. I think of you often & miss you, friend. ♥
1.The photos related to the Borden murders posted in this story are from the book, FORTY WHACKS: NEW EVIDENCE IN THE LIFE & LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN by David Kent. Copyright 1992. Yankee Books. Distribution by St. Martin’s Press. Those photos appear in Mr. Kent’s book courtesy of the Fall River Historical Society and are of public record.
2. Thank you to my teammate, AnnMarie, at NanNa’sThings for the use of her lovely (and perfect!) bucket. Check out her fabulous shop at https://www.etsy.com/shop/NanNasThings
3. Many thanks to Louise McGee at my local library for her speedy & very friendly help. Despite the endless information you can find on the internet these days, public libraries still ROCK! If you haven’t visited your local library recently, what are you waiting for? Much obliged to you, Louise!