In the summer of 1990, the curators of a new exhibit at the Royal National Theatre in London discovered something odd and unexpected. Steamer trunks and bankers’ boxes by the dozens had been delivered to the theatre from the estate of its most famous patron and performer. A team of archivists began the task of cataloguing the costumes, scripts, props, notes, and hodge-podge of personal effects. The task of assembling a great man’s life was a solemn one to them: placing items in context of time and place while creating a celebration of peerless work and acknowledging both the passion and precision he brought to his craft.
Sir Laurence Oliver had died the previous summer. His work and craft, both onstage and behind the scenes, was an inescapable specter that haunted the Royal National Theatre while he lived, always the standard that others strove to meet. In death, he had become a ghost of the twentieth century: maintaining respect and reverence through this transition.
In truth, it wasn’t as poetic as that. Arnold Kroken, the librarian at the theatre, had asked Lord Oliver in the early 1980s if he could see fit to donate a handful of items when the time came for posterity’s sake. According to lore, Olivier grabbed the man he had known since the early 1950s by the shoulders, smiled broadly, and said, “Oh hell, I’ll make sure you get all that shit. The wife will be glad to be done of it and me at the same time.” True to his word, shortly after the time came, Kroken was contacted by Oliver’s barristers concerning a bequest to the theatre’s archives.
There was no master list to make itemizing easier; many of the trunks simply had a year scrawled on a piece of paper and taped to the side. The boxes tended to be labeled by project. Henry V warranted two boxes, Hamlet four. Within one of those boxes, which chronicled Olivier’s relationship with the ill-fated Prince of Denmark, the most curious of curios was unearthed. A Hamlet box, labelled by name and the numbers 46-47, contained several revisions of the play that would serve as the basis for Oliver’s film in 1948. Each script was rife with handwritten notes and comments as he tried to determine what scenes and characters could be omitted and yet retain its cohesion as it journeyed from stage to screen.
This box in particular contained seven bound copies of the script, the title page of each edition bearing the legend:
THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET,
THE PRINCE OF DENMARK
And written by hand beside the title were numbers one through seven and the initials L.O. Also in this box were four leather bound journals, each one brimming with entries dated over those two years, notes on the play ranging from philosophical and moral questions to stage directions, lighting suggestions, edits and critiques.
Kroken and his team were sidetracked for days in trying to determine the identity of M. Orson, who, over the span of two weeks in the summer of 1946, had earned Olivier’s praise (“a strapping sort with an honest face, perhaps Horatio more than Laertes”) and shortly thereafter his derision (“stage left entrance like a sailor on shore leave, stage right exit like a barge taking on water”). By the end of the two weeks in question, Olivier pondered giving M. Orson another role (“second gravedigger might work but afraid to put a spade in his hands as he might kill the cast before they can do it later themselves”) before he disappears from Olivier’s journals and presumably a life on the stage.
The oddity was tucked into the back cover of one of the journals which contained entries from July 10th, 1946, to August 4th, and included the entirety of M. Orson’s career treading the boards. It was a program from a baseball game, dated July 24th, 1946, for a game in the city of Montréal between the hometown Royals and the visiting Rochester Red Wings. It was a simple document of eight pages: salmon newsprint stock, similar to what was used at the time by the Montréal Monitor. Half of those pages were dedicated to the home team, poorly staged action shots side by side with player’s photos that ranged from portrait quality to convicted felon. There was a page of statistics for the Red Wings and the rest was advertising for everything from Old Virginia pipe tobacco, Pepco motor oil and American Express Travel Services, offering ticketing for air, rail and steamship voyages.
The cover featured the not yet familiar face of the man who would in less than a year break the color barrier in major league baseball, but currently, is finding a look between bemusement and humility. Jackie Robinson looks as he has always looked, a by-product of starting his baseball career, or at least this stage of it, later in life. He is older than at least half of his minor league teammates, all dreaming of the day they can join the Dodgers in Brooklyn. At 27, he is also younger than other teammates who have resigned themselves to minor league careers and those who have washed out. By most accounts, his teammates, young and old, grew to not only accept his position on the team, but gradually realize that his talent in the field, and his personage off it, marked him for success. For the fans and the city no such progression was needed, it was love at first sight.
