The famously hawk-nosed actress Margaret Hamilton — best known as The Wicked Witch in the film “The Wizard of Oz,” but employed for decades as a treasured character actress — gets a fresh spotlight in a new one-woman play, My Witch: The Stories of Margaret Hamilton, written by John Ahlin for his actress and wife Jean Tafler. It’s getting sunshine July 17-21, 2019, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, NY, in a five-performance test staging under the direction of Will Pomerantz.
“There is a theme in the play about being typecast, seen only as one thing,” playwright Ahlin told me. “This struggle to fight beyond the superficial, the surface image, is such a human problem. To give nothing away about the play, this great drama of ‘what is real’ and who is the ‘true person’ plays out quite dynamically.”
Tafler and Ahlin answered a slew of my questions about the new project about Cleveland-born Hamilton (1902-1985).
I’ve known Jean Tafler’s dazzling work for years. I first saw her at Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut, when River Rep was producing there. I was thrilled when she was cast in the Florida premiere of my play Alabama Story at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota in 2016. She beautifully straddled the territory of leading lady and character woman when she played a fierce librarian persecuted by Jim Crow politicians. (My Witch will mark the first time I see her wear a false nose!)
Bay Street bills My Witch, which is an add-on special event in the 2019 season, this way: “The amazing tale of how a gentle kindergarten teacher from Cleveland scared the living daylights out of every last one of us…and the brains, heart, and courage it took to be America’s character woman. In a surprising, fun, haunting and delightful evening, Jean Tafler portrays Margaret Hamilton, whose Wicked Witch of the West has left an indelible mark on us all. If there is one movie we all share it’s ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ but it is time to pay attention to the woman behind the cackle. Spend 85 wonderful minutes with Margaret Hamilton, for she has true and terrific stories to tell.”
Here’s my Q&A with John Ahlin and Jean Tafler.
What inspired the creation of My Witch? Who said, “This is a play!”?
John Ahlin: Jean got a review likening her to Margaret Hamilton, and Jean first felt a bit miffed being compared to her, but I told her to reread the review. It was a good review and since Jean was playing a female Scrooge it was perfectly apropos. I had that review tucked away in my mind when I woke up one day and said I need to write a one woman show for my wife. Well I wondered if there was a play in Margaret Hamilton, and after about two hours of research I had my answer.
Jean Tafler: He came to me one day, a couple of years after that review, around 2009, and said, “What would you say if I wrote you a one woman show about Margaret Hamilton?” I was a little taken aback, I don’t think of myself as a dead ringer for Ms. Hamilton. I was still getting leading lady roles, Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate, Tamora in Titus Andronicus, etc., but I knew that soon I would have to start thinking of myself as more of a character actress — I’m aging, let’s be real. I’ve always been a character actress, really. I was never drop dead gorgeous and I was never a typical ingenue in my younger days — too tall, with a low speaking voice and brunette. People were always surprised that I was a soprano not an alto, although I do have a wide range. And I like to create a complete character, disappear a little into it, change my look, accent, not just play myself over and over as some “personality” actors do. I cut my teeth on repertory theater, playing different roles in a season. I was rarely recognized off stage.
Jean, what did you think of that review? Have you ever been compared to someone else in a review?
Jean Tafler: I think that was the first time I was compared to a famous actor. I was incensed at first. But came to realize that the reviewer meant it as a compliment: the villain you love to hate. I was playing a female version of Ebenezer Scrooge in a modern version of A Christmas Carol. The reviewer, by the way, was Peter Filichia, who now likes to take credit for being the inspiration for the piece. He is now a big supporter of Fat Knight Theatre, our theatre company.
We all know Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch in M-G-M’s “The Wizard of Oz,” right? Your play has a built-in audience. There is cultural shorthand.
John Ahlin: Peter Filichia is a prolific reviewer who has seen over 10,000 plays and who is also an excellent author, playwright, raconteur and (for a reviewer) a remarkably decent fellow. Very early on, in working on this play, I read another column of Peter’s where he described an acquaintance of his who had a theory that you can’t go 48 hours without hearing a reference to the Wizard of Oz in print, media or casual conversation. Well I’ve been monitoring that theory for many years now, and it’s true! I don’t count a self-generated reference, and I don’t count mentions I encounter working on this play, but I absolutely hear references to that movie on average every other day in common life. I think “The Wizard of Oz” is the one movie we all share. It is in each of us.