On the cover, written in a steady, flowing cursive, the following: “Larry, thanks for your support! Best for the future! Jack Robinson”
By 1946, Olivier had a dream project he wished to pursue, a filmed version of Hamlet that would maintain as much of the beloved original as possible and still succeed on its own merits as film. The success of Henry V two years prior had given him almost unlimited cache in this area. In addition to box office and critical acclaim, Olivier had earned Academy Award nominations for both acting and producing, as well as a special award for recognizing his achievement in bringing the play to the screen. Churchill called it the greatest propaganda film of all time, its release coinciding with the push of the British army into Normandy. It was revealed some years later that the British government had actually financially supported the production to a largedegree.
Olivier’s primary obstacle in fulfilling this ambition was none other than himself. Although celebrity has always attracted a following, Olivier by this point in his career had something almost entirely new. Not only renowned for his work in the British theatre, he was now a sought after leading man for Hollywood thanks to movies such as Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and Pride and Prejudice. And his 1940 marriage to Vivien Leigh did nothing to diminish his stature. His every public move and endeavor was breathlessly reported by the emerging gossip industry on both coasts of the United States. Ironically, the British press, never one to avoid sensationalism, accorded Olivier a more deferential treatment.
He and Leigh had been contracted for a run of theatre performances in New Zealand in the fall of 1946 and Olivier had agreed to three contemporary shows, a comedy and two dramas. He did have six weeks unscheduled during the summer prior to departing to New Zealand which he dedicated to revising the script for Hamlet. He knew that despite the prestige the project would receive, very few backers would support a full, unabridged film that would exceed four hours. Olivier had been working on removing characters, scenes and subplots to whittle the story down to a potential running time of two and a half hours and now had a handful of scripts reflecting those changes. The best process, he decided, to determine which would work best would be to see each script performed on stage by actors under his direction. As it turned out, he knew the perfect theatre in the perfect city in which he could workshop the play and largely avoid the limelight.
Acting, Olivier had been told as a young man, is a wondrous opportunity to fill one’s passport. In the winter of 1940, that passport took him to Canada for a few weeks of filming on a movie called 49th Parallel. Director and screenwriters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were initially contracted to create a propaganda story of warfare at sea, but instead decided to focus on a project that might sway the United States to enter the conflict by setting a story closer to home, their northern neighbor. The newly concocted story now had a German U-Boat run ashore in Hudson Bay and the crew deciding to traverse through Canada to reach the U.S. At that time, the U.S. was a neutral party tothe war and therefore an opportunity for the sailors to reach the German embassy and return home.
The director and cast, which included Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey, convened in Montréal a few weeks prior to shooting in order to rehearse. Many of the roles had not yet been cast, but most of the actors involved were prepared to defer to Olivier had he wished the standard heroic role of the Mountie or Canadian soldier who are on the trail of fugitive sailors. Olivier, for his part, decided to take the role of Johnny, a French-Canadian trapper who originally encounters the Nazis in the wilds of Manitoba only to meet a tragic end.
Olivier spent some of his time in the city wandering the streets and keeping his ears open to the differences between the French speaking English and the English-speaking French. One evening he and other cast members attended a performance of As You Like It at His Majesty’s Theatre, succeeding in going almost incognito as no one in the crowd that night were likely expecting some of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the day to be sitting together at the back of the theatre. Following the play, Olivier made his way backstage to meet and congratulate the director and cast, who were understandably taken aback by this unexpected visitor. The theatre’s general manager, Frederick Dupleses, managed to capture a couple of photographs of Olivier meeting the cast and gave the actor his business card, telling him that if he ever wanted the theatre all he had to do was say the word.
Six years later, Olivier contacted Dupleses to see if the word was still good. Olivier had explained that he was looking for a cast and crew to work through his variations on Hamlet, that he could see no issue with doing 4 or 5 threadbare public performances during the week for access to everything during the day. He did make clear that his involvement was that of adapter and that his direction was to determine what worked in the context of presentation and not to plumb to deeper depths of the human soul. And if possible, he would like his presence and work to be kept a secret and out of any publicity.
Dupleses was initially torn; having Olivier at his theatre, working on Hamlet, was the sort of prestige that rarely occurs in one’s lifetime. The box office would explode, he thought, particularly with the growing competition for an audience, as many downtown playhouses had transitioned to movie theatres over the past decade. This could single-handedly revive theatre in the city for a generation. Or it could mean that he would have the means to bring Olivier back in the future for a full commitment, so he decided to continue the goodwill which evidentially lead to this call in the first place. Dupleses agreed to Olivier’s requests, telling him that the technical crew was already in place and that he would round up suitable actors for a casting call without informing them of some of the specific conditions they could soon be working under.
Olivier arrived in the city on July 3rd, days after a massive storm broke a week-old heat wave that was deemed typically unseasonable for late June. Olivier, on the recommendation of Dupleses, took up residence at the Windsor Hotel for the duration of his stay, amused at the providence that he was staying in the same suite that had once welcomed Oscar Wilde. Although Dupleses had managed to keep a degree of secrecy surrounding Olivier’s work in the city, there was no such courtesy from the Windsor, despite the reassurances of management. Staff had grown too accustomed to receiving a payout from local press to alert them when someone of note was in residence. Although his wife hadn’t joined him due to prior commitments in England, she would no doubt have strolled through the lobby on at least one or two occasions. He, however, was there to work, and used his considerable charm and some cash to have the doormen direct him to some of the hotel’s other means of egress.
Casting took place at the theatre with approximately 75 actors brought through over two days. He was looking for talent, of course, but also those who had experience with the play previously. Technical proficiency was not his highest priority, instead focusing his attention towards those who could take direction and adapt to changes in the script very quickly. He settled on a cast of twenty-eight, promising an opportunity to play multiple roles within rehearsals and performances, explaining his ultimate objective was to stage his adaptive variations to establish which would best achieve his goal. He did ask that they try to keep knowledge of his involvement to a minimum, but at the end of the process he would certainly allow their participation and his name to be joined together to garner the actors future employment.
A week after he began rehearsals, Oliver meet with Dupleses to thank him for laying the groundwork and to confirm a handful of dates over the next four weeks to accommodate public performances of the work-in-progress. Dupleses furnished Olivier with a list of restaurants and lounges in the city, complete with the names of the maître d’s and owners who could offer some discretion and privacy should he feel like dining out or experiencing the city’s legendary nightlife. Surprisingly, Olivier asked about the Montréal Royals, noticing with some interest the coverage they had been garnering in the papers he perused every morning with tea and toast. Enthused by the casual turn in the conversation, Dupleses mentioned that Hector Racine, the owner of the team, was also a notable donor to many of the theatres in the city and, if Olivier liked, he could certainly arrange for Olivier to attend a game while he was in town.
The Montréal Royals began their existence just prior to the turn of the last century as baseball began its slow migration across the border from burgeoning hotspots in New York state and the parts of New England that bordered Québec. The Royals joined the Eastern League, a development and rookie league that included teams in Toronto (ironically, also named the Maple Leafs), Newark, Buffalo, Baltimore and other medium-sized cities along the east coast. Despite a largely losing record, the team remained sustainable for two decades before mounting travel and accommodation costs, as well as the loss of innumerable young men to the war effort in Europe in 1917, caused the club to cease operations at the end of that season.
A decade later, a group of businessmen, which included Charles Trudeau, father to the future prime minister, invested in both a resurrection of the club and a new stadium, Delorimier Downs, located in the east end of the city in what is now Ville-Marie. This version of the Royals enjoyed almost immediate success and support. Within five years, the Royals were affiliated with Major League baseball teams, first Philadelphia, then Pittsburgh, and ultimately a twenty-one year relationship with the Brooklyn, later Los Angeles, Dodgers. As the minor league affiliate for the Dodgers, a number of future stars and Hall of Famers came through Montréal, including Duke Snider, Don Drysdale, Roy Campanella and Tommy LaSorda, but there was one player in the Royals’ 1946 season who would make baseball history: Jackie Robinson.
Following the U.S. entry in the Second World War, a number of prominent baseball players enlisted in various branches of the armed services, causing baseball to carry on without its biggest stars, including Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial. Team owners and management filled rosters with the injured and aged, struggling to keep interest sustained in the sport. Even as the stars began returning to their clubs following their tours of duty, there was one general manager whose search for talent lead him to discover that the Negro Leagues were brimming with untapped potential; he knew that there would be a competitive advantage to incorporate some of these players into the Majors. Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, found a player of extraordinary caliber to break baseball’s color barrier, Jackie Robinson.