How much did you know about Margaret Hamilton going into this?
John Ahlin: John Ahlin: Everyone knows Margaret Hamilton’s character, if not her name, from “The Wizard of Oz,” and if there is one movie everyone knows it’s that one. I’ve only met one person who has never seen it, and that person was from Thailand. Being of a certain age I also knew her from her Maxwell House coffee commercials as Cora, because back then everyone said, “Did you know that nice old lady was the Wicked Witch?” And further I knew her from “My Little Chickadee” mostly because I was a W.C. Fields fan, but that was about all I knew.
What sort of research was involved? Did you read interviews? Biographies? Did you watch a hell of a lot of Margaret Hamilton films? I picture you two on the couch watching TCM and Netflix.
John Ahlin: The research, as most authors, playwrights and journalists can tell you, is an incredible adventure. The very first thing we learned was that there weren’t any biographies of Margaret Hamilton, because, as we found out, there were no scandals in her life and therefore she wasn’t interesting. Well, we capitalized on that little negative, using it in the show, and, contrarily, through thorough digging we discovered an amazingly interesting person.
With no guideposts the research was more like a treasure hunt or a mystery. I found myself poring through boxes of ephemera at the [Lincoln Center New York Public] Library of the Performing Arts, sitting and reading each of the over 800 mentions of Margaret Hamilton in the newspaper archives of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. And some of those mentions were merely when she was listed on the entertainment guide page as a guest on some radio show. I tracked down those radio shows at the Paley Center, and listened to her voice and her stories and her rhythms, and everything lead to something else.
And the joy of cobbling together a Margaret Hamilton film festival from myriad sources was tremendously fun. If you were to watch any 10 Jimmy Stewart movies, you are watching 10 Jimmy Stewart movies, but seeing just 10 of Margaret Hamilton’s movies. [We found her in] a Dead End Kid’s movie, a Henry Fonda western, a Preston Sturges comedy, a Lassie movie, a Mickey and Judy musical, an Edward G. Robinson gangster film, a cheap B movie sci-fi picture complete with 3D glasses, a gritty prison drama, an Abbott and Costello movie, and a funky Robert Altman 1970s feature. Not to mention her TV appearances and radio and commercials. The research was thrilling.
Jean Tafler: It started with a trip to The Drama Book Shop on West 40th (no longer there!). I asked about biographies of Margaret Hamilton. The gentleman behind the information counter said there were none and then got a twinkle in his eye and said, “But I met her once.” He said she had a home in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine. That started our magical, serendipitous journey. A friend of mine, Wendy Matthews, used to have a family home in Booth Bay. I got in touch with Wendy and she said her brother still lived in Booth Bay. We got in touch with him and it turned out he played tennis regularly with Hamilton Meserve, Maggie’s son. We were put in touch with Ham and the research really took off from there. Ham was completely welcoming and generous, giving us a tour of the island off the coast of Booth Bay and Maggie’s cottage on the island that still belongs to the family. He gave us all sorts of information and wonderful stories showed us family heirlooms and photos. He and his wife, Helen, have met with us a few times now with many phone conversations and emails. We read the very first draft of the script to them in their home in Booth Bay. They came to our reading in Maine in December.
John Ahlin: His grace and generosity was apparently a family trait. He got us on to several people who knew her, including her agent, her niece, Harpo Marx’s son, and invaluable sources of information. And as there is no definitive biography we were trailblazing in a sense. Ham lives on the mainland right across from the island, which is still in the family and we have visited. Sitting in his living room, reading one of the first drafts for him and his wife Helen, was a wonderful experience.
Jean Tafler: Ham has three grown children and there are several grandchildren, Maggie’s great grands. We met with Scott Meserve, Ham’s son, who lives in New York City. And Sylvia, who is Maggie’s niece. I think we definitely got some unique information that has never been public.
I watched all that I could get my hands on, including early TV videos at the Paley Center. And more keeps popping up on You Tube. I recently tracked down a 1950s sitcom Maggie did, written by and starring Peg Lynch, called “Ethel and Albert.” I listen to a radio interview we found all the time to keep zeroing in on her distinctive speaking voice. It’s on my phone!
What did you learn about her that surprised you the most?