Although he had been born in the deep south, Robinson’s family moved to California shortly after his birth. As a youth, through high school and university, he was an uncommonly gifted athlete, excelling in baseball, basketball, football and track. He was looking at playing semi-pro football before enlisting in the army following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although the army had been officially desegregated, lingering racism persisted and following an incident where a bus driver told him to go to the back of the vehicle, Robinson refused, only to be later confronted by superior officers who charged him with insubordination which ultimately lead to a court martial. Robinson was ultimately acquitted, but the experience would serve him well just three years later when he crossed baseball’s color line.
Rickey knew he needed not only an outstanding ball player, but also someone with the character to deal with the pressure when he discovered Robinson, now playing the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Robinson was understandably weary of the offer and, during the interview, charged Rickey that they were purposely looking for someone who was afraid to fight back against the expected torrent of racial epitaphs. Rickey countered that he was looking for someone with the courage to not fight back. They came to the agreement that Robinson would do so and he was officially signed by the Dodgers in the winter of 1945.
Branch Rickey was blessed to find the player he needed but also by the fact that the Dodger’s minor league team was in Montréal, a city he felt would be much more accommodating to Robinson given its international and cosmopolitan reputation. Robinson would face enough pressure from players, on his own team and opponents, and didn’t need the additional worry of living in a community that might not be as welcoming. Many major league teams at the time had minor league affiliates in places like South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, and Rickey thought being away from those atmospheres would allow Robinson the time to find himself as a ball player.
Although there were a number of racially charged incidents involving Robinson during the team’s spring training in Florida in 1946, by the time the team relocated to Montréal, the city proved to be more than welcoming to Robinson and his wife Rachel. There were some lingering issues with teammates and road trips could be harsh, but Robinson found solace every time the team returned to Montréal’s Delorimier Stadium and the 20,000 seats full for almost every game: more than a million people came through the gates during the season to see him.
The Royal’s owners, particularly Racine, were thrilled by this unexpected turn of events. The team had been competitive during its association with the Dodgers and attendance had been steady and impressive, but this was something new. While the businessman inside him was delighted, as a person, Racine went out of his way to ensure that Robinson and his family felt the full embrace of the city, arranging things from transportation for Rachel, pregnant with the couple’s first child that summer, to dinners and other evenings on the town. Racine had seen the city host world leaders and royalty, celebrities and artists, but had seldom seen a more low-key yet all-encompassing welcome as the Robinsons had received.
That summer, the Royals were winning games at a blistering pace and enjoying sold out games regularly at Delorimier Stadium, the crowds cheering loudest every time Robinson made a play in the field: every time he hit the ball, every time he stole a base. The stadium had added lights in 1935, a luxury for most minor league parks, so most games during the week were played in the evenings, but the weekend matinees left the nights free for players. Most of the younger players would make their way downtown to the saloons and dance halls, taking full advantage of their celebrity when possible, but the Robinsons, thanks to Racine’s assistance, usually found a quiet restaurant and followed dinner with a movie or a play, at times awed and overwhelmed to be enjoying life in a city where they didn’t have to check windows to see if they were allowed entrance.
Olivier had decided to take Dupleses up on his offer to attend a baseball game. He had given the cast and crew a weekend off as he made some revisions to the scripts. The high temperatures had made his apartment at the hotel unbearable during the day and he needed distraction from the play in order to attack it anew. Dupleses had given him Racine’s private number and told the owner that he may expect a call during the summer from someone of great import who might be looking for the opportunity to attend a game or two.
When Racine received the initial telephone call, he was skeptical that the gentleman calling was indeed who he said he was, but a mention of Dupleses’ name went a long way to clearing up the situation. Racine told Olivier that he would be delighted in hosting him at the stadium that evening and that it would be a pleasure to take him to dinner following the game. Racine gave explicit instructions to the chief of ushers to make sure that all the ushers knew Olivier would be arriving at the ballpark and to escort him personally to Racine’s box located close to the field, along the third baseline.
Racine recounted years later to the Montréal Gazette that Olivier enjoyed the game immensely but initially confused some aspects of baseball with cricket. Almost twenty-thousand people were in attendance at the game on Friday evening, and, when Robinson hit a three run home run in the sixth inning, each and every one of them were on their feet cheering. Racine said he explained Robinson’s uniqueness within the larger framework of baseball and told Olivier that Robinson was one of the finest men he had ever met. Later in the game, Robinson stole two bases and scored a run on an infield ground ball in the eighth inning and started the double play that ended the ninth for the visitors. Olivier was captivated by Robinson, his reserve in being lauded by those in attendance, particularly under the circumstances that Racine had outlined to him concerning the lack of black men in the sport. Racine put forth the suggestion that heask Robinson to join them for their late dinner and Olivier quickly agreed.
It has been suggested that Olivier saw something of himself that night in Robinson: someone so determined in excelling in their chosen craft, someone who would always have a close yet distant relationship with those they are performing for, someone who could capture an audience’s attention and gain their love simply by taking to the stage or field.
At Bouchard’s Steakhouse on St. Catherine, Racine lead his guests to a private table in the back of the restaurant, away from the revelers on a Friday night in Montréal. Racine recounted that both men were socially polite but guarded, valuing their internal privacies, until Olivier rose from the table and demonstrated for Robinson his form for batting in cricket. Robinson doubled over in laughter and told him about teammates from the Negro Leagues who would try to hit in that manner with no success. Robinson got up and demonstrated the proper stance for baseball, telling him that his focus had to be on one location, the pitcher’s hand, to pick up the rotation of the baseball as soon as possible. For fifteen minutes, the two men were swinging a yardstick that a waiter had procured for them, knocking imaginary balls to and fro.
Olivier attended two more games that summer as Racine’s guest, delighting in Robinson’s prowess and grace both on and off the field. Following a matinee, Olivier saw Robinson signing autographs for children who had run down to the railing to try to catch the infielder’s attention. Olivier grabbed a program and joined the line, surprising Robinson when he looked up to give another signature. Olivier invited Robinson and his wife to attend any of the performances that coming week at the theatre as his guest.
Upon learning that the Robinsons would be attending that very evening’s performance, Olivier doubled up on his duties and took the role of Hamlet for himself in addition to directing. The audience was shocked when they saw him take to the stage and gave him a rousing ovation that Dupleses claimed was the loudest and longest his theatre had ever been witness to. At the conclusion of the performance, Olivier made his way to the lobby to greet theatre goers as they were leaving, signing autographs for any and all who asked. Robinson and his wife waited through the line and the two men greeted each other as old friends, peers in the ways in which they could hold an audience’s hopes and dreams in the palms of their hands. Robinson introduced his wife to the actor and held out a program for an autograph. They shook hands again and parted with a promise to see each other again.
Laurence Olivier continued to use his time in Montréal to work within the confines of Hamlet to find a presentation of the play that would meet both his standards and provide cinema-goers with an accurate representation of the tragedy. In 1948, he directed and starred in his adaption, winning multiple awards and setting the benchmark for cinematic works of the Bard.
The Montréal Royals, led by Jackie Robinson, continued their strong play through the remainder of the season, ultimately winning the title. According to legend, Robinson was chased down the streets by thousands of fans, one writer noting that it may have been the first time that a black man was chased by so many white men with love, not hate, in their hearts. Robinson would join the Brooklyn Dodgers the following season, breaking the color barrier and becoming one of the greatest players of all time.
The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, has had many exhibits and displays celebrating the life and career of Jackie Robinson. But it is in another museum, a thousand miles away in the outskirts of Kansas City, that a curious and little remarked item has been on display since 1971. In the Negro League Museum, there is humble tribute to the player, his glove, cleats, newspaper clippings and photographs from the stops he made in his career, including Montréal. In the glass cabinet, alongside his Royals jersey and contract, is a four-page theatre program, dated July 24th, 1946, for a performance of Hamlet. Written across the width of the front page is a simple dedication: “To Jack, continued success and perseverance as I will be the loudest to cheer you. Larry.”
TODD MACEWEN has a background in journalism and communications, and recently moved into the world of fiction.
Copyright © 2018 by Todd MacEwen. All rights reserved.
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