John Ahlin: Two things stood out over everything else: The thing that told me this was a play was the discovery of what this woman was, had to go through, as a single mother, to make it all work out. I could feel her strength, grit and resolve. And the second thing that surprised me is how many people knew her. So many people had met her in the business and outside of it. I even met someone at an audition who casually mentioned that he had Margaret Hamilton as a kindergarten teacher. We were getting stories from such a wide swath of people, and to a person they told of what a generous, alive, rich soul she was. She had such a positive effect, and it was a fun challenge to create or recreate her for the stage.
Jean Tafler: That she had been married to a very handsome man, Paul Meserve. And that as a divorced mother she raised her child alone, with no support from the dad. Also some of her political activities and the backlash from that was a surprise. And at one point in her life she smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, but she quit cold turkey when the dangers of smoking became public.
She was a Midwesterner, right? Is that somehow built into her character or was she “showbizzy?”
Jean Tafler: That conflict between being brought up as a Victorian Midwesterner — born in 1902 — and being an artist is central to her and to the play.
John Ahlin: How she could be both those things is both surprising and eloquent, and Jean plays out this dichotomy magically.
What film performance or credit beyond “The Wizard of Oz” surprised you and why?
Jean Tafler: “Another Language.” Her first Broadway play that was turned into a movie. Subtle, dry humor — the wisecracking sister. It feels modern, like no other part she played afterwards. Also “City Without Men” (also on You Tube): she plays a convict’s wife, sort of a floozy always drinking out of a flask and playing cards. She is finally allowed to wear makeup and lipstick and pretty dresses. She looks kind of sexy! She was, of course, the comic relief. But she looks like she is having a ball.
John Ahlin: I personally loved discovering she worked with all the great comedians: W.C. Fields, a Marx Brother, Harold Lloyd, Abbott and Costello, and that she appeared on many of the TV sitcoms of my youth: “Addams Family,” “Patty Duke,” “Partridge Family,” “Danny Thomas,” “Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko,” “Car 54, Where Are You?” and many others.
Was there obvious conflict in her life that helped you craft a drama, or was a lack of conflict a challenge?
Jean Tafler: The conflict within her that I mentioned before and of being a woman in that time period. Trying to be an actress, have a career and at the same time fulfill expectations of motherhood and femininity and community service. It took a while for her family to approve of her career choice. It didn’t come about right away. She went to a kindergarten training school, a two-year program and then she taught kindergarten for six years before turning to acting full time.
She really was an early feminist without labeling herself as that. Her sisters were active in women’s rights, voting rights, birth control, etc., in the 1920s.
Also trying to carve out a career for herself that wasn’t only maids, spinsters, and witches, struggling against typecasting, preconceived notions of beauty and femininity and the studio system. She was only on contract for one year with RKO. The rest of her career she remained independent. Setting her own salary and negotiating with different studios through her agent. A pioneer in that sense.
Also the deep need to be loved and accepted — at the core of many actors. It dictated a lot of her actions and she struggled through some disappointments in her personal life.
Was the piece always envisioned as a one-person show? Did you consider adding other characters?
John Ahlin: I always thought of it as a one-person show. In discussing the dynamics of a one-woman show the very first snag is who does she talk to? I always had a clear idea, but we did discuss other characters, talking on the phone, talking to someone offstage, but the show itself suggested the answer. I won’t give it away, but once you see the play it will be obvious.
Share a little bit about the shape, approach or frame of the show? Why is it called My Witch?
John Ahlin: The play takes place in her cottage on the island off the Maine coast. Very early on my working title was Witch, with the idea of being a contrast to the giant musical called Wicked. But early title ideas are often just place holders, and the title My Witch was dictated by the play itself. And you’ll need to see the play to see why it is titled so, but I will say the reason it is is one of my favorite — and most moving — moments in the play.
She had a famous hawk nose. Was she self-conscious about it or was it character-actress gold? Was it her panache, as Cyrano would say?
John Ahlin You are hitting all the themes of the play with your questions. Her nose, Cyrano-like, is prominent in the play.
Jean Tafler: Well, I certainly feel a little like Cyrano wearing it. It was a blessing and a curse, I think. She wouldn’t have had the career she did have without it. It made her unique. There are thousands of hopeful young pretty girls that head to Hollywood each year. She carved a niche for herself with that nose, she competed in a smaller arena of character actresses. And she was actually a good actress, with a keen sense of comedy not just a funny-looking type. She was very outgoing, making friends wherever she went, people from all walks of life. I think she had a healthy ego and never let her nose get in the way. Definitely a large expansive spirit, full of passion like Cyrano.
Is Jean wearing a false nose? Is it custom-made?
Jean Tafler: Yes, I will be wearing a custom-made nose. The makeup artist is Vince Collura. We have a couple of promo videos that depict the process of creating the nose.
Jean, with what in her life did you identify or appreciate? How are you similar as actresses or people?
Jean Tafler: Well, I have a certain forthrightness, I can be kind of blunt sometimes and a streak of practicality that is similar to hers. I raised a child while trying to balance an acting career and sometimes other jobs outside the acting profession to make ends meet and so did she. A certain fierceness and rage when it comes to injustice; I think she had that too. And my looks are just outside the conventional beauty mold, of course now I’m an older actor and the parts are fewer especially for women which I’m sure she also experienced.
How are you different?
Jean Tafler: I have played many lead parts mostly on stage, a lot of Shakespeare and classical theatre. She did not get to do many lead roles and her career spanned film, television, radio and stage. Only one Shakespeare that I know of: a witch in Macbeth. I’ve had less film and TV work. I have a solid, supportive marriage to John who is also in the acting profession (as well as being a playwright). I’ve enjoyed a secure home/family life with John and our daughter, Charlotte [Ahlin]. She didn’t have that — her marriage only lasted seven years. Her husband was a landscape architect. And it doesn’t seem that she had too many long term romantic relationships, though she had many friends. John and I will be married 30 years this September.
Jean, what is your role in the writing? How did you and John work together?
Jean Tafler: Early on in some of the research I did, reading one of her favorite books, “The Little Locksmith,” and taking notes during interviews, watching her performances, I’d bring things to John’s attention that I thought should be in the script. Or I’d get a grand idea about staging or possible lighting effects and share that with him. Like the ending, my fantasy idea requires much more budget than the current production but a glimmer of my original vision is in the script and in our current production. One thing I did push for was that Maggie has to change and she needs to make some discoveries. It can’t just be talking about her life and telling stories, there has to be some drama. And John listened.
Sometimes I was like an editor, looking for typos and mistakes in the script. But it has evolved into more of a partnership, John would ask me what I thought of certain ideas, and I would say we need to include this or that about her life. A few times during rehearsal I have improvised lines when we needed something added or I’ve made suggestions. It has grown into a collaboration. We have discovered a lot about the show in rehearsal and working with our director, Will Pomerantz. There has been steady shaping and rewriting going on; the show has grown beautifully since our first reading in November.
John, what did Jean bring to the table?
John Ahlin: There is this magical thing that happens to playwrights in the process of writing a play; the play comes to life, as kind of a collaborator. It starts telling the playwright what is right and wrong for the play. And there is a double magic when your wife is the character in the play, doing such an amazing job of bringing Margaret Hamilton to life. It’s as if Maggie herself was in the room. Changes, additions, rewrites are all funneled through Jean as the character, and it’s pretty clear what belongs in the play. Jean has brought invaluable insight and suggestions.
What sort of developmental steps has the play had?
John Ahlin: We have worked on this play for a long time, sporadically, as we have had to keep our careers chugging along. But when we sensed it became “time” to start getting it ready, we did a flurry of drafts and rewrites, and set for ourselves the goal of two public readings. Jean worked tirelessly to prepare, and while it was just a reading and she was holding a script, it was about as full a performance as can be. The readings were overwhelmingly well received and out of that a lot of interest and avenues opened up. As for a turning point, I would say, it was the moment we said, “Let’s go ahead, this needs to be done.”
Jean Tafler: We have had two staged readings: one in New York City in November  and one in Maine in December . We made rewrites and cuts after each performance learning from the audiences about what worked. We also listened to feedback. When [director] Will Pomerantz came on board things definitely accelerated. We did a table reading in February for Will and Scott Schwartz, the artistic director of Bay Street Theater, they gave us very helpful feedback, which John then incorporated into the script. Will has really acted as our dramaturg and helped in pointing things out to us and aided in shaping the play.
How realized is this developmental staging at Bay Street Theatre?
Jean Tafler: It will be fully produced but the set will be somewhat minimal. Bay Street is treating it as a play in development rather than proclaiming it as a world premiere and we like that. We want to give the piece a chance to grow and breathe with each step we are advancing to. Adding more elements as we go.
John Ahlin: The Bay Street Theater production is, in a sense, a workshop production in that we are rewriting and changing and cutting, but we have every intention of audiences thinking this is a full production. Bay Street Theater is billing it as a fourth play in their summer season, and not as something less. The only thing that most likely will not be fully realized is the set, because we have to share the stage with the new Jack O’Brien directed Safe Space, and our set needs to be brought on and off for each performance, but the very creative folks at Bay Street have designed a more suggestive set that should fully serve the play.
What’s next for the play? Will Will Pomerantz remain attached as director?
John Ahlin: We’d love Will to continue on with us. We so appreciate the input Will has provided in helping the play to its feet. We have a scheduled run of it at Proctors Theater in Schenectady, New York — Jean’s hometown — around Halloween. As for other plans, we are hoping to get some good producers to come see this run. The show is a producer’s dream: One actor, one set, 90 minutes, about a subject familiar to everyone.
Remind me how you two met? On a show? Was it a “meet cute”?
John Ahlin: We met long before “meet cute” was even a phrase. It was as actors at a theater company now long gone: Snowmass Rep in the stunningly beautiful Rockies of Colorado. It was an amazing season: Cyrano, Biloxi Blues, Noises Off, Macbeth and Scapino. So the stunningly beautiful Lady Macbeth ended up with the Porter. Now that’s a horse of a different color.
Jean Tafler: What’s a “meet cute”? We met at an audition in New York City for Snowmass/Aspen Rep. We were then both cast in that summer season in 1987. I played Lady Macbeth and John was the Porter among our many other roles. It was a season of five plays. He was the furthest person from my mind as far as dating during that summer season. I just thought he was a nice guy, fun to hang out with, interesting to talk to. He snuck up on me gradually with stealth and cunning.
When did you marry? Where?
Jean Tafler: Chappaqua, New York, in John’s mother’s front yard. Under a tent in 1989. All who attended agreed it was a very entertaining wedding. Meaningful and fun.
How many plays have you acted in together? Name a couple favorite experiences?
Jean Tafler: Strangely, not that many shows. 13? And in many of those shows we didn’t even have scenes together. We had a gap of about 18 years where we didn’t have any acting jobs together while raising our daughter. Someone had to stay home so we took turns going out of town. I think John went out of town more than I did. The most recent shows were The Merry Wives of Windsor and To Kill a Mockingbird at Orlando Shakespeare Theater in 2015. We have never played a love scene together on stage — except for Falstaff wooing Ms. Ford, which we did have a lot of fun with. We have never even played husband and wife! Isn’t that crazy?
John Ahlin: It is great fun to work together, she gets to see me in my element, instead of around the house just doing chores, washing windows and dishes and generally being the boring perfect husband.
John, have you written for Jean before? Have you worked together in other creative endeavors?
John Ahlin: I’ve written one other play for her specifically, a role of a paleoanthropologist in a play called Mama Sapiens, about the mother of us all. At the moment that play is in limbo. A lot of playwriting is, it’s wait-and-see. We do, however work together as directors of our small theatre company, Fat Knight Theatre.
It exists primarily to support the plays we create, but we have developed an initiative of non-profit partnering, with other non-profits, because by teaming up in each of our missions, we can often make more than double the impact.
Jean Tafler: I also did a couple of murder mysteries with John when he had an interactive/audience participation comedy team called Movie Madness. John directed me in a production of Johnny Got His Gun. I produced John’s play ChipandGus [co-written with Christopher Patrick Mullen, who co-acted with Ahlin] and stood in for director as an outside eye — the two actors really directed themselves. I gave John some feedback on the ChipandGus script. We started our theatre company, Fat Knight Theatre, together in 2016. John is artistic director and I am managing director.
John, what do you most admire about Jean as an artist?
John Ahlin: Among myriad things I admire, my favorite facet to her amazing skill is her devotion, her caring about the thing itself. She never settles and she never sloughs off. She is constantly working for the best, and her tenacity in learning the 27-page script for My Witch is something to behold. Coincidentally, it is the exact strength I found in Margaret Hamilton, so Jean playing her in My Witch is a perfect marriage.
Jean, what do you admire about John?
Jean Tafler: His talent as an actor, writer and director, his intellect, his limitless ideas — he is an idea machine. His enthusiasm. His sense of humor, his wit. His kindness and caring. His sense of doing the right thing. He is just an all-around wonderful human being. He is a wonderful father to our daughter. His waffles. And he is a very good driver